A new star rises in the Midlands

By Jennifer Lipman, March 3, 2011
Students from Nottingham JSoc, which has quickly taken its place as one of the country’s biggest, despite infrastructure difficulties

Students from Nottingham JSoc, which has quickly taken its place as one of the country’s biggest, despite infrastructure difficulties

UJS Hillel hopes to reach a decision by the end of the university year on the best way to meet the changing demands of Nottingham's Jewish student population.

Daniel Marcus, UJS Hillel chief executive, said: "The reality has changed dramatically at Nottingham. To keep ahead of the game we are seriously looking at all potential options, from a space on campus itself to stand-alone centres."

It has been six years since Nottingham's Jewish student scene went into overdrive. The city, home to both Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities, changed almost overnight from being a minor contender in the kosher campus league to a major player, cementing the city alongside the traditional locations of Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds as a favourite destination for young Jews.

According to JSoc president Joe Cohen, the society has some 800 members, including at least 100 from Trent, with plenty more Jews yet to identify themselves.

Jewish life is thriving, with events every night of the week, a dedicated chaplaincy couple and external organisations including Aish, JLE and Chabad operating on campus.

JSoc now has similar numbers to Birmingham

The most recent Booze for Jews attracted more than 400 people and coaches travelled from around the country.

"People go where their friends go so of course we have limited control, but we don't expect it to shrink any time soon," said Joe.

But unlike Midlands neighbour Birmingham, Nottingham is not well-equipped for the influx. There is no Hillel house – it was closed in 2006 on the eve of the city's renaissance – and has just one kosher university-provided flat, with none at all for those studying at Trent.

Joe said: "Nottingham JSoc is very secular, but it is harder for anyone who is more religious because living in the halls on campus is not really an option."

He would have preferred to live in a Hillel, but in order to keep kosher opted for a self-catered flat away from Nottingham's main campus.

Jewish life is focused around the non-residential student centre, which opened in 2006 as a place for JSoc to hold events and for Jewish students to relax. But students now say it is too small and not suitable for its original purposes.

"On Friday nights it is a bit of a squeeze. We cope, but it's not ideal. Redevelopment is necessary for us to provide for everyone," said Joe.

Another issue is the location of the centre – near Nottingham University's main campus, but up to an hour's walk for second and third year students living in the Lenton area or for those in Trent's accommodation in the city centre.

Lauren Cirsch, a JSoc committee member studying at Trent, said: "It's nice the centre is not directly on one campus as it makes it more inclusive. People still go to events, but we have to travel further."

She said it would be "a lot easier" if the centre were in Lenton. "There are people from Trent living miles away, so it wouldn't be an ideal location but it would be better for the majority."

Nottingham's chaplain, Rabbi Amiel Vasl, would like to see a Hillel reopen, but admits that currently it is not easy to serve the needs of both campuses.

He said: "Since Nottingham Hebrew Congregation's synagogue is very close to the Trent campus we have been working with Rabbi Moshe Perez to create a space for Trent students to hang around and study there."

But as Joe points out, for Nottingham, "the only way is up."

Last updated: 10:54am, March 3 2011