By Rachel Bronstein, who is in her final year at Durham University, reading English Literature. She was the Co-President of the Jewish Society last year
Me: I’m at Durham.
Mr Bloggs: Great, good university isn’t it? There can’t be many Jews there, surely? How big is the Jsoc?
Me: Well actually there are over a hundred members on the Facebook group… but that’s beside the point – Jsoc is really active! (Starts to panic)
..There are Friday night dinners every week! We have a fully fitted kosher kitchen! We have lunch and learns! … Do you know Rabbi Dove? Well he brings us sushi and runs discussions! Speakers come too… honestly the Jsoc is pretty amazing. So happy to tell you more about—
Mr Bloggs: (Bewildered) Right, right. Good, yes good. Right. Yes. Good.
Discussing Jewish Societies (Jsocs) in terms of size is natural. Jsocs are obsessively classified by how many members there are; this mode of definition has been normalised so effectively that we don’t even notice it happening.
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) looks after the 31 ‘developing Jsocs’, 25 ‘London and South East Jsocs’ and the ‘big six’.
UJS is an extraordinarily supportive body and, despite the misleading term, the ‘big six’ are not prioritised over smaller societies. But that’s just it, the language we use to label Jsocs is unsatisfactory; the expression ‘big six’ suggests an ideal that the other 56 Jsocs should aspire towards, except for the fact that they are in purgatory; in a never-ending state of stagnation owing to the marker ‘developing’.
It should be pointed out that while the number of Jewish students at Manchester University has been steadily dropping, the number at Bristol University has been steadily rising. Sarah Manuel, acting President at Bristol Jsoc, explains that ‘the recent surge in Jewish students at Bristol, with over 150 people at the Freshers’ BBQ, has caused people to question whether it should still be referred to as ‘developing’.’
The case of Manchester and Bristol helps to prove the total inaccuracy in application of the terms ‘developing’ and ‘big six’. Their usage is not just imprecise but destructive. ‘Developing’ implies a desire for growth in size, when in reality the goal of a Jewish Society is to host as many positive events for its members as possible, not swell to gigantic proportions.
For Joel Salmon, President of St. Andrews Jsoc, being called ‘developing’ is ‘hilarious’. He argues that St. Andrews Jsoc has ‘been thriving for a long time’ and reminds that as well as holding successful high holy day services and a Pesach Seder, the Jsoc is able to run events with other faith societies that ‘are accessible because there aren’t hundreds of people going.’
Suzy Richman, Chief Operating Officer of University Jewish Chaplaincy, defends the work of smaller Jsocs and argues that they ‘shouldn’t be overlooked in favour of the larger and sometimes more popular ones’. She adds that a smaller environment is ‘more intimate’, as not only is it possible for the Jewish students to hold Friday night dinner around one table, but also those students who may not have felt a sense of belonging in a Jewish environment before are more likely to get involved.
Chaplaincy feels so strongly about the matter that they have been sponsoring the ‘developing Jsoc award’ for the past five or six years.
Evidently, we are stuck in a rut of categorising Jsocs by size and it is time for that era to end.
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Speaking about Jewish societies in this way has a detrimental affect on Jewish students applying to university. For numerous Jewish students there is a choice to be made between accepting an offer from a university that is best for their course, or opting for a university that has the largest Jewish student population.
If the top university for a said course is one of the ‘big six’ there is no conflict, yet sometimes the two are not in harmony.
The first step to rectifying this would be for the labels ‘developing’ and ‘big six’ to become extinct. At this stage I propose geographical groupings, such as ‘London and the South East’ or ‘Scotland and the North’, although this restructuring may need a more serious rethink.
The second step would be for schools and parents to stop buying into the number game and instead openly discuss the plethora of opportunities available to Jewish students. Once this is achieved Jsocs can finally start to be appreciated for their individual character and members won’t be counted like chickens in battery cages.
‘For too long’, concludes Erez Agami, UJS’ developing Jsoc Fieldworker, ‘Jewish students have viewed the number of Jsoc members as an indication of quality’.
My mission will be complete when Mr Bloggs asks me what the atmosphere at Jsoc is like, what events are held, where Friday night dinners take place, how we celebrate festivals, whether we ever run joint events with other societies or universities, and so on. After all, how can a personality-less number argue with that?