Even though he had always been engaged in Jewish life, when Daniel Smith decided to travel to Turkey in 2015, he didn’t expect to find a viable Jewish community. And yet there he was, then 23, experiencing one of the most moving services of his life at the Ortaköy Synagogue in Istanbul.
“I had to go through a security check and answer all these questions,” Smith said, “but once I did, I was taken to this beautiful courtyard to pray. It really opened my eyes to the fact that these Jewish opportunities exist where you’d least expect them.”
Smith was able to find the synagogue with the help of KAHAL, an organization dedicated to helping students and travelers find Jewish connections abroad. It has established connections to Jewish communities throughout Europe, Asia, and South America, and hopes to expand its reach. KAHAL also helps set students up with Shabbat and holiday meals at community centers and with host families.
Until KAHAL introduced Smith to a local community leader, he didn’t even know the Ortaköy synagogue was there. As the leader told the Livingston native, the prayer space was intentionally hidden in plain sight. “It was amazing,” said Smith. “I’d passed through the area of the synagogue just a day before attending services and hadn’t even noticed it was there.”
Filling a critical need
According to associate director Jessie Gindea, the idea for KAHAL originated with executive director Alex Jakubowski, who, while he was studying abroad, longed for the Jewish connections he’d had back home.
“Studying in a foreign country can be isolating and overwhelming,” Gindea explained. “Many students miss the comfort of having a Jewish community to fall back on, so KAHAL is solving for that.”
Getting help from KAHAL couldn’t be easier. Students just need to sign up through an online database and indicate the city they’ll be studying in, and KAHAL will connect them not only to local Jewish families and communities, but fellow students whose itineraries overlap with their own. The organization focuses on students, but it also serves young post-college travelers, like Smith, who was working abroad at the time and traveling extensively through Europe.
Still, the student angle exists for a reason.
“It’s such a transformative time in someone’s life,” said Gindea. “Students in particular are looking for personal growth and figuring out what sort of people they want to be, so this is a great opportunity for them to use the world as their classroom and see what being Jewish looks like in different corners of the globe.”
Without KAHAL, finding these oft-hidden communities can be far more challenging, especially in cities where the obvious Jewish folk are those who practice Orthodoxy. Such was the experience of 24-year-old Noah Kahan, another New Jersey native — West Orange — who just returned from a year of teaching English in Madrid.
Kahan doesn’t identify as Orthodox, but as he explained, the most prominent community in Madrid is Orthodox, and he was looking for something different. KAHAL directed him toward smaller communities that took him in and gave him the Jewish experiences he craved. “It’s almost impossible to break into those communities as an outsider,” he said, “especially since many are just sprouting up. So for me, KAHAL held the key to getting in.”
For Kahan, Shabbat in Madrid was a source of comfort. “It became a routine,” he said. “I’d go to services Friday night at sundown and then there would usually be a pot luck meal to follow.” After some time, Kahan grew so comfortable that he started recruiting fellow Jewish travelers and students to attend services with him.
“Having this really nice, warm community was sort of like my personal security blanket,” he said. “And I was eager to help others feel similarly at home in an otherwise unfamiliar place.”
Maintaining Jewish connections
KAHAL is fortunate to have funding from a variety of donors so it can continue its mission of giving Jewish students and travelers meaningful connections abroad. In addition to setting students up in different communities, the organization offers micro-grants that students can use to remain Jewishly engaged during their studies. For example, students can use their grants to host Passover seders or participate in Jewish food tours. As Gindea stated, “It really doesn’t matter what they use that money for as long as they’re creating a Jewish experience for themselves, and ideally one that will inform the way they incorporate Judaism into their own lives at home.”
Gindea herself understands the positive feelings that come with establishing Jewish connections abroad. Once, while traveling in Italy, she visited a synagogue and was instantly drawn to the community. “There I was,” she said, “in a place where I couldn’t communicate with anyone for the better part of a week, and suddenly I found people who spoke Hebrew. It really made me feel at home.”
Going forward, Smith and Kahan intend to incorporate Jewish experiences into their travels. Both young professionals agree that since learning about KAHAL, they can’t imagine traveling any other way. Not only that, but they now have friends all over the world whose doors are perpetually open.
Smith and Kahan are also happy to pay it forward by hosting foreign Jewish students in their own homes. “It’s all about staying connected to one’s roots,” said Kahan, “which is important when you’re in a new place and learning more about yourself as you go. Sometimes you don’t realize there are Jewish people everyone. But that’s a nice realization to have.” n
Maurie Backman lives in central New Jersey with her husband, son, and twin daughters.