There is anger and concern in Brighton at the Union of Jewish Students’ plan to sell the Hillel house in the heart of the city, less than a decade after the local community raised £350,000 to establish it.
But the sale agreement on the premises — part of the historic Middle Street Synagogue complex — looks set to go ahead next week.
Roger Abrahams was a member of the small Brighton and Hove Hillel committee which helped raise the funds to buy the building after students had stopped using the previous, more remote, premises.
He said that, after budgetary problems, the local committee had asked the Hillel Foundation (of which UJS is part) to take over operations.
But he added that UJS now claim that demand for the Middle Street Hillel has dropped “and they were going to sell it to a commercial concern — not Jewish — for use as therapy rooms”.
Mr Abrahams said he had recently found a minute “from a committee meeting we had in 2010 where we basically said: ‘We will do a deal with the Hillel Foundation but we will do it in such a way that if they are no longer able to carry out their duties, the building will revert to the Brighton Hillel, as it was’.”
Also unhappy at the impending sale is Michael Spector, whose father was treasurer for many years of the Middle Street shul, long closed as a place of regular worship and now a visitor attraction.
“I’ve asked specifically where the new [student] premises are going to be and I didn’t get an answer, except ‘we have a plan’.
“Then I said: ‘What portion of the money is being ring-fenced to recognise that the Brighton and Hove community put in £350,000? They didn’t answer that either.”
In correspondence seen by the JC, Yoseph and Rachael Citron — the chaplaincy couple for the 250-strong Brighton and Hove Jewish student community — described the Hillel as “well located in the centre of town with easy student access. The proximity in location is key to the regular attendance to events.”
They said the premises had been used for social events, dinners, JSoc committee meetings and as “a safe space for all Jewish students. We don’t know of any exclusively Jewish student houses, so HIllel provides this, which all JSoc members greatly appreciate.”
The couple added that a proposed alternative location in the Ralli Hall community centre in central Hove was “very out of the way of student life and [has] inconvenient transport links.
“Another proposed alternative [on Jewish Care’s Brighton site] does not seem to have been followed up by anyone. It is also out of the way and comes with the caveat that it is above an old-age home, which means that students will probably have quite a few limitations regarding noise etc.”
They pointed out that, until the current academic year, the Hillel had offered residential places, which had been filled. “This year, a student is trying to leave Brighton as she was desperate to live in Hillel in a Jewish environment.”
The loss of the Hillel would be “a significant deterrent for Jewish students who would like to keep Shabbat and kosher”.
In a statement, UJS said the potential sale followed a review of how it deployed resources nationwide. It remained “wholly committed to providing appropriate space and finance for JSoc activity in Brighton and Sussex for the long term.
“Various options for supporting Jewish student life in Brighton have been and continue to be explored, all alongside regular consultation with J-soc leaders and Jewish students.”
It pledged to ensure that students “will continue to have access to Friday-night meals and space for diverse and dynamic programming”.
Mr Abrahams dismissed the statement as “extremely vague”, maintaining: “The building should be passed back to Brighton if they can no longer use it.”