How our JSocs pave the way for the Big Society

By Jennifer Lipman, May 19, 2011

Students tend to make their presence known. Bar-crawls in matching T-shirts, traffic jams on the first day of term, and shops filled with groups searching for fancy dress are common sights on campuses.

But for many Jewish students, playing a role in the local community where they study is a top priority.

Communal leaders, especially in areas with a small Jewish population, praise their campus counterparts for volunteering at Hebrew classes, boosting numbers at social events or making up the minyan.

In return, the students receive hospitality, volunteering opportunities and homes away from home.

Adam Cailler, activities coordinator for Liverpool's Jewish community, explained: "A lot of families here have become like second parents. There is always a place for the students to eat, not just on Friday nights but every night, while Merseyside Jewish Community Care help with problems that a simple shoulder to cry on can't fix."

In Birmingham, local families offer Shabbat meals and the shul hosts fortnightly lunches. In return, students have for years volunteered at the Jewish care home, Andrew Cohen House, delivered Mishloach Manot on Purim, and arrived with instruments for impromptu concerts.

Student Anoushka Lester said: "Our presence is definitely felt. Students help with davening, and everyone knows each other by name. The community is very quiet without us and it would be very different for us without them."

Martin Vegoda, of Bristol Hebrew Congregation, believes strong links between the JSoc and community are a priority. In recent years Bristol has seen joint ventures for Mitzvah Day, shared interfaith projects and partnerships on community radio podcasts.

He said: "The whole thing works increasingly well. In a small community having strong links is very important. The more we can do to demonstrate we are still thriving then the more we will attract Jewish people to live and work in the city."

At some universities such links are imperative to the JSoc's survival, no matter how tiny the local community.

Martin Samson, former St Andrews JSoc president, said that beacuse the Dundee community was 12 miles away, he was indebted to the support of a Jewish lecturer at St Andrews and her husband.

He said: "They really make a difference. They serve as a great resource for educational aspects and lead services and discussions at our Shabbatons."

At Cambridge Hebrew Congregation, student involvement is more than just a fringe benefit for the community. The students help run the synagogue and are responsible for term-time services.

Professor Simon Goldhill, congregation chairman, said: "It's empowering. Many students go on to have major roles in the broader Jewish community. During term Friday nights are very busy with more than 100 students joining in. It's in all our interests to have a well-run service.

"Our community is small but it is vibrant and the students are a crucial part of the dynamic."

Across the board, campus-community interaction varies enormously year-on-year. For many students university is an opportunity for independence and a life outside a community.

Relationships run smoothly, but there are some flaws. In Cambridge, food is one bone of contention. Prof Goldhill joked: "Kiddush is one area where residents have taken over. We like whisky and herring; the students have too many Kit Kats and Ribena."

Last updated: 9:27am, May 20 2011