Joe Tarsh never planned to go to university. Instead, his studies would end at Hasmonean High, before he left on a one-way trip to Israel.
But the 22-year-old wound up studying for a degree in youth and community at Manchester Metropolitan.
Just as unexpected was his decision to run for presidency of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
“I never really gave UJS much thought,” he said. “Of course, I knew about its work when I was vice-president of my JSoc, but it wasn’t until somebody convinced me to run, and I threw myself into it, that I really got hooked.”
Mr Tarsh is now coming to the end of his year as president, making way for his successor, Ella Rose, at the end of June.
During his time in charge, he has visited more than 50 campuses across the country — at an average rate of two to three per week. He has spent every Shabbat in a different city, meeting Jewish society members and getting to grips with the issues that affect them.
He has sat on a variety of communal bodies, including the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, and has travelled abroad to promote the rights of young British Jewry.
Based in London, UJS represents 67 Jewish Societies and 3,000 members. As well as providing training and funding for JSocs, it campaigns for social and political issues affecting Jews on campuses, runs events, and represents its members’ interests to the National Union of Students, among other bodies.
For the outgoing president, the union is the bridge between students and the community.
“It is incredibly important for students to take an active role,” he said. “We are a group that is often forgotten. In the United Synagogue, you cannot be a fully-fledged member of your shul until you are 21. So as a student, your representatives on the Board of Deputies come from UJS.”
Students outside the “big four” campuses with high populations of Jewish students — Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham — often find themselves isolated, unaware there may be other Jews among them. That is where UJS steps in, Mr Tarsh said.
“We’ve had 11 JSocs pop up this year out of nowhere. You just need one or two people. In November, we had a call from two girls at the University of Stirling in Scotland who had come across each other at drama society. By that afternoon, we were in contact; they now have 15 members and hold regular bagel lunches. That simply wouldn’t happen without UJS.”
But does the union hold too much sway over its members? What about accusations of concentrated power? Mr Tarsh said this was an image he sought to change.
“When I began, I did see a type of monolith organisation of staff making decisions for students, but we have started to change that. We have a revamped national council, and we’re creating a proper system for students to lobby their complaints, as well as processes for staff to be properly scrutinised.
“I would love to see power going back to individual JSocs. Do I think of us as too big? Definitely not. When we work together, we can do far more.
“A perpetual challenge is engaging with students who don’t wish to be engaged,” he said. “We can only do our job if we’re working with as many Jewish people as possible.
“Most students are leaving home for the first time. They then have to make the active decision to stay involved.”
The union’s remit is diverse, with Friday night dinners and club nights standing alongside countering anti-Israel activity on campus.
“The political side of UJS is, in many ways, the bread and butter of what we do,” Mr Tarsh said. “Without this, things would happen that would create fear and stop students going to certain universities. But if we only focused on that side, there would be nothing rich or cultural to fill the safe space. You need a combination of the two.”
He cited Israel as a major ongoing issue — both its negative image among non-Jewish students, and the extent to which UJS members are willing to engage with the country.
“Israel has become a taboo word on some campuses,” he said.“UJS needs to provide a space where all feel comfortable. Simply put, that means sometimes hanging an Israeli flag, and sometimes not.”
Mr Tarsh said his year in charge had been a lesson in humility. “There is a running joke between ex-UJS chairs that we’re never going to have this much power again,” he said. “But you don’t get too high and mighty in this job – there is always a student or two to knock you down a few pegs.”