Progressively Speaking: why are Jewish societies on campus important?

Progressively Speaking: why are Jewish societies on campus important?

Following the scandal at Essex University, this week Progressive chaplain Rabbi Daniel Lichman reflects on being Jewish at university

Students' Union, University of Essex, Colchester Campus
Students' Union, University of Essex, Colchester Campus

At Essex University, a small group of Jewish students attempted to set up a Jewish Society.

They were met with a campaign against them. After lonely, confusing and frightening days for the Jewish student leaders, there was national publicity about this display of anti-Jewish attitudes and the university leadership stepped in.

The officials ratified the Jewish Society and organised a public display of solidarity.

I was present as 500 people came and stood beside our community. We listened to a number of speakers and I found myself touched by such a show of solidarity extended to our community.

Amy-Julie Fogiel, the president of the new JSoc, delivered an inspiring address. She is 18 years old and had arrived in the UK from France to study at the university.

She explained to the gathered crowd how precious her Jewish identity is to her. I found myself  inspired by her courage and determination and was simultaneously furious that a young Jewish woman was put in a position where she had to fight to be able to organise Jewish life on campus.

The vice-chancellor, Anthony Forster, impressed in the way he took responsibility for what had happened. Without any caveats and without defensiveness, he acknowledged the incident had taken place under his watch.

This is a model of leadership that embodies the mishnaic principle that in a place where there is no leader, be a leader (Pirke Avot 2:5).

As a senior leader of his institution, he unambiguously signalled the commitment of his organisation to challenging antisemitism.

Finally, I was touched by the leader of the students’ union, Tancrede Chartier. In his speech, he acknowledged that this moment was in fact the beginning of a conversation. There was much more for him and his fellow students to learn about antisemitism and about the lived experience of their fellow Jewish students.

In another mishnah, we learn after a list of righteous acts that “the study of Torah leads to them all” (Peah 1:1). 

Learning is paramount. It enables the understanding that can lead to morally upstanding action.

When I think of the possible responses to antisemitism that we have seen in public life, I do not find myself reassured by the violent language of ‘eradicating’ or ‘destroying’ antisemitism.

Instead, Forster and Chartier offer a more hopeful way forward: taking responsibility and being open to learn.

  •  Rabbi Daniel Lichman is the chaplain for Progressive Jewish students
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