Oxford University: UK’s oldest JSoc marks its 110th anniversary

By Charlotte Oliver, January 24, 2014

The Oxford University Jewish Society will welcome more than 150 Jewish students past and present to the city’s historic town hall next week to celebrate its 110th anniversary with a commemoration ball.

The society, which has a membership of around 500 people, was the first of its kind when it was founded in 1904 — only 33 years after Jewish students were admitted to the university.

The initiative came from the then Chief Rabbi, Dr Hermann Adler, who encouraged the founding of an intellectual society for Oxford’s Jewish students. It was called the Adler Society in his honour.

The following year, the Zionist Society was founded and, in 1933, the two groups merged to form the Jewish Society.

According to Reverend Malcolm Weisman, a former Oxford student and past chaplain: “The students held meetings in members’ rooms in colleges, or in the synagogue on Richmond Road.

“In the 1950s, a meal service was provided on Friday nights for the first time — we had to move the benches out of the synagogue to make room.”

Since its founding, the society has welcomed through its doors some of the community’s most distinguished figures — including, not least, Baroness Ruth Deech, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Board of Deputies’ vice-president Jonathan Arkush.

Student Sarah Chaplin, who is heading the ball committee, said: “We weren’t really aware that the anniversary was coming up, until an ex-president pointed it out last year. We realised we had to do something special to mark the occasion”.

She added that the society today is thriving. “It’s been amazing to examine its longevity, and how it has provided a space for students to express their religious identity for so many generations,” she said.

Over the years, the Oxford University JSoc has enjoyed an active, and often groundbreaking, presence on campus.

Memorable events have included the Soviet Jewry campaign to free Jews from Russia in the 1970s, a short-lived “shidduch” officer, and the 30-year run of the Cholent society, which was said to have served cholent in special pots to its most exclusive members.

Undergraduates also campaigned on behalf of Holocaust survivors and for the establishment of the state of Israel.

The late politician David Lewis, who was at Oxford in the 1930s, recalled: “In the first years after the war, the students’ main Jewish preoccupation was with what remained of the European Jews.

“Only one undergraduate actually went to fight for Israel; he was not only badly wounded, but got into serious trouble with his tutor”.

Oxford University’s current JSoc president Manuella Kanter said she was “immensely proud to be the president at such a special time. We have a wonderful profile in the university among Jews and non-Jews alike”.

Last updated: 10:41am, January 31 2014