It’s entirely appropriate that the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) offices are to be found above a pub, writes Stephen Oryszczuk. Set over two floors and conveniently close to Camden tube, the home of UJS scores highly on décor. A naughty picture of a red-nosed Iranian President is quickly removed as I arrive. Old protest placards, loudly proclaiming ‘Jewish Students Against Cuts,’ rest gently in the corners. Magen David-adorned cigarette lighters lie next to the coffee, while old doors and wooden panels are propped up against walls. Posters of Matisyahu spill out of inboxes, whereas posters of Shimon Peres fill a nearby notice-board. It’s as gloriously cluttered and lively as you’d have hoped for.
Recent graduates themselves, the UJS officers roll in just after nine, unfurl their laptops and chat about student events they attended the night before. The dress-code is smart-casual, with the emphasis on ‘casual’ for some. Before long they’re on their phones, connecting and co-ordinating the various Jewish student societies (J-Socs) across the country.
We’re on the top floor, and my point of contact is the uber-efficient Charlotte, who introduces me around. There’s Alex, the UJS President, an accompanying whirlwind who gently maintains a handle on the agenda. There’s Jude (campaigns), who has the easiest smile and the sharpest eye, and Ben (smaller J-Socs), who just seems happy not to be travelling for once. Additionally there’s Sheryl (membership) and Georgina (training), who bounce ideas around, while Matt (London J-Socs) flops quietly in the corner, legs slung over his armchair. Controlling everything is Amanda, the team manager upon whom the others rely.
On the floor below is a smaller team, but no less important. The UJS “grandfather” (his words, not mine) is Gerry Lucas – Operations Director, font of knowledge and all-round good brain to pick. He’s been there 20 years and has seen hundreds of young UJS officers come and go. He commends the current crop as one of the best he’s known, saying they work well together as a team. Together with Gerry there’s finance and fund-raising, the latter comprising Jo and Julia – the UJS “mums” (again, their description). They’re in good spirits, despite the tedious task of compiling a spreadsheet of donors from the past four years. Their new chairman is described as “meticulous,” an adjective that’s left to hang heavily in the air…
Matt and Alex join Rabbi Gavin Broder in the meeting room, a small space to the side of the office, with sofas and comfy chairs arranged around a coffee table that’s currently over-flowing with pastries. The rabbi is concerned that there’s not much co-ordination across the capital, and the three discuss how best to approach a new forum of London J-Soc presidents.
After the rabbi leaves, the team pile in and devour the croissants. Because they’ve not convened much of late, they take turns to update each other on what they’ve been up to.
Charlotte’s consumed with Matisyahu’s December visit and with launching the Jewish Awareness Week (I suppress a sneaky giggle that it’s difficult to make people aware of an awareness week). Jude’s been planning a seminar, a trip to Israel and a new video resource, as well as helping students with their campaigns. Sheryl has been talking to UJIA about a parents’ evening idea, whilst trying to get a large accountancy firm on campus. Georgina meanwhile has been grappling with J-Soc budgets, Limmud, a social action programme and a trip to Poland. Ben has been covering every square inch of the UK, from Brighton and Berwick, visiting developing J-Socs. I’m not really sure what Matt’s been doing, but he seems relaxed.
The meeting veers towards the annual student awards. Some feel that the last outing served only to encourage “tribalism” and should be scrapped. Others think awards encourage a typically apathetic demographic and should be kept. Yet others feel that everyone should be given an award, presumably just for trying. In the end, they defer to the National Council.
Shortly afterwards, I’m whisked off to University College London, to a UCL J-Soc gathering in a basement bar, where I meet two dozen Jewish students and hear the ever-amenable Maureen Kendler talk about a book called ‘The Avengers.’ Watching the UJS team mingle over smoked salmon bagels, listening to students’ issues and ideas, I realise how varied a UJS officer’s role is. From organising national campaigns to acting on individual grievances, ordering Matisyahu’s ‘reserve’ guitar and representing the UK at the World Union of Jewish Students, the role is incredibly mixed and varied. My day was now finishing, had been far-from-dull day. I couldn’t imagine it would ever have been anything other.
The Best Quotes:
“As long as it’s acoustic, it doesn’t matter if he’s got a beard or not”
“We should move away from jokes, we’re funnier internally than externally”
“He wants a central London suite… such a diva”
“The problem with prizes is that the winners never get any”
“Our mascot for the Jewish Awareness Weeks is an inflatable shark, based on the acronym”