Walking tubes and rugelach on the go

There’s more to Jewish student life in London than you’d think

By Jennifer Lipman, November 5, 2010
Rabbi Broder offers food for thought

Rabbi Broder offers food for thought

London is either a student's dream or nightmare. On the one hand, there are world-class academic institutions and bars and clubs for every taste. On the other, you have to get the tube to class and rents can be astronomical.

As second-year Queen Mary University student Danni Godsi puts it, "it really depends on the type of person".

The city's Jewish student body is thought to number around 2,000, but the true figure is probably higher, as not everyone signs up for JSoc. Around 30 universities are covered by UJS, with at least 20 JSocs in the capital.

Students, many postgraduates, come from all over and live all over. Events – speakers, film evenings, bar crawls – take place all the time, staged by individual JSocs, student chaplain Rabbi Gavin Broder or organisations such as JLE and Aish.

"Really, we're just trying to work together," says Danni, the publicity officer for London JSocs, the umbrella group established three years ago to connect the different strands of Jewish student life.

Links with larger JSocs - those like UCL self-sufficient and with large memberships - appear to be improving.

"There are still things to reconcile, issues over who does what," says Rosanna Rafel, third-year student and UCL JSoc co-president. UCL runs its own calendar, but larger events such as Booze for Jews or Friday night dinners are "better done with everyone".

There is light-hearted inter-university rivalry. "UCL will make jokes about LSE, LSE will start picking on Kings," says Danni. But there is also collaboration, particularly in terms of anti-Israel problems, such as the sits-ins over the Gaza conflict in 2008.

The challenge, particularly with older or international students, is getting them to connect. "People do inevitably slip through the gap", says Georgina Bye, UJC London projects officer.

"We have to wait for them to come to us." And in a city like London it can be very difficult to find them. "Geography is the biggest challenge to Jewish student life in London," Georgina sighs.

Now in his tenth year as chaplain, Rabbi Broder is popular among students, not least for bringing rugelach along on bar crawls. He points out that this year, there were five Freshers' fairs on the same day.

"In Leeds, even Manchester, the students are in a particular area surrounding the university," he says. "In London that's not so – look at the tube map."

With some people living at least an hour from the Jewish student hub at Euston, forget about an impromptu lunch-and-learn or last-minute speaker. Arrangements have to take account of long distances to lectures and, at night, last trains. After Friday dinner, a "walking tube" ensured safe passage from Euston to Stanmore.

There is also the question of where to hold events. In central London, for those living in halls or flats, or in north London, where the majority live at home with their families.

"In north London people don't really mix out of their group members," says Suzanna Shmulavitz, who lives in Hendon and drives 45 minutes to City University every day.

Ideally, she would have moved out for the "real student life", the kind her friends in Birmingham enjoy. "I looked into it but it was ridiculously expensive." But it's easier to study when you're not living with friends and it's great having home comforts.

Kashrut, and general observance, is one reason so many religious students choose to stay in London, although as Rosanna points out, London has Jewish communities to suit everyone.

Rabbi Broder knows not every Jewish student will plug in. "A lot, particularly postgraduates, they've got their homes, their communities, their friends. But we just want to offer a good Jewish campus experience."

Londoner Danni sees a very different city as a student: "The buzz here is enough to keep you going. You're meeting someone new every day.

"You've got the world in front of you. And the other universities are just a train ride away."

Last updated: 10:18am, November 5 2010