There are many opportunities to be involved in Jewish life on campus, but for thousands of students, whether they are fresh-faced first years or diligent finalists, their university Jewish Society is the centre of their university experience.
Now, there are more JSocs than ever, 56 at last count, from Aberdeen to Exeter. And with a brand new group at Greenwich University, plans to expand the work of the society at Dublin, and students in both Belfast and Plymouth interested in forming their own groups, it is the mini-JSoc in particular that is on the rise.
Ben Salamon, the developing JSocs officer at the Union of Jewish Students, has his work cut out. “Jewish students are at more institutions than ever,” he said. “That’s partly because there are more universities and partly because the perception students have of universities is changing — they no longer feel they have to go to one of only five or six.”
That means many more, smaller, Jewish societies. The smallest is Bournemouth with just two members, as compared to Birmingham with 400.
One new JSoc in the making is Belfast, where just three Jewish students are in contact with UJS. Ben said: “If they can have a Friday night dinner together, that will be a triumph.
“The aim is to bring Jewish students together, to make them feel connected. Being able to sit with other Jews and have a meal or celebrate a festival — it’s hard to explain, but there is something special about it. It’s even more special at a small JSoc because you’re making that extra effort.”
One of those making the extra effort is Ilana Cohen, a masters student and president of the newest JSoc, Swansea, which is just one year old.
She said that while setting up the society was easy, one of the biggest challenges was forging links with other groups on campus.
“We wanted to make a point of reaching out to the Islamic Society. We’ve had joint meals and charity events, and it’s going really well,” she said.
Another challenge is how to have a wild night out with six or seven people. Swansea has found a solution by teaming up with neigbouring Cardiff JSoc for joint Chanucah and Purim parties.
Jo Hanna Watts, who is communications manager at UJS, remembers they had a similar problem when she set up a JSoc at what was then the University of Wales, Lampeter.
“There were only three of us, and the university required us to have 10 people to make a society,” she explained.
With a hand-drawn poster and bribes of Chanucah donuts, they soon signed up nine Jewish member, and a similar number of interested Christians. From there on the progress of the JSoc has been almost incident free.
“There was one time when my challahs didn’t rise,” Jo Hanna said, “but I got over it”.
Running a JSoc was, she added, an incredibly valuable experience — even more so because she grew up in south-east London and had felt distanced from other Jews.
She said: “For someone who had been so disconnected it was the first time I felt I had a place in the community.”
Her advice? “Just go for it. We didn’t know what we were doing but it all worked out.”