Religion in Education Abroad Revisited

Nov 10, 2020 9:46:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


Religion has impacted our world in profound ways, and it reflects diversity in society. In this month's post, Dr. Mike looks into how religion reveals who we have been, who we are, and what we may yet become.

Time is short and the task is urgent. Evil is real. So is good. There is a choice. And we are not so much chosen as choosers. Life is holy. All life. Mine and yours. And that of those came before us and the life of those after us.
—Hugo Gryn

These rambling thoughts are dedicated to Father Paul Soukup, Rabbi Mendy Korer, Fiyaz Mughal, Jon Travers, and in particular to the memory of Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

To the irritation of my more secular colleagues I have written about religion and education abroad in these pages at, what they consider, tedious length and uncalled for frequency. [1] This has had some bizarre consequences. I have workmates who mistake me for an expert on matters biblical; it has been suggested, particularly at conferences, that I am speaking in tongues; some avoid me on the grounds that I am a fanatic who spends weekends snake handling.

These are illusions. It is true that I find religions interesting. Faith divides and unites, reflects the diversity of contemporary society. I believe that we should teach something of the Bible as a critical source for the western imagination. I have also in my life met individuals who have within them a profound power to disturb equilibrium. Language is inadequate unless you use a metaphor. They have been touched by God.

Hugo Gryn (1930-1996)

Hugo Gryn Photo

Foremost of these was Rabbi Hugo Gryn. I loved him for reasons both commercial and spiritual. Hugo was the head of the Reform Movement and the West London Synagogue. I met him when I was looking to move an international organization to new premises in London. We had outgrown the cupboard from which we were operating. Our resources were very small especially given commercial rents in the city.

I had heard that the West London Synagogue had an empty floor of offices. I met with the business manager, but he viewed me with a combination of distaste and mistrust, so no deal was done. Slouching towards the lift I ran into a cherubic, tobacco-stained figure who turned out to be Hugo Gryn and he asked if anything was amiss. I explained the sorry tale and he ushered me into his office, poured me a Chivas Regal, rang and overruled the business manager, and offered me the offices at a ridiculously low rent. He said he had a feeling that I was not all bad and he’d read something I’d written about Jewish literature and remembered it because “it made no sense!”

Hugo was born in Berehovo in eastern Europe: a microcosm of historical displacement. Hugo illustrates this with a story of the man from the town who arrives at the gates of heaven. The guardian angel asks for a summary of his life:

"I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire… received my education in Czechoslovakia, started to work … in Hungary. For a time I also worked in Germany, but I raised my family and did most of my life’s work in the Soviet Union."

The angel was impressed “You certainly travelled …a great deal.”

The man protested, “I never left Berehovo!” [2]

Beneath the humor, there is a tragic shadow. The town fell under Hungarian control in 1938 when, encouraged by Nazi sympathizers, anti-Semitism intensified. Following the German occupation of 1944, Hugo and his extended family were sent to Auschwitz. Only Hugo and his mother survived.

Hugo told this story: in the camp he noticed that his father had been hoarding minute amounts of margarine, part of their meager food allotment. When Hugo asked why, his father said he thought that Chanukah, (The Festival of Lights) was approaching and he wanted to make a candle. When Hugo protested his father said:

"Don’t be so angry. You know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope." [3]

The death of hope might have made Hugo a bitter man, alienated from faith. Instead he dedicated much of his life to bringing religions together in friendship and dialogue. At a conference of religious leaders, he asked another participant if he led an organized religion. The reply was, “No. I’m head of the British Sikhs.” Hugo, from that point on, described himself as the leader of a disorganized religion.

You did not have to believe in any God or any religion to feel Hugo’s extraordinary power. He was never righteous or judgmental. He brought laughter and compassion into the room and at the same time, awakened something inside you that, if you were blessed enough to have felt it, you could only call holy.

To this day, I miss him.


Let me not mislead you. This did not result in my becoming an observant anything. As they say these days, I “identify” as a Jew, but I do not do any of those things proper Jews do.

Dr. Mike Woolf Visiting a RabbiSometimes paths diverge. I am talking to Rabbi Tali Lowenthal. We were at the same school.

The only times I have entered a synagogue over the last several years was for a wedding. Even as a tourist, I have entered far more churches than synagogues. Compared to churches most synagogues tend to be plain and dull.

Seville CathedralThe Seville Cathedral.

However, I am uneasy in Spanish churches despite the glorious adornments. The gold and silver riches were made from stolen wealth. I am not being righteous here. I know that a lot of the stuff in the British Museum was also purloined. I have a bigger problem though. A few centuries earlier I would have, like my Muslim friends, been subject to the doleful power of the Spanish Inquisition. We would have had three options: convert, run, burn. Religion exists along a spectrum of profound affirmation and militant cruelty.

In some oblique way the fact that I “identify” as a Jew connects with Spanish churches and Hugo. We have been hated and hunted for a very long time. To deny that heritage is to betray a community of suffering, connection with forefathers: outsiders and pariahs, killers of Christ, carriers of the plague, victims of The Inquisition, relentless pogroms, the Nazi Holocaust.

As a Kid

I did not feel like that when I was a kid. Where I grew up, there were a lot of Jewish kids. There were also lots of kids who were not that keen on Jewish kids. This required negotiation, tact, and street wisdom to avoid physical damage. A galling thing was that those kids were always tougher and stronger than us. They had fathers who built houses, knew about cars, and unloaded ships. Our fathers were myopic and anxious: tailors or market traders who deferred nervously to our mothers.

That was not the worst of it. The aversion of gentile boys to Jews was gender specific. They had no problem with our sisters. That mysterious category of humanity known as Jewish girls found their rugged presence to be, in turn, alluring. In contrast, they were indifferent (at best) to pitiable efforts at seductive communication from me and my yearning chums. This may have had something to do with the fact that 15-year old Jewish girls were 18. 15-year old gentile boys were 19. 15-year old Jewish boys were 10.

