The new university term is under way and, as undergraduates settle in, hopeful applicants are considering their options for 2009. It is that time of year when people of a certain age are, in various ways, thinking seriously about university. Whether you are a finalist, a fresher or just beginning the application process, there are decisions to be made and challenges faced.
A Jewish student faces additional complexities when choosing the right course. Do I want to retain my Jewish identity? Protect my practices and spirituality? And, if the answer to those questions is yes, would I be better off staying at home?
Although most of the community's students do go away to campus universities, a recent trend for more young people to study at a yeshivah or seminary in
Israel has prompted an attendant increase in the numbers staying at home to study.
Of course, it's a personal decision; what's right for one is not always right for another. But if you are about to apply and are unsure about the additional challenges of living on campus, let me tell you that it can be the perfect way to enhance your Judaism.
Being on campus gives you a unique opportunity to decide who you want to be - not in the clichéd sense of "finding yourself", but realistically, by finding your Jewish comfort zone. For the first time, you find yourself outside your family unit and your familiar community. Being in new surroundings negates the possibility of doing things out of habit; you have the chance actively to build your own Jewish identity and encourage others to do the same. More often than not, students who never thought they would want to be involved find themselves turning up to a Friday-night dinner or two.
Being away from home forces you to confront the different facets of your identity and choose which parts of it are important to you.
I cannot deny that, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I face daily challenges to maintain my level of Judaism, but I am certainly not alone. I am constantly inspired by the support of the local chaplain and by the way students support each other.
This very real sense of community ultimately encourages individuals to become leaders. I would not have felt capable of leading my fellow students as a Jewish Society president had I not shared experiences with them day in, day out. Although being a youth leader can provide similar logistical and organisational skills, it does not teach one how to lead one's peers, something of enormous value in adult life. And, for those who want it, the communal atmosphere offers religious opportunities too: at home you may not get the chance to lead a shiur (religious discussion) or get a hands-on experience of running a kosher kitchen. Females and males have proven themselves equally capable in both cases.
Finally, there is the valuable experience of living among non-Jews - some of whom, in my case, had never met a Jew before and genuinely appreciated learning about Judaism. Logistically, we can't all live in Hillel houses, and halls of residence provide a clear opportunity to do a Kiddush Hashem, and give a positive impression of Jews and Jewishness simply by being a friendly neighbour.
With regard to defending Judaism or Israel, it is not always enough to hold informative events or counter-demonstrations. I have found that you have to be there in the campus coffee shop, library or common room when student discussions inevitably turn to what is "wrong with the world". Once you live in this atmosphere, you appreciate not shying away from it. Being on campus, and not at home, enables you to ensure that your neighbours are, at the very least, better informed.
Sheli Levenson is a final-year modern-languages undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge, and a former president of the Cambridge University Jewish Society