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Around the Jewish World U.S. Students Get Hands-on Feel for Jewish Life in Central Europe

May 10, 2002
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When they came here from their homes across the United States, they knew almost nothing about Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe.

But after four months, the 11 students participating in a semester-abroad program say they have gained an understanding of the region’s rich Jewish culture and history.

But, they add, they were shocked at how different European Jewish life is compared to what they know back home.

“I could have read about lots of the things we have learned here back home, but actually being here and seeing for myself and meeting so many interesting people makes the difference between black-and-white and color,” says Camille Cook, a student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Cook and her classmates are nearing the end of the CET Jewish Studies in Prague program, a Jewish-focused program for American university students. It is operated by Washington-based CET Academic Programs and runs three separate semesters each year.

The curriculum gives both Jewish and non-Jewish students the opportunity to examine the history, culture and arts of Central and Eastern Europe’s Jewry before World War II, its destruction during the Nazi years and its gradual rebirth since the fall of Communism.

One key aspect of the program is that students spend as much time in the region’s Jewish communities as they do in the classroom — and it’s those experiences that apparently have left the strongest impression on the group of students.

“The best part of the program is the opportunities that we have to make many personal connections,” says Louise Malamud, a student at the University of Michigan.

“It makes a big difference actually being here and seeing it all. Once you meet someone and listen to them, your opinions change through that personal experience.”

The semester included meetings with Holocaust survivors and leaders of Jewish communities in Poland and the Czech Republic. Students also worked on renovating a Jewish cemetery.

In addition, each student had an individual community project, such as helping prepare a Holocaust curriculum for Czech schools or spending time with elderly Jews in a nursing home.

One highlight of the program was a nine-day visit to Poland — a trip that left a strong impression on Amy Rosenbach, a student at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In Krakow, we met a 22-year-old guy who had only discovered that he was Jewish when he was 16. He could not believe that people could walk around in black hats and be proud of their Jewishness.

“He talked about his friend, who had also found out late that she was Jewish — several years after she had joined a neo-Nazi movement. When she admitted to her husband’s parents that she was Jewish, they burst into tears, admitting that they, too, had hidden their Jewish identity.

“It was an amazing story and changed how I viewed a lot of things,” Rosenbach says.

During a two-day visit to Auschwitz, students visited the site of the Nazi death camp and also spent time with young Jews living in the nearby Polish town.

“Millions of people come to see Auschwitz, take the two-hour tour and leave. But our group spent the night in the town, met people living there now and got a better appreciation. It was an incredibly valuable experience,” says Leslie Kornreich, also a student at Washington University.

That trip to Poland had an extra personal dimension for Kornreich, whose Polish grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

“I had heard about my grandparents’ experiences my whole life and always knew that one day I’d go there. It was such an emotional experience and made the Holocaust real for me,” she says.

“I was so pleased that the memory of what my grandparents went through is being preserved.”

Jacob Labendz, the program’s resident director, says the emphasis each semester is “on contemporary Jewish life. But to understand that, students also have to know the history and how things have changed and developed.

“Prague’s central location makes it ideal for exploring other Jewish communities in Poland, as well as in Hungary and Germany, he adds.

While the program opens up a whole range of experiences, it demands that the students make some adjustments to their thinking, Labendz says.

“The first thing most students notice is that there are just not the numbers of Jews they are used to, and that it is much harder to be kosher in Prague,” he says.

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