Last Wednesday saw the launch of a new student-led interfaith community – the  Council of Christians and Jews Student Presidents (CCJSPs) – at Durham University and featuring talks from Archbishop of York John Sentamu and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

The CCJ’s Student Presidents will facilitate opportunities for students of different faiths to meet and work with the organisation and their peers to campaign for religious tolerance within their campus communities. Luckily several student contributors were on hand on Thursday to report back on their experiences from the inaugural launch event. [divider]

Rachel BronsteinDurham University – J-Soc Co-President

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, shared a platform with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at Durham University last Wednesday evening.

Both religious leaders articulated the need for interfaith dialogue in the twenty-first century: “we are all”, as the Chief Rabbi reminded, “created in God’s image”.

This engenders a fundamental similarity that should enable us, as human beings, to approach and understand one another. “We must build on what we have in common”, urged the Archbishop. Nevertheless, to be ‘different’ – to abide by differing scripture, to observe different traditions and customs – should not be dismissed as negative, or neglected for fear of alienation from other faiths.

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Credit: Craig Connor/North News & Pictures Ltd.

One point communicated loud and clear in both speeches was that while our similarities should help bring us together, it is our differences that should be relished, serving to enhance rather than detract from inter-religious discourse.

I find this a particularly pertinent message and it is one that I kept in mind as students of different religions, studying at different universities gathered for a photograph with the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of York after the speeches, united by our common desire to promote interfaith dialogue.

The event itself, however, was a starting point.

In my opinion, it is vital that structures of this kind exist. University is a hotbed of activity, opinions, ideas, schemes, and protests. Without positive enterprises this energy can, sometimes, be channelled in the wrong direction.

Helping organise this interfaith event gave Tammy Ostro (Co-President of Durham J-Soc) and I the rare chance to work alongside Ivan Yuen (President of Durham University Ecumenical Christian Council). It acted, therefore, as what I hope will be the first step to more conversation in the future.

The euphoric atmosphere of the evening proved that campus can and should foster an environment where interfaith discussion is the norm, rather than the exception. I am immensely proud that Durham Jsoc could help bring CCJ’s initiative to life, even if it is only the beginning of a much larger process. All it takes is dialogue and, at least according to the Chief Rabbi, cheesecake. [divider]

Ben Kasstan Durham University Student interfaith campaigner

The event was interesting for a many number of reasons and I appreciated the drive to bring two high calibre and high profile religious leaders together, also it was interesting to see how each representative interpreted the symbolism of the partnership.

However, from my perspective (perhaps I could be wrong) there was little emphasis on what the two communities wish to achieve from this, specific goals, intentions, hopes or visions at least. My only hope is that the meeting of the Arch Bishop and Chief Rabbi isn’t just a symbolic hand shake and photo opportunity – but that something pragmatic comes in how majority-minority communities can lend support to each other whilst accepting differences as an opportunity to learn, not a challenge to cooperation.

It was the first time I had heard the two speakers in person and found the Chief Rabbi’s reminder of the stork/hassidah a useful lesson for everybody – that to be kind to your own and not others isn’t the kosher way of doing things.

I think for Durham especially it was a welcome event that complements the Muslim-Jewish work and really boosts the integrity of the J-Soc. [divider]

Erez Agami Bath University – J-Soc President

Two communities coming together to talk, to learn and to work with one another; a seemingly uncomplicated task, but at times all too difficult.

I feel privileged to have attended the inaugural launch of the CCJ Student Presidents initiative. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and John Sentamu both gave stirring speeches about how the ties between our two established communities, Jewish and Christian, can deepen and widen our already sturdy ties.

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Credit: Craig Connor/North News & Pictures Ltd.

Having made the six-hour journey up to Durham on the train, I was eager to hear what the speakers had to say. Before the main talk I was delighted to see the Chief Rabbi take the time to come and speak to the Jewish students.

