The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Thursday, May 30, 2024
The Jewish Observer

From Brazil to Nashville: Kehilla High School sole upperclassman, international student graduates

Ana Cohen.jpeg
Ana Cohen is the first graduate of Kehilla High School

Sixteen-year-old Ana Cohen did not have a Jewish community in her hometown of Espírito Santo, Brazil, so she took to the internet in hopes of finding that community while broadening her horizons.  

 

Her sister’s husband worked in Clarksville, Tennessee, which prompted Cohen to search for high schools in the area.  

 

“I’m Jewish and I was looking for a Jewish community that was close to my sister, [where] I could come and learn English,” Cohen said in an interview with The Jewish Observer Nashville.  

 

She found that community at Kehilla High School, the only Jewish high school in Middle Tennessee. For the past year, Cohen has attended online school while simultaneously studying at Kehilla in Nashville. Having now completed her senior year, Cohen is the school’s first graduate. 

‘A huge gamble’ 

Founded in 2022, Kehilla enrolls nine students. Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Sherith Israel, the founder and head of school at Kehilla, said Cohen’s 2022 message to him expressing interest in the school came “out of the blue.” 

 

“People two blocks away haven’t heard about our school; I was surprised that someone a few countries away had found the school,” Strosberg said, adding that others from Germany, Israel and Iran have expressed interest in attending Kehilla since then.  

 

Cohen said she found the Nashville Jewish community through Jewish Family Service, where the staff there put her into contact with Strosberg.  

 

“I talked with Rabbi Saul and he said that I was welcome and that I could come,” Cohen said. “It was actually super fast.” 

 

She said her parents had allowed her to search for educational opportunities outside of Brazil, but they did not initially realize that she had been talking to a rabbi online. Strosberg spoke to Cohen’s parents over the phone to discuss an education at Kehilla. 

 

“So we decided — myself and her family — that we would be able to admit her as a guinea pig as an upperclassman coming to a brand new school,” Strosberg said. “And it really was a learning experience for everyone. It was a huge gamble and it worked fabulously.” 

 

School life 

In April 2023, Cohen moved to Nashville to stay with hosts Pam Kelner, executive director of JFS, and Shaul Kelner, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. She took three classes at Kehilla: Hebrew and English four times a week and a Talmud course taught by Strosberg twice a week. On Fridays, Cohen and her peers spend time outside of the classroom, visiting a local museum or exercising at the Gordon Jewish Community Center gym. 

 

Cohen said she enjoys the “freedom to walk around” since the school day takes place inside the Sherith Israel Nashville synagogue. The desks in the classrooms are set up in a horseshoe shape that allows for discussion rather than lecture-style learning, Strosberg said. 

 

One of the biggest adjustments for Cohen was the fact that she was the only twelfth grade student at Kehilla; currently, there are four students in each grade, with tenth grade being the highest level. 

 

“I miss … my friends from Brazil because my school [doesn’t have] people my age,” Cohen said. “I don’t really have my friends that I go out with.” 

 

Instead, she has gotten to know the ninth and tenth graders at Kehilla. Cohen also said she talks to the teachers when she’s not interacting with her peers. 

 

“I really like the relationships that we can have with the teachers,” Cohen said. “The two teachers who are always with us are amazing. They really understand us, and they are really here for us and I love it.” 

 

Cohen said being an exchange student and attending Kehilla has helped her grow as a person and as an English speaker. 

 

“When she first came to Kehilla, she used so few words,” Strosberg said.  

 

Cohen now describes herself as someone who “likes to talk a lot.” Shira Sackett, Kehilla’s lead math and science teacher, helps teach Cohen “proper English” versus everyday life English outside of classes. 

 

“I definitely feel more confident with my English and with myself,” Cohen said. “[When] I came there, I would sometimes feel uncomfortable being alone, even on shabbat when I go to shul, I would feel uncomfortable being alone in some situations. I would never know what shul [is]. I’m from a Persian family, I’m Brazilian … I don’t speak Yiddish. I don’t know anything.” 

 

Strosberg said Cohen is an attentive student who is enthusiastic about learning. 

 

“She’s always engaged; she is extremely happy to learn,” Strosberg said. “She is so inspired to be in a Jewish environment and she feels so fortunate.” 

  

Finding Jewish community 

Cohen didn’t always have this Jewish environment. She attended non-Jewish schools for her entire life in Espírito Santo, the southeastern Brazilian state where she grew up, where she was in the religious minority. She said she sometimes heard mean comments about Jewish people.  

 

“In my city, there’s not really Jewish people, and it was hard,” Cohen said, adding that she traveled to her father’s hometown of Minas Gerais to prepare for her bat mitzvah. “With time, I was getting more religious. It started to be almost impossible to live where I grew up.” 

 

In March 2023, Cohen and her family moved to São Paulo, which is home to about half of Brazil’s Jewish population, before Cohen made the move to Nashville. Over time, Cohen learned more about being Jewish in America and credits the Kelners in helping her connect to her religious and cultural roots. 

 

“I learned a lot about Ashkenazi life and differences,” Cohen said. “It’s important also because sometimes we just get in our own life and we don’t see other options of life… I feel much more confident …  I know the differences between different people from different countries because here, there’s no Brazilians.” 

 

Moving away from her immediate family to Nashville at the age of 16 took some adjustment for Cohen, who is family-oriented. Cohen said that while her Jewish identity had always been strong, she was able to learn even more from being integrated into a Jewish community, such as attending shabbat with Strosberg and others from Jewish Nashville. 

 

“I am a person that spent most of my life just with my family. My cousins were my friends, and so I was comfortable,” Cohen said of growing up in Brazil. “Here, I got used to different people, different customs and it’s definitely something that is really important for everybody; you need to go somewhere and see how people live.” 

 

Kehilla’s first graduate 

Though she will technically graduate from Kehilla with the inaugural class of 2026, Cohen graduated from her online school in May, making her Kehilla’s first and only graduate.  

 

“I never think about it,” Cohen said of her upcoming graduation. “I don’t really have time to think about [the fact that] I’m the only person graduating.” 

 

She said she had always envisioned her high school graduation back home with her Brazilian friends, which would be “way different.”  

 

Cohen added that while she is not the kind of person who cares about big celebrations, she said she appreciates her host family for taking her graduation photos and putting together a photo album. She joked about being able to dominate all the senior superlatives, as she can be both the “smartest” in her class and “least smart,” if there were a yearbook. 

 

After May, Cohen said she plans to take a gap year in Israel: “I want to grow with Judaism. I’m going to be living in Israel and using Hebrew.” 

 

Cohen said she is looking forward to the next chapter of her life. 

 

“I’m happy. School is not something that I love; I’m happy that it’s ending,” Cohen said. “I’m applying to seminaries next year and I’m super excited for that.” 

 

Her advice to other Jewish students is to make the most of their education whether they are attending a large or small, public or private, Jewish or non-secular school. 

 

“It doesn’t really matter,” Cohen said. “Be sure you are a good student. It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re going to grow, so try to enjoy as much as you can and learn as much as you can.” 

 

 

 

 

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