When student Olivia Fletcher turned up for her first day at Queen’s University in Belfast last year, she wondered where all the other Jews were.
There was no Jewish society (J-Soc) at the prestigious institution, which is not known as a Jewish student mecca, and nobody could remember the last time anyone held a Jewish event. Local synagogues were none the wiser.
Fletcher, 21, who is entering her second year studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics, grew up between Bristol and north London but went to work in Northern Ireland for a year with her partner before starting last September.
“I knew that Northern Ireland had a really small Jewish community, but when I got to Queen’s I thought, ‘there must be some Jewish students around here somewhere,” she recalls, speaking to Jewish News.
“I didn’t really have the resources to set up a J-Soc immediately so I spoke to the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) about setting up a Holocaust Memorial Day event, which was the first one we’ve had here in six years.”
UJS flew an officer – Shiri Wolff – out to Belfast to help, and both felt that the commemoration helped with introductions.
“Quite a lot of people came,” says Fletcher. “We have people from the local synagogues come to talk, and through that it just grew. That’s when I thought, ‘we can do something out of this.’ Shiri helped me set the J-Soc up, and through that we’ve had people get in contact – Jewish students, out of nowhere!”
Fletcher says around half a dozen Jewish students found their way to the J-Soc mainly through social media and hopes the new academic year will yield more. “Hopefully, from this semester onwards, it will become quite a big hub for Jewish students in Belfast,” she says.
“There’s only five or six of us so far, and even that I’m quite surprised at to be honest, but let’s see where we can go from here. It’s a Queen’s society but Jewish students from the University of Ulster can also join as affiliate members. We’re such a small community that to have two separate J-Socs wouldn’t be worth it.”
Asked about the moment she first met another Jewish student, Fletcher laughs. “I’m involved with the Student’s Union and we had this student renters’ group, and someone in that group is from Sunderland. Just from some of the things he was saying I thought ‘he must be Jewish’ – so I asked him straight out, and he was!
“He was the first. Then, when we put the Holocaust Memorial Day event on, someone said they knew an American over here studying Northern Irish politics at Queens, and they were Jewish too!”
She said the J-Soc “became official” in late April of this year, “when everyone had exams” and a national coronavirus lockdown to contend with, but this year the new group is hoping to have its first Friday Night Dinner, whether online or in-person.
Fletcher adds: “It’s grown by word-of-mouth, really, almost by luck, and it’s a work-in-progress, but I’m really pleased and excited that we’ve been able to find each other.
“I’m doing an online Q&A for Freshers’ Fayre when more Jewish students may reach out to us. It’s difficult but a lot of fun – next thing is to set up a committee. I’d love for this to keep growing and for Jewish students to know that they can come here.”