I will never forget meeting one of the last five Jews in Cochin, India. I had wandered into an embroidery shop with my friends and saw beautiful challah covers and kippas. Then I noticed an elderly woman in a red dress sitting by the window.
I squatted in front of her to say hello and show my respect. The store’s manager introduced me. He explained that this is Sarah Cohen—the oldest Jewish person left in Cochin. I was surprised. Here I was, meeting the last Cohen in Southern India. I tried to say hello but sadly, Mrs. Cohen was quite elderly. I asked the manager to tell Mrs. Cohen that all of us were Jewish students visiting from the US. He did so and told her we were here to see her, Mrs. Cohen.
It was an incredibly special moment that would not have been possible without KAHAL. KAHAL is an organization that helps Jewish students studying abroad connect with Jewish experiences and each other. Last year, I studied abroad on Semester at Sea (I sailed around the world to 20 countries, how cool) and I got to be a KAHAL Global Ambassador. This means that during my travels, I organized Shabbats and Jewish trips for “Jews on a Cruise.” In short, KAHAL promotes Jewish students abroad doing Jewish things.
With KAHAL’s help, I planned the trip to Jewtown (yes, Jewtown!) in Southern India for Jews on my program and those studying abroad nearby. It was everything I hoped for and more! Jewtown was once home to a big, thriving Jewish community in southern India. Today, it is home to only five Jews (including Sarah), one 450-year-old synagogue, and one Jewish cemetery. I feel so lucky I got to be there.
The synagogue was so beautiful. The Sh’ma was inscribed on the left side of the ark and the Ten Commandments on the right. Chandeliers of all colors hung from the ceiling which only added to its beauty. I would love to go back!
The trip was also special because Jewish students from different places got to hang out together and introduce themselves to one another. It was a little Jewish hangout and it made me smile. I was so happy to see everyone together and mingling in the middle (well south) of India.
I just can’t stress enough how IMPORTANT it is to have Jewish experiences and resources abroad. This is something that never even crossed my mind before I learned about KAHAL. Now I’m a hard believer in pushing for Jewish experiences (aka FUN) abroad! It does not matter how Jewish you are, reform, conservative, orthodox, or Jew-ish, find something that interests you -- a meet up, coffee chat, trip to a museum, or Shabbat dinner and immerse yourself with students like you.
KAHAL opens your world to the endless Jewish opportunities there are abroad. To be honest, I never would have thought there were Jewish populations in the places I visited in India, Morocco, and China if it weren’t for KAHAL.
Now I work as a KAHAL campus intern to help identify students at UNC-Chapel Hill and nearby universities who are going abroad and talk to them about finding Jewish experiences. I connect them with our fun and caring team to make their dreams happen! Additionally, my role is to be a friend and mentor for Jewish students who are going abroad and to offer advice, tips, and tricks. The most rewarding aspect is seeing my friends in Madrid and Barcelona meet up with KAHAL Global Ambassadors for dinner, drinks, Shabbat, home-cooked meals, and especially the High Holidays. This year we helped 516 Jewish students abroad celebrate the High Holidays which is absolutely incredible!
Being apart of the KAHAL organization and the Jewish community abroad was amazing. It settled my nerves to have other Jewish students with me (literally, stuck on a ship). And it was Insta-Friendship! Because of KAHAL, I immediately had a group of friends abroad with Jewish interests. It made me feel more comfortable as I navigated a billion different cultures, challenges, and experiences. While you’re abroad as a Jewish student, there can be times when you feel uncomfortable or homesick and having a Jewish community while abroad really helped me face those insecurities.
If you or someone you know is going abroad next semester and wants to learn more about Jewish opportunities with KAHAL, please reach out to me at Angie_First@kenan-flagler.unc.edu! We also recently launched an app, “the KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad app” and share lots of information on social media.
KAHAL Global Ambassador & Campus Intern