Haviva Kohl

by | in People

When Haviva Kohl gets into a cab, she informs the driver where she wants to go, and proceeds to ask him where he’s from. Chances are she’s been there, speaks his language and knows his culture intimately. By the time she pays the fare, Kohl has made a new friend and agreed to deliver gifts to a village somewhere in Pakistan, Ghana, Colombia or Nigeria the next time she’s there (read: very soon).

Kohl, an Orthodox Jew, has spent most of her adult life traveling the globe, creating educational opportunities for underserved communities in nearly eighty countries. In theprocess, she’s dodged close calls with grenades, survived malaria and inspired hundreds of illiterate children to embrace the world of learning.

Kohl’s wanderlust originally sprang from her desire to know how other people lived. At the age of eight, she slept with an atlas under her pillow.

“I was fascinated by the world; I had a sense there was so much out there,” she says.

A ba’alat teshuvah since her early teens, Kohl, originally from California, had an unquenchable thirst to learn about other cultures, which led her to inquire about her own culture. With her parents’ reluctant consent, Kohl moved out of her home at the age of twelve and lived with an Orthodox family so that she could attend a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, two hours away from her family’s home. Kohl says that it was the most difficult decision she’s ever made, costing her years away from her family. Nevertheless, the experience paid off.

Kohl brushed up on her Swahili and was off to live upon a hilltop, four hours from the Mozambique border— with no running water or electricity.

“I gained strength and courage through the process,” she says. And she also found her life’s mission. “Because of my own struggle, I wanted to help others around the world get access to education.”

The summer after Kohl graduated high school, she traveled to the Czech Republic to help open up Jewish schools in the area. She then spent a “gap year” studying Torah in Israel and returned to the States to attend the University of Southern California.

Not one to remain homebound for long, Kohl soon joined a study-abroad program at Legon University in Ghana, West Africa. While a white woman was not a common sight in the region, a Torah-observant white woman was certainly rare. “I was asked if Jews have horns,” she says.

Upon her return to the States, she was accepted as a New York City Teaching Fellow, and taught for two years in a public school in the South Bronx. While the position was not exactly out of the country, it was definitely out of her milieu.

“The first year was really difficult,” she says. “My first day, I was almost stabbed by a student [offering me] a high-five with push pins wedged between his fingers; an eighth grader came in drunk, and a fight broke out in the classroom.” Although four of the teachers on the fellowship dropped out within the first week, Kohl feels the experience was invaluable.

Haviva Kohl at the launch of a school in Okpoma, Nigeria, surrounded by local volunteer teachers. Courtesy of Haviva Kohl.

“At twelve, I had felt desperate to learn,” she says. “And these kids didn’t know the value of education; I wanted to give them that same sense of desperation.”

Kohl won their loyalty by describing her travels and the exotic people she had met. She also shared her Jewish culture. “They saw that I wore [long] skirts and I explained the concept of modesty,” she says. “I told them that when you speak, you represent not only yourself, but also your family and where you come from.”

Kohl’s vision soon expanded into launching schools in underserved communities throughout the world. She headed for Tanzania in 2005 on a one year grant to run education programs.

The organization sponsoring her was “looking for someone willing to go to a newly built community in the middle of nowhere,” says Kohl. She was in. Kohl brushed up on her Swahili and was off to live upon a hilltop, four hours from the Mozambique border–with no running water or electricity. “So many kids are out of school in sub-Saharan Africa,” she explains. “The average income is two hundred and thirty dollars a year. If we give them a strong foundation for learning English, they can find employment in the hotels. English is the global language; it’s a valuable skill.” Kohl created educational programs, including a pre-school and kindergarten for eighty village children.

Over the years, Kohl found the time to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, earning a master’s in public policy. During the summers, she went back to Africa, where she oversaw teacher-training programs in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya through a non-profit organization based in Seattle.

In 2009, Kohl co-founded the Marketplace School Initiative to help promote literacy among men, women and children working in the marketplace of Vandeikya, Benue State, Nigeria.

“The goal is to improve lives,” she says, and she takes that goal very personally. After her recent engagement to a law student, also working in the non-profit sector, she asked that in lieu of wedding gifts her friends and family contribute to the Marketplace School Initiative.

“We target the adults to show them the value of education and what it could do for their children,” she says. Thus far, the initiative has launched five schools with 493 students. “We set [the classes] up under a mango tree, and a volunteer teacher comes four days a week” she says. Kohl visits the region four times a year; otherwise, she mans the project from New York.

“I’m up early in the morning on Skype speaking to the locals on the ground, coordinating the programs,” she says.

When she travels, she always packs her bags with the things she needs “to be a Jew.” During her year in Tanzania, she managed to keep kosher on a diet of vegetables, rice and beans and made due on Shabbat with the “tons of matzah and grape juice” she had brought with her. The Tanzanian natives knew that on Saturdays you could find the white woman “on her hilltop,” she says. “It was my time to reflect: ‘Is my life headed in the right direction? Is there more I could be doing?’”

Kohl reports that many of the villagers have expressed an interest in visiting Israel one day. They refer to her as “our sister Haviva who lives in America, and she’s Jewish, too!”

Some of the women have even confided that if they have a daughter, they want to name her Haviva.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2010.

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