Students vote to strengthen union

Students converged on Leeds University last weekend to mark the relaunch of the Union of Jewish Students' flagship event.

Once a regular fixture, UJS conference has been absent from the campus calendar since 2005, due to a decline in the number of delegates attending.

But UJS said it hoped the success of this year's event would allow a larger conference to take place next year. UJS Hillel chief executive Dan Marcus said policies voted in on Sunday would provide a framework and guidelines to strengthen the union, and build the conference, over the next three years.

More than 150 students attended the three-day conference, with traditionally smaller JSocs well-represented alongside the "big four" Jewish campuses – Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester.

The weekend got under way on Friday, with newly-elected Jewish Society committees taking part in training sessions on fundraising, security and campaigns.

On Sunday the focus turned to the main conference, with the election of 21-year-old Birmingham University law student Alex Green as new UJS president. No other student stood for election, but Mr Green defeated an attempt to reopen nominations by 290 votes to 61.

He conceded: "The fact that I stood uncontested was a problem, indicative of divisions within the union. We have to deal with that."

He said efforts next year would concentrate on improving post-graduate employment prospects. An alumni mentoring scheme will be introduced to encourage successful community members to mentor students. Mr Green also plans to help disabled students by making student events more accessible.

Students voted to condemn Jewish "fraternities", which have launched in the last year at Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, St Andrews and Nottingham, as "exclusive and sexist."

UJS national council member Rob Prager said UJS could work with organisations such as Aish because they still accepted UJS as the representative body. He said: "Fraternities don't see that as the case. It is the biggest challenge facing JSocs."

Aron Clayton, president of the Leeds chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, admitted that the fraternity would involve "special rituals and meetings only for brothers of AEPi." But he said: "Not everyone at university gets involved with JSoc and this is an opportunity for Jewish males to get involved in a Jewish organisation."

A video message from Labour Party leader Ed Miliband was shown at the start of the afternoon session, followed by keynote speaker Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students. He explained how the new, higher tuition fees would affect students, courses and universities.

When told some Jewish students felt uncomfortable taking part in NUS anti-fees protests, because it meant lining up next to anti-Israel students chanting "Freedom for Palestine", Mr Burns said NUS attempted to avoid the issue whenever possible.

He said: "We do not debate [Israel-Palestine] all the time. We try not to. We do not think it's the thing we should be discussing the most. I cannot tell student unions what to do. We accept one position will not be reached, but we are sometimes hamstrung on how this stuff plays out."

UJS president Daniel Grabiner gave a "state of the union" address and was keen to promote a "feelgood factor" in the union.

He said: "Look at what we are doing here. We have more than 100 students in a room talking about the policies of UJS. I think the whole UJS team should be elected like a student union sabbatical team, but we have to take small steps.

"It's often forgotten that Jewish students' concerns are the same as those of other students – not antisemitism, not Israel, but just getting a job after university."

Mr Grabiner said UJS was "always looking for alternative sources of funding" to combat the challenging economic situation. He pledged to launch a major campaign, Free From Hate, next term. It will bring together a coalition of other minorities including Sikh, black and gay students, to tackle abuse and discrimination on campuses.

Last updated: 8:44pm, December 12 2011