By Marcus Dysch
January 21, 2010
In her comment piece in this week's JC On Campus section, Birmingham student Roseanna Lewis raises what is, I suspect, an often under-reported concern held by some Jewish students.
She suggests that on many campuses, admittedly often those with a larger Jewish student community (Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham), young Jews not only do not mix with their non-Jewish counterparts, but in some cases actively go out of their way to avoid those from other faiths and backgrounds.
Is she right? I suppose it depends who you ask. After reading Roseanna's piece I sought the opinion of a range of people, including students, those working with Jewish university organisations and others with knowledge of life on campus.
Each had their own individual answer, ranging from 'she's talking nonsense' to 'I agree wholeheartedly' via 'she's right, but no one ever speaks about this problem'.
When I moved from Hull to study as an undergrad student in Leeds in 2001 I was genuinely shocked to meet Jewish students with no knowledge of the world outside their north west London Jewish bubble. One girl had never travelled further north than Watford (I know, I thought it was a cliché as well), and had never had a non-Jewish friend.
Did that make her a bad person? Not in the slightest. Did it make her absolutely completely and utterly unprepared for life as a student at a non-Jewish university in a gritty northern city? Yes, totally.
And how did she cope? She did exactly what Roseanna reports. She lived in Hillel, mixed only with Jews, made little or no attempt to become friends with non-Jewish coursemates, and, as soon as uni was finished, ran off back to Golders Green.
Is that a big problem? Probably not. This girl did not seek to upset anyone else, did not ask for anything back from anyone outside the Jewish community and no doubt is now living her life quite happily, ensconced in said community.
Some might argue that such an approach is good news: It will lower the chance of people marrying out, ensure a close-knit community with people looking out for each other and so on.
In many ways it is such a situation that brings great comfort to Jewish teenagers leaving home for the first time - they know there is a ready-made support network, complete with student chaplains and JSocs, to keep an eye on them.
I do not disagree with that view, but at the same time I find it hard to argue with Roseanna's suggestion that in refusing to assimilate, Jewish students are often missing out on life and opportunities around them that others are grasping with both hands.
There is another issue at play here and it concerns Jewish students who come from non-Orthodox, non-north west London backgrounds. They are, if you like, the minority's minority.
What happens to the gay Jewish student, the Liberal Jewish student or the kid from Hull who never went to FZY/BA etc, didn't do yearcourse and arrives at uni not knowing anyone (unlike many who have former school friends or youth group pals arriving on the same campus).
It can go one of two ways - they can make the most of meeting new people, becoming friends with those they have something in common with and building lifelong friendships wherever possible, or, and I fear this is more often the case than people realise or admit, they can ‘disappear’.
If you don't feel welcome at Hillel on Friday night where will you be welcome, where will you spend Shabbat?
Down at the student union having a pint? Round at a friend's house making your own chicken? Or will you respond by sticking two fingers up to the UJS/JSoc 'establishment' altogether, turning your back on the Jewish student community and making the most of a secular experience with coursemates, rejecting invitations to Booze for Jews, top Israeli speakers or UJS conference?
Groups such as Jeneration are helping to avoid such situations on many campuses, but the reality remains that far too many of our students not only do not feel comfortable with the traditional bastions of Jewish student life, but do not even feel able to come out and say so. Instead they become lost, from Jsoc, from Hillel, from Jewish potential friends, and, quite possibly, from Judaism forever.
The reaction on the JC On Campus' Facebook page to Roseanna's piece has so far been mixed. Next week we will include responses to the column in the paper, and I'd encourage anyone with strongly-held views on this interesting topic to either add their comments here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.