At 8 a.m. on a typical weekday five years ago, one would be as likely to find Alex Jakubowski napping on the Hillel couches than in his dorm room. On top of a full course load, Alex was serving as President of Wildcats for Israel, Northwestern’s pro-Israel advocacy group; held a senior staff position in a local Congressional campaign; and worked part-time for a business-to-business networking firm. “Alex was the first freshman I had ever met with professional commitments beyond his academics and campus activities, yet he was able to balance and be successful in all of those areas” says Cydney Topaz, Director of Advancement, Hillels of Illinois.
Despite his early involvement in Hillel, Alex never saw himself as a future Jewish professional. That all changed, however, after his experience studying abroad. Alex spent his junior year in Bologna, Italy, a city not known for its thriving Jewish community. Determined to experience Jewish life while abroad, Alex connected with the small community in Bologna before he arrived, leveraging relationships he had made as a student delegate to the World Union of Jewish Students Congress in Jerusalem.
Soon, these relationships brought Alex around Europe, spending high holidays in Zurich, attending a WZO conference confronting anti-Semitism in Paris, and advocating for Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. His Jewish experience was a key aspect of his study abroad experience, transforming and strengthening his Jewish identity. He realized quickly, however, that his peers weren’t sharing this experience while abroad.
“Most of my friends, even in Bologna where I was studying, weren’t having any sort of a Jewish experience. They didn’t know anyone in the community. Often they were intimidated by the language barriers or the level of security. Some celebrated holidays like Yom Kippur with other Jewish students on their programs, but most did nothing. I felt like I could help change that.”
Less than a month after returning home, Alex and several friends founded The Delegation of Jewish American Students (DoJAS). Originally intending to help a few students from Northwestern Hillel and some AEPi members, they soon realized they were onto something bigger. That first year, they helped more than 125 students connect with local Jewish communities abroad.
But Alex was just getting started. “By the spring of that first year, we were starting to really get a lot of requests. Hundreds of names started to pour in, and we realized we weren’t really in a position to help them—but that we could be. We had to scale up.”
They started doing research, looking for information on how many Jewish students were studying abroad, where they were going, and what the impact could look like. What they found astonished them: about 25,000 Jewish students study abroad each year, traveling to dozens of countries around the world.
But it was the impact of study abroad as an experience that really stood out. 97% of students said “study abroad served as a catalyst for increased maturity.” 95% said the experience had a “lasting impact on their worldview.” Perhaps most importantly, 73% said that study abroad “continues to influence [their] decisions in family life.” It became clear that by adding a Jewish element to this already transformational experience, DoJAS could seriously impact a student’s Jewish identity and connection to the global Jewish people.
It was then that Alex, encouraged by Northwestern Hillel’s Executive Director Michael Simon, decided to take up his position full-time. Michael reflects: “In recent years, Northwestern Hillel – and many other Hillels – had been looking for ways to help our students continue to enrich their Jewish identity and connect to Jewish communities while studying abroad. Alex brought a great combination of vision, organizational skill, and strong networking to create a tremendous infrastructure that connects American college students with their peers throughout the world. This project has the potential to positively impact thousands of Jewish students, and I believe that under Alex’s leadership the organization will do just that.”
In the fall of 2014, KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad, as it’s now known, started to take off. More than 500 students signed up for help. Word was getting out, and more and more students wanted to take advantage of the Jewish opportunities available for them abroad. In response, KAHAL developed a varied menu of opportunities available in each host city, ranging from personal connections to local Jewish students and Shabbat dinners, to internship placements and opportunities for higher-level activism.
Despite their current presence in more than 30 countries, Alex explains that there is tremendous room for growth. “Last year showed us just how far we still had to go. We want to make sure that all students, no matter where they go, have the opportunity to have a full, enriching Jewish experience. Since that means something different to every student, we need to make sure that those opportunities are available to them.”
But KAHAL isn’t the goal in and of itself, Alex says. “Involvement with KAHAL or Jewish communities abroad is just a start—a means to an end. We’re a part of the pipeline.” One student, Laurence Hochman of The College of New Jersey, studied abroad in Spain. He remarks on his experience abroad, “Meeting Jewish students in Spain and around Europe through KAHAL gave me a whole new perspective on my Judaism. I can't wait to share my experience with my AEPi chapter and Hillel community back home."
As for the future, KAHAL recently received a grant from the NATAN Fund’s Jewish Peoplehood Committee. Working with Hillel International, this fall KAHAL and Hillel will roll out a new campus engagement partnership, placing KAHAL/Hillel engagement interns on several campuses around the country. “This is a clear win-win partnership for Hillel and Kahal as it allows students to continue their Jewish involvement while abroad which then makes them more likely to stay engaged with the Jewish community on campus upon return” – says Yasha Moz, Director of Global Relations at Hillel International. “We could not be more proud of Alex and his team and are happy to help them scale their efforts to reach many more students so that they have a most enriching study abroad experience”.
If you know any Jewish students studying abroad this semester – encourage them to sign up with Kahal Abroad at www.kahalabroad.org to get connected to local Jewish opportunities.