I suffer still from terrible envy.

None of that was insurmountable misery. In fact, I had several gentile mates who liked me – in private. I went to their strange houses which never smelled and were oddly quiet. They came to mine and experienced sensual assault from the odours of boiling chicken entrails, and aural assault; everybody spoke loudly at the same time. Reasonably enough, however, they could not risk public displays of goodwill. They too were subject to their community standards.

A Religious Education

Our community standards led inexorably towards the insurmountable misery of Cheder—Hebrew school.

This is not to be confused with weekly, anodyne religious education where, in these more enlightened days, good little Christians learn of Jesus, meek and mild, and their Semitic counterparts learn to eat bagels.

Monday to Thursday from 4.30 to 6.30pm and Sunday from 9am to 1pm, from the age of 5 until the age of liberation at 13, boys alone trudged to a shabby annex of a synagogue. There in a gloom that was heavy with books, history, and pain, we were to be educated in the mysteries of ancient Hebrew. This followed a day spent in the 20th century in a state school that belonged in a rational universe.

Gentile kids were not burdened by the obligation to enter the world of Hebraic scholasticism. They were gloriously free to learn the fine arts of shoplifting, punching, and molesting our willing female relatives.

The objectives embedded in our curricula were:

a) To learn how to recite classical Hebrew. The meaning of the words was nothing to do with urchins like us.

b) To understand that our teachers were in some mysterious way holy – even though they bore with them dandruff, cigarette smoke, and misery.

Didactic methodology was exported from the practices of isolated villages in eastern Europe. The primary mode of enforcement was that errors of understanding or behavior were accompanied by a hefty slap on the back of the ill-informed or ill-mannered leg.

You may think I harbor resentment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of our teachers had been respected scholars in eastern Europe, had gone through hell, and now found themselves relocated, albeit in safety, in another place of torment. If there is a heaven, and if I get there through some administrative error, I will seek them out to apologize for the ignorant, unruly indifference displayed by me and my classmates.

Becoming a Man

The main point of Cheder was to prepare you for your bar mitzvah—a ritual that, at the unlikely age of 13, marks transition from boy to man. A shining light at the end of a dusty rainbow.

In some societies this transition is marked in more dramatic ways. Armed with a spear, a youth enters the forest and returns days later with a dead animal. Alternatively, boys are circumcised with sharpened rocks. There are, I am told, places in which young males are required to assault officers of the law. I am no anthropologist, but I understand that every society has a ritual that marks transition from childhood to maturity—alcohol poisoning is another alternative.

But for Jewish boys (in those days it was only boys) it was the bar mitzvah. Walking across burning coal would have been more comfortable. Surrounded by beaming parents and relatives, in a full synagogue, in an excruciating uncomfortable black suit (which 5 years before my brother had worn for his bar mitzvah) I recited almost faultlessly the passage designated to me, accompanied by only one mild slap from the Rabbi. To this day, I have no idea of the meaning though I suspect it was that bit wherein “Abraham begat Isaac. Isaac begat Jacob… Jacob begat someone else.”

Bar Mitzvah

A big party followed; I was given things I did not desire. I still own that Bible. My parents swelled with pride. My friends subjected me to relentless ridicule; my brother tormented me. Although now a man, nobody would give me a drink. My bladder gave out moments before Aunt Betsy demanded that I dance with her. But all was not anguish and damp despair. From that point onwards attendance at Cheder was optional. Nobody went back.

The Illusion of Freedom

There are times, about every 45 minutes, when I ask myself why this has not led to a permanent alienation from any form of religion. I am not sure I understand it myself. What I suspect is that, despite the absurd comedy of my own experience, religion matters in ways that do not depend on believing or not believing in God.

Religion has embedded itself in my psyche. This might be a condition shared by Jews and Catholics. You can lapse as much as you like but you cannot stop being one. Perhaps the rumbustious Irish writer Brendan Behan put his finger on it: “Jews and Catholics do not have history, they have psychosis.”

That may be both flippant and true. Religion has impacted our world in profound ways, for ill and for good: paradoxes of persecution and kindness, cruelty and compassion, war and peace, hatred, and love. Wars fought because of faith litter our histories. Belief in hierarchies of religion have motivated unspeakable cruelties.

If that were all that was to be said then, surely, we would not need to spend much time on what would be an aberration of sensibility. But that is not all that can be said. There are people who through the inspiration of their faith enrich our lives whether we share their beliefs or not. Father Soukup, Rabbi Mendy, the Anglican Minister Jon Travers, Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Muslims Against Anti-Semitism are those of whom I am personally aware. In these troubled times, they are representatives of the just, envisaged by the poet W. H. Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages

There is no need to agree with anything I have written to understand the significance of religion in an educational agenda. Students who know nothing of the Bible are cut off from the roots of western art and literature. In education abroad, students will not understand a critical element that has made the diverse worlds we inhabit.

I offer my own experience as a microcosm of why I think religion matters: a burden, a memory, an inspiration, a glimpse of that which may exist just beyond our vision, a major presence in all our histories, that which simultaneously unites and separates us, darkness and light, anguish and joy; a window that reveals who we have been, who we are, and what we may yet become.

[1] A small sample or more than you want to know depending on your predilection:
For God's Sake: Religion & Study Abroad
Does God Like Christmas?
Why We Should Teach the Bible
View of the Wandering Jew 

[2] Hugo Gryn, Chasing Shadows. London, Viking, 2000, p.6. This posthumous work was compiled from Hugo’s papers by his daughter, Naomi.

[3] Chasing Shadows, p.237.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education