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Unified, not Uniform – Jewish Life on British Campuses

Is it scary to be a young Jew at a UK university? Is it all BDS, and no BYOB? Helena Baker of the Union of Jewish Students, a member union of the European Union of Jewish Students, writes to rectify the image. Read More

By / March 20, 2015
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11046901_1569187606682188_1363674236_nI work for the Union of Jewish Students (the representative body of Jewish students on British campuses), and my role is as London and South-East Jewish Society officer, meaning I work predominately with London campuses. This title can sometimes result in panicked phone calls from parents. Conversations invariably start with, “my friend told me this,” or “I heard this” and my heart sinks and I have a sudden desire to hold my head in my hands. I do not know who is propagating this culture of fear: The fear that London campuses are a hot bed of racism seething with an underworld of students planning atrocious and targeted attacks on Jewish people. Please, send them my way.

It is not to say that some people aren’t racist, nor to say that some people aren’t anti-Zionist; quite frankly not everyone in the world is as nice as I would like (especially during rush hour on the tube when people seem to morph into animals,) and forget all pretence of manners, forcing their way onto the tube as if it is the last life boat leaving the Titanic. Being openly Jewish could mean you receive nasty remarks, being openly a Zionist may force you to face difficult and uncomfortable questions. But, neither of these are to be assumed. They could also lead to genuine interest, stimulating conversations and surprising connections.

Being a Jewish student on a London campus, and indeed on any of the 64 campuses (representing 8,500 students) that UJS represents can, in reality, mean whatever you want it to mean. In the words of our current president, and my wonderful colleague, Ella Rose, we are unified not uniform. In much the same way the Jewish people are not a homogenous entity, the Jewish student population continues to surprise and amaze me in their diversity and ingenuity.

Jewish Societies (J-Socs) have term planners boasting a rich variety of events that frankly could mean their members never have to engage in an event other than Jewish Society. Lunch and Learns, Friday Night dinners, Interfaith events, Booze for Jews, Balls, Textual study name just a few of the regular programming that happens on campus. This does not include the broad Jewish religious spectrum that is represented in most J-Socs that have Egalitarian, Orthodox and Masorti (Conservative) minyanim. Furthermore, no Jewish festival goes unmarked, and there is a constant stream of events based around the Jewish calendar. No festival goes uncelebrated, and I believe the Purim parties are always a particular highlight (I, of course, would have no idea, having spent my three years at University in the library reading, learning and revising.)

Of course if a student wants to get involved in fighting anti-Zionism on campus, UJS has a campaigns team dedicated to ensuring the Jewish voice has a meaningful impact on campus life. Similarly, we have an Israel engagement officer who allows Jewish students to connect to Israel through art, culture and food organising events that see students put on art shows, raise money for Save a Childs Heart, an incredibly worthy Israeli charity, and taste Israeli chocolate whilst learning about Israeli culture. (The latter, unsurprisingly, has proven to be immensely popular.) And if you enjoy blogging (like me) then UJS can offer plenty of opportunities to have your voice heard.

British Jewish Student life is rich and colourful, with a variety of options available. Our campus life is exciting and exhilarating (and occasionally frustrating, especially as dissertation deadlines loom).

If have any more questions or want to get involved please email me, helenab@ujs.org.uk and I would be happy to accommodate.

me at graduationHelena Baker is from the best city in the world- the Northern town of Manchester. She graduated from University in 2014 from Royal Holloway, where she studied French and History. She previously studied at the University of Durham and has lived in both Paris and Brussels. Tweet at her @helenambaker.

(Image: Union of Jewish Students)