Time to burst the Birmingham bubble?

Should Jewish students branch out to enjoy a more rewarding uni experience?

By Marcus Dysch, February 10, 2011
Birmingham JSoc’s new committee relax at their launch event, Jews Experiment With Shots

Birmingham JSoc’s new committee relax at their launch event, Jews Experiment With Shots

Wandering around campus, a student is likely to bump into a few acquaintances - coursemates, Facebook friends, perhaps the peculiar guy from first year whose name they can't remember.

But for Birmingham's Jewish student population "a few" doesn't cover it. Gila Gordan said: "There are thousands of students here but I bump into Jewish people I know absolutely everywhere. My non-Jewish friends ask how I know them all."

For 19-year-old Gila, who chose to study in Birmingham for the "full experience of a Jewish social life", the situation is not a problem.

The city's campuses are veteran members of what Rob Rosenberg, a languages student, jokingly calls the "Jew-niversities", with an estimated 1,000 Jews studying at Birmingham, Aston and Birmingham City universities collectively.

It's not hard to see the appeal of the second city: less religious than Manchester, further south than Leeds, and offering multiple options for maintaining a Jewish connection. Unlike Nottingham, the latest addition to the "Jew-niversities", Birmingham has a kosher deli, flourishing Hillel House and a sizeable local community for Shabbat hospitality.

All of which prospective students well know. Rob, a fourth-year, said "the Jewish factor" was hugely influential when he applied five years ago, and hasn't changed much since. With most of his peers having graduated, he's now less involved with events but says the majority of his university friends are Jewish and that the scene remains a huge part of his life.

Rob, who grew up attending a youth movement and spent his gap year in Israel, is no exception in Birmingham.

But is it all a bit too much? It is a city with known "Jewish houses" in the student area, and legendary "Jew corners" at clubs. Is it surprising so many Jews come to Birmingham and refuse to even set foot in a JSoc event?

Aston student Jacob Betito admitted the second city's Jewish scene doesn't necessarily give people the chance to make a new start - something many look for at university. But he said it is possible to "delve in and out of the bubble as you wish".

JSoc president Joel Marks agreed: "There is the opportunity to just stay within the crowd, but it depends on the individual. Like at any university, life is what you make it."

Jacob freely admitted that finding a balance requires more effort if, as with Aston, your campus is 40 minutes away from the centre of Jewish life.

The Jewish student network can be useful and reassuring for getting advice on which modules to take or where to find a house. As Jacob pointed out, for those who haven't had the luxury of growing up in a part of the country with other Jews, it offers a chance to experience a more extensive Jewish lifestyle.

Birmingham's new JSoc committee is committed to expanding what is on offer. Egalitarian services, social action projects and cross-communal events are all planned for the coming year, alongside traditional Shabbat dinners and club nights.

The society attracted 150 people to its January launch party - "Jews" (Jews Experiment With Shots) - a significant number, but still very much a minority of Jewish students in the city.

The ideal, joked Gila, is "a Jew corner in every club". That will never happen, but it is unlikely Birmingham's Jewish student life will change very much in the foreseeable future.

Last updated: 10:47am, February 10 2011