New friends help me mind the gap

By Steven Allweis, February 21, 2013

Travelling around the world on your own at the age of 20 is a fairly daunting prospect.

Leaving behind family, friends, university and the culture you know so well is not easy, especially when your first destination is a soulless, depressing hostel nearly 10,000km away.

But thanks to the warmth and openness of Jewish communities my travels have been a lot more rewarding and enjoyable. As part of my course I get to spend a year travelling to countries which speak the languages I study – French, Spanish and Portugese.

When I set off to Brazil for three months at the start of last summer. I had no work organised and no accommodation planned other than a hostel booked for a month. The only person I was in contact with was Rabbi Shabsi Alpern from Chabad in Sao Paulo.

Rabbi Alpern, along with his son Yossi, runs the most incredible charity, Projeto Felicidade. It’s an organisation set up to support children with cancer and their families and primarily caters for non-Jewish kids, the poorest of the poor, who are undergoing treatment.

There are trips to the zoo, football stadiums, the cinema, adventure parks, a purpose-built centre in the countryside and many more hugely enjoyable activities.

Rabbi Alpern gave me the opportunity to volunteer with this organisation. It was the most rewarding time imaginable. But more than that, the warmth extended beyond work.

I had been invited by the rabbi to attend the Chabad shul on Friday night and promised a meal. This engaging, friendly attitude continued every week, with different members of the community hosting me every Friday.

I was Jewish and that was enough for them to extend a welcoming arm and invite me into their homes. It’s a powerful tool, a feeling that a Jew, whatever their level of observance, could travel anywhere in the world and still feel part of a community.

I moved to Madrid to teach English as a language assistant, arriving the day before Yom Kippur. Heading off to shul in the evening and then the following day was an odd feeling. Just as in Brazil, I felt at home straight away.

The Jewish community opened its arms to welcome people from all over the world and made them feel as if they had suddenly found a new, multi-cultural, 50-strong family.

I have to go to France in the summer for three months, and although I don’t know where I’m going to be and what work I’ll be doing, I can rest assured that I’ll find a friendly reception from a community. That’s the way it seems to be with fellow Jews, wherever you are in the world.

Steven Allweis is a third year student from the University of Nottingham

Last updated: 10:53am, February 21 2013