The months running up to the start of university and often filled with a mixture of excitement and dread. Hoping to achieve the grades you need, deciding with university is your ‘first choice,’ wondering where your school friends will go, already missing your mum’s chicken soup… There is inevitably a lot on the minds of most Year 13’s right now.

To help make this time slightly less stressful and to put worried minds at ease, UJS in partnership with UJIA put on an annual University Information Evening.

This year over 75 soon-to-be university students and their parents attended the insightful evening hosted at JW3. Joining the intrepid young people and their parental entourage were representatives from various campus-based organisations including Tribe, Genesis, Chabad, Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism and Masorti Judaism, as well as several current J-Soc presidents.

The guests were able to chat and informally ask questions before sitting down to hear a panel of experts share their thoughts and experiences on Jewish campus life. Hosted by UJIA Director of Informal Education and Israel Engagement, Anthony Ashworth-Steen, the panel featured UJS President, Joe Tarsh, UJS Finance and Operations Manager, Lindsay Davidson; Head of Operations for Chaplaincy, Suzy Richman; Student Security Coordinator for CST, Alex Fenton and Head of Public Affairs for CST, Jonny Newman.

Pre-submitted questions were put to the panel before the discussion was opened to the floor. Topics ranged from “how easy is it to access Kosher food on ‘less Jewish’ campuses” to “whether or not Jewish students should be afraid of antisemitsm on certain campuses”.

The audience were reassured that though some cities are easier for shomer kashrut and shomer Shabbat students, they should not feel pressured to attend a specific university based on these factors. Wherever a Jewish student wants to study, should be where they do study and UJS and Chaplaincy work hard to ensure that kosher food can be accessed and Shabbat can be observed when needed.

Jonny Newman confidently assured concerned guests that antisemitism is also not an issue. He said that though there are occasional incidents, they are few and far between and that in fact, in 2013 antisemitic incidents on campus had gone down by 72%.

One guest questioned how welcoming J-Socs were, having heard that on some campuses Jewish students gathered in ‘cliques’, leaving others feeling excluded. Two student-led initiatives helping to combat this were described: The ‘buddying system’ introduced by Manchester J-Soc, in which a new member is paired with someone who has been a part of the society for a while; and Oxford J-Soc’s ‘family system’, where freshers are ‘adopted’ by a 2nd and 3rd year to ensure they aren’t left alone and can get to know a variety of other students. Joe Tarsh reassured those present that these systems are not unique and that many J-Socs also recruit a ‘greeter’ or ‘shmoozer’ – someone whose role during the first few weeks of term is dedicated to saying hello to new members and making sure that nobody is made to feel unwelcome at J-Soc events.

Another question from the floor asked what work was being done to engage Jewish students who did not want to join, or regularly attend J-Soc. A concern felt by many parents is that if Jewish young people do not remain connected to Judaism and Jewish culture whilst at university, they might lose interest forever.

Suzy Richman answered this question by explaining how the campus chaplains are there for all Jewish students, from all denominations and backgrounds. She also spoke of certain initiatives that are so universal, they appeal to many students, even the ones who ordinarily wouldn’t want to join in with ‘Jewish’ activity. One of these is Chaplaincy’s ‘Challah For Hunger’ where students are encouraged to collect food for homeless shelters.

UJS also run a range of events and activities that appeal to a cross-section of Jewish students. An example of which is JUEFA Cup, an annual 5-a-side football tournament. This year over 30 teams signed up, many of whom were made up of students who don’t usually attend ‘Jewish’ events.

The soon-to-be students and the parents left the event feeling reassured and even more excited about their future endeavours. One mother explained how even though she already has two daughters currently at university; her youngest had wanted to come to the event for further reassurance. She wanted to speak to the experts in person and find out exactly what was on offer at which university.

Jewish students are now choosing to attend a variety of universities, not just the ‘big six’ (Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge). This inspires many new questions about how best to support them to explore and express their Jewish identities during these pivotal years of their lives.

UJS, along with our campus partners, are proud to reassure the community that no matter how big or small the Jewish population is on any campus, there is an ever-growing selection of opportunities, activities and other ways to engage with being Jewish whilst at university.

Even the smallest J-Socs are arranging weekly Friday Night Dinners, lunch and learns, sports competitions, social action initiatives and even trips abroad! UJS trains and supports Jewish students to feel confident to develop and deliver their own programming and now, more than ever, the students are coming up with original and exciting ways to engage their peers, no matter where they are studying.