At Birmingham JSoc, cross-communalism is at the centre of our ideals, in line with UJS policy which states that "UJS and J-Soc activities should be open to all Jewish students regardless of religious affiliation or denomination". In reality however, this ideal presents a number of challenges.
Birmingham is an extremely popular university for Jewish students. At our first Friday night this year we hosted 250 people, around half of whom were freshers! It's far enough from home (usually London or Manchester) for people to escape overbearing Jewish mothers, but close enough to rush back if in need of some home-made chicken soup. Add to that a thriving nightlife and a number of decent universities, and it's easy to see the appeal.
With a small but welcoming Orthodox community, a fantastic chaplain with years of experience and even a group of students who organise their own minyan, it's clear Birmingham is an attractive option for observant Orthodox students too, who may have previously stayed in their home city. The worry is that the huge influx of observant Orthodox students has left many non-affiliated or Progressive Jews feeling uncomfortable or even unwelcome.
Pluralism is hard to do right. Many suggest that it can't be done at all. Why should pluralism mean compromise of one denomination or another's Judaism? And what can we do to turn the tide of what has come to be seen as an Orthodox-centric JSoc? One thing we tried to encourage and implement was an egalitarian service on a Friday night.
It ran a couple of times last term and we hope, with the help of a number of Progressive students, to get it back up and running again. We have started a dialogue with Jeneration and a group of more active progressive students in Birmingham, with whom we hope to be able to support in their activities and work with to find solutions to problems they encounter.
Last term we welcomed Benji Stanley of Liberal Judaism to speak and we have featured articles by progressive rabbis in our weekly "Insight" leaflet including Birmingham's own Dr Margaret Jacobi. This term we look forward to hearing Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner. Our most recent endeavour to counter the hegemony of Orthodox Judaism in JSoc and move towards a more inclusive society, is our safe space policy.
The document is our official commitment to battle any degrading or offensive behaviour towards anyone of a different denomination, sexuality, race or against disability and to promote 'a safe and comfortable environment for all members'.
An extract reads: "Birmingham JSoc…has cross-communalism, inclusivity and a welcoming nature at the heart of its ideals. This is in line with Jewish tradition which places an emphasis on being hospitable and making visitors feel welcome... a small amount of effort on your part can make all the difference in creating a genuinely safe space, in which everyone who wishes can play a part."
In reality, most of our events do not even revolve around Judaism but socialising, sports, Israel or any number of other things. Our most exciting freshers event was JFEST – a night of live bands, silent disco and, of course, alcohol. These are things that we can all unite together in without denominational differences playing a part.
That does not change the sad fact that JSoc may be seen as Orthodox-centric; nor does it excuse unwelcoming behaviour of any member. There is also a need for Progressive students themselves, to take on responsibility and play a more active role within the society, in the way that Orthodox students have done in Birmingham. By doing so, they can help us make Birmingham JSoc the cross-communal atmosphere we are striving towards.
Daniel Bratt is chair of Birmingham JSoc