The main event itself did not disappoint, both speakers had some great stories and anecdotes sprinkled throughout which added some comic relief to the central theme: that we as students can work together, from the grassroots, on campus to create stronger ties between our communities.

After the event I, along with the other Student Presidents, were presented with certificates to mark the occasion, after which we mingled and got to know each other. It was interesting to hear the perspectives of some of the Christian members from campuses across the UK who had societies far larger than their Jewish counterparts. The greatest point that I will take away from the event is that there is great interest and potential for dialogue with the Christian societies and it is something I will endeavour to bring back to Bath University.

Furthermore, I was able to speak to students from some of the other Jewish societies. Newcastle and Durham J-Socs are, like Bath, smaller societies and we swapped stories and ideas on how best to create that sense of community and how to run engaging events with a relatively small membership. On the other hand, speaking to students from large J-Socs such as Manchester, I was impressed by the fantastic events that they have held as well as their impressive organisation and Jewish life on campus. That being said, there are certainly some advantages to being a smaller J-Soc and I am glad to be part of one.

I consider it an honour to have been invited to this event, both speakers were passionate and knowledgeable and I hope that future dialogue and events such as these can create even stronger ties between our communities.

The benefits of this event certainly outweighed the long six-hour journey back to Bath the next day! [divider]

Josh Arad – Newcastle UniversityJ-Soc President

I thought the evening was very special. It was a genuine pleasure to see the Chief Rabbi speaking beside the Archbishop.

They both spoke excellently and kept us all entertained with their humour, particularly the chief rabbi. The conference is hopefully the tip of the iceberg for the interfaith activities to come. I am looking forward to engaging with my Christian and Muslim peers on social platforms and discussing about each other’s interests, issues and background. I hope that they will extend this initiative to include Muslim students as well.

On the evening itself, yes it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening that gave everybody a warm feeling and positive thoughts for the future between Christians and Jews and the potential that we can realise on campus between our historic ways of life.[divider]

Joel Salmon – University of St AndrewsJ-Soc President

Interfaith relations are so important for the Jewish community and for the wellbeing of our society at large, and so I was I was particularly excited about being asked to be one of the first Council of Christians and Jews Student Presidents.

My fellow Presidents and I are being drafted into an organisational structure that mirrors that of the existing CCJ leadership with the aim of enhancing interfaith relations between Jews and Christians on campus, as well as with other faith communities.

A launch event was held in Durham, attended by approximately 100 people from all over the country- including some corners as far as St Andrews! The headline speakers were the Archbishop of York John Semantu and the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue Ephraim Mirvis, the latter whom the Jewish student attendees were able to schmooze with beforehand.

The Archbishop made some very powerful statements on the necessity of interfaith in a globalised world, arguing that it presents us with the best opportunity yet to bring down artificial barriers between people. The Chief Rabbi then spoke on the importance of using the messages of faith to learn from each other and promote mutual harmony. Both speakers were moving, funny and endearing and it is a credit to the CCJ that they were able to get such high profile speakers. It sends a message out that if the religious elite can do interfaith and do it well, then so can us students.

Perhaps the only problem is that we still do not really know how this programme will manifest itself and what role we as Presidents will do. From experience, I can say that it will have to be very flexible as every university society has different needs, aspirations and contexts that require vastly different strategies. My Jewish Society in St Andrews tends to be pretty autonomous with a tendency for ideas and initiatives to come from within. For instance we have initiated a number of well-attended and highly successful interfaith events, mainly with the Islamic Society and we are together with the Christian Union holding a Coexistence Conference this April to explore plurality and tolerance in the Middle East.

Often people like the idea of interfaith, but think that it will not work in practice. Yet if initiatives like this gain traction, then we can be hopeful for the future.[divider]

Visit the Council of Christians and Jews’ website to learn more or to get involved.

Read ”We are the legacies of survivors like Ziggyor check out the rest of our online student coverage.