While their friends back home spent an extended Thanksgiving weekend with their families, it was classes as usual for American students abroad last Thursday. But while the vagaries of foreign customs kept them hitting the books, Jewish students still found a way to feast on kosher turkey and trimmings.

Two Chabad-Lubavitch centers in particular, made their Jewish friends from across the pond feel at home.

“Last year, we did a Thanksgiving-style dinner for the Shabbat after Thanksgiving, and the students really enjoyed it,” said Rabbi Mendy Lowenthal, who directs Chabad of South Kensington, which serves Imperial College London and several study abroad programs in the area. “This time, though, we really did it up special for the Americans.”

Gitty Weinman, co-director at Chabad of Edinburgh, likewise said that last year’s Thanksgiving meal – her first – was such a big hit that she decided to offer it again.

“We were able to have the meal in the evening on Thanksgiving itself, so it was more like being at home,” she related.

In the lead up to the holiday last week, more than two dozen foreigners had signed up, added Weinman.

Faith and Gratitude

In South Kensington, students had another reason to celebrate: a housewarming celebration for the Chabad House’s new location. In addition to the Thanksgiving-themed menu, the dinner features a discussion with Holocaust survivor Barbara Sieratzki, who talked about her own perspective on new beginnings and gratitude to the Almighty.

Born into the vibrant Jewish community of pre-war Krakow, Poland, Sieratzki was forced to flee her home after the Nazi invasion. She completed high school in Hungary, using a forged identification card that enabled her to pass as a non-Jew. Suspecting that her real identity had been betrayed, she tried to cross the border into Romania in June 1944, only to be caught and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp, from which she was liberated in 1945.

Sieratzki spoke about how she rebuilt her life, and about the importance of appreciating what you have, especially after a tremendous loss.

Ben Glasser, a student from Greensboro, N.C., studying in London through the Foundation for International Education, said that Sieratzki’s talk was enlightening.

“She gave really good insights into not only how she was able to survive the war, but how she was able to cope afterwards,” he detailed. “She has really focused on using her experiences to live better, to do more, and that was inspiring.”

“For Americans,” said Lowenthal, “the day is supposed to be about having real gratitude for our blessings, and who better to give us a perspective on that than someone who has so much gratitude and faith.”

“In Judaism, Thanksgiving is not just one day,” echoed Weinman. “We thank our Creator every day. Every day, we try to feel grateful for what we have.”

Back in London, Lowenthal attributed the very necessity for the recent move of the Chabad House – its third – to the recent influx of Americans participating in its programs.

Many of the 100 students that attended High Holiday services this fall, he pointed out, were not British. At the time, UK students were still on vacation.

“Often, the Jewish students at those schools feel isolated,” added Lowenthal, referring to such programs as Boston University’s study abroad program in London, “because they only know about the eight or nine other Jews in their own program. They don’t really have the opportunity to meet other Jewish students except through our events, and I think that is part of what draws such a large crowd.

“The Americans are the reason we’ve had to move three times in our first year here, so it makes sense that the housewarming is on the American holiday.”