“Feminism is seen as a dirty word within the Jewish community and I want this to change.” That is the view of Melissa Leigh, co-chair of the new Union of Jewish Students Women’s Network.
Ms Leigh, 20, is clearly excited about the launch of three UJS projects which aim to improve university life for Jewish students who feel under-represented and marginalised: women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, questioning (LGBTQ) students; and the disabled.
Ms Leigh, a student at Manchester University, said: “Despite the increase in the number of female Jewish
students, sexism still exists within individual JSocs and is disguised as ‘banter’.
“This includes jokes about rape culture and the belief that women should still be in the kitchen.”
She said she had personally found it “difficult to incorporate egalitarianism into an Orthodox Jewish life,” and believed the new networks would encourage Jewish women to “speak their minds”.
The Women’s Network will run socialising opportunities, motivational talks by inspirational speakers and career guidance sessions to help women at university feel empowered to take leadership roles.
Ms Leigh said: “For too long women have been ignored within the Jewish community and we want to ensure we have a place within the Jewish student movement.”
Emily Carp, also 20 and studying at Manchester University, sits on UJS National Council and is a co-founder of the LGBTQ Network alongside Yael Shafritz. She said the network had two main goals — to create a “safe space” for Jewish LGBTQ students who want to be involved in university life and to ensure that UJS is more inclusive overall.
“Some JSocs are not welcoming to people under the LGBTQ umbrella, but they should be. From the beginning of my university journey, I looked to UJS and I saw that it didn’t represent me — the president and national council were all straight men,” she said.
The second-year student said there were no official figures on how many Jewish members would identify in a LGBTQ group, but the network’s Facebook page has already attracted interest from around 65 students since it was launched in March.
“There must be more people who identify as LGBTQ and are Jewish who we simply don’t know about. We hope to gain a visible enough presence that they feel comfortable to come to us and engage,” said Ms Carp.
Founder of the Disabilities Network, Hannah Brady, 20, was diagnosed with a moderate-to-severe hearing impairment as a child and has had to rely on lip-reading to communicate for the past 14 years.
“I have had problems in the past with university events being held in places with bad acoustics, background noise or lighting which have made participation more tiring and difficult,” said Ms Brady.
The King’s College history student hopes the network will “provide an opportunity for disabled students to assert themselves more strongly within the Jewish community and take greater control over the services provided to them”.
Ms Brady is in the process of organising the network’s first event. She stressed that each individual student’s unique disability could have a hugely challenging affect on their daily university life.
“But we are ultimately seeking to remove any stigmas which may be present among Jewish students surrounding disabilities,” she said.