I recently spent a few hours making phone calls asking for contributions and pledges on behalf of an organisation that has impacted me greatly during my time at uni – University Jewish Chaplaincy.
I was initially anxious about asking for money and I was not sure what kind of response to expect. My phone list was very diverse and reflected shades of Jew, ranging from Chassidic Ultra-Orthodox to unaffiliated and secular. I needed a narrative that would appeal to a broad range of religious and social viewpoints.
I decided to just tell it like it is – and the response was overwhelming. This experience wasn’t unique to me alone – friends also participating in the Ring Round reported the same thing.
It is so rare for a cause to appeal to the full Jewish spectrum. So how does Chaplaincy achieve that?
When I started out at the University of Bristol last year I was introduced to Rabbi Alex and Rebbetzin Ahuva Tsykin, our Chaplaincy couple. Alex asked me out for a beer to welcome me to the city and the university. I am a secular Jew and was apprehensive about what my meeting with a rabbi might look like.
In addition, after a lifetime spent living in North London Jewish communities, I wanted to give the non-Jewish world a chance. But Rabbi Alex dissipated any prejudice I held against him as an Orthodox rabbi. Sipping my beer that he paid for, I listened to him tell me how he and Ahuva are on campus to look after Jewish students on a level that they are comfortable with. We exchanged contact details and he told me to reach out whenever I needed anything – whether it was food for when I was hungry, a chat over a drink, or, indeed, any Jewish service, if I were to feel so inclined.
I needed that. Especially the occasional chat and beer.
Starting university in a new city can be a very challenging period, especially when you are going without friends from back home. The learning material is at times very challenging and the constant deadlines overwhelming. In addition to that, one can feel very lonely and isolated and struggle to fit in to a new social circle. Adjusting to a new social situation takes time and effort even for the most outgoing individuals.
It is no wonder that this can sadly translate into student mental health struggles.
Universities are in a mental health crisis at the moment. At my university alone, there were tragically over a dozen student suicides in the last two years. Students need to feel cared for. They need someone to check in on them every week or two to see how they are getting along.
I know how privileged I am as a Jewish student that my chaplaincy couple is there for us on campus. Since that very first beer with Alex, a week does not pass without him or Ahuva messaging me and asking me how I am. Sometimes I will ask to meet up to chat about something that is bothering me. At other times I will join them for a free, delicious, five-course Friday night dinner.
This is the answer to why everyone loves Chaplaincy. They are there for every Jewish student with support tailored for each person’s individual needs. If you are more religiously inclined, they are there for you with Torah classes, Jewish philosophy discussions and shabbat and festival meals. If you are like me, secular, they will care for your wellbeing. After all, that’s a Jewish need too!
And has Chaplaincy helped me Jewishly? Of course it has! I am still enjoying my discovery and exploration of life outside of the Jewish bubble. But who says that I cannot dip back in every now and then for the comfort of community, ritual and tradition? I love shabbat meals at Chaplaincy with its Jewish and yet non-judgmental atmosphere.
This is something that everyone on the Jewish spectrum can appreciate. The Charedi friends that I called were happy to contribute to a cause that provides religious opportunities on campus. And my secular friends appreciate the positive impact that Chaplaincy has on students’ mental health.
Izzy Posen is a second year student at Bristol University, studying Physics and Philosophy.