Over the past few years, I have attended, visited and worked at a number of synagogues. Each had members of varying observance and differing customs but what they all shared was the desire to form a community. In a recent address, the Chief Rabbi-elect, Ephraim Mirvis advocated for the transformation of synagogues into “vibrant community centres” .
However, there is a big difference between a congregation and community. A community views their synagogue as more than merely a place to congregate. The people who attend the services are not just there to make up a minyan. In a community, people reach out to their fellow members to form friendships that transcend the synagogue experience.
In many synagogues, the lack of community spirit has led to stagnation and a feeling of apathy among its members. This in turn, leads to a congregation’s eventual demise.
On campus, there are many JSoc’s with a strong sense of community pride. However, this is often limited only to the JSoc’s inner circle of its committee, their close friends and those who have previously been involved in youth movements. Too often, JSoc events and Friday night meals can be seen as cliquey, unfriendly and unwelcoming to outsiders.
According to the 2011 Jewish Student Survey, only 60% of Jewish students attend Friday night dinners at university. At the largest JSocs, often less than a third of Jewish students are attending JSoc Friday nights. I know of too many people that are turned off JSoc Shabbat meals after only coming a couple times because they feel like an outsider.
I have recently started a charity called The Shabbat Project which aims to help build the Jewish student community. We plan to empower Jewish students, funding and supporting them to host Shabbat meals for their friends and those on the periphery of the Jewish student community in their own student flats, enabling them to provide a positive, friendly Jewish environment on their campus.
As a cross-communal group, we aim to empower Jewish students into connecting their peers to their Jewish student community through peer-to-peer relationships. We believe that a stronger Jewish student community will make JSocs around the country more welcoming and active, which will thereby improve their attendance and atmosphere.
We are therefore working closely with JSocs and UJS to make this happen. We’re looking for Jewish student leaders who share our passion to partner with us to build a more open and welcoming environment for Jewish students on campus. We already have a number of passionate Jewish student leaders who are involved with us and if you’re interested in joining us, get in touch here.
Noah Nathan is about to start his fourth year studying towards a Masters in Theoretical Physics at Imperial College London. He was President of Imperial JSoc in 2011-3 and is the Founding Director of The Shabbat Project. Follow him on Twitter @TheNoahNathan