Alexander Goldberg
Rabbi Goldberg, Dean of Religious Life, Surrey University

How a rabbi saved Christmas on campus

Rabbi Alex on a cold day serving coffee to students from India whilst his Christian Chaplaincy colleague Joash in the background talks to a student from China
Rabbi Alex on a cold day serving coffee to students from India whilst his Christian Chaplaincy colleague Joash in the background talks to a student from China

It’s like a start of a bad joke: a rabbi, an imam and a vicar are given the keys to the university during Christmas but in essence this is exactly what happened this year on campus.

For six days, my team of Chaplains (many of whom now refer to themselves as elves), from a variety of faiths and none, have handed out over 1000 teas and coffees; gave out 350 presents donated by members of the wider Guildford community and spoke to over 400 individual students left stranded on campus during the holiday season. In addition, the student union who we worked with on this holiday support scheme laid on 500 Christmas lunches over a two-day period in the south east of England’s largest COVID-19 approved venue.

I don’t do Christmas. True: I have heard that some Jews like to have Chanukah Bushes, that sales of Kosher Turkey peak at this time of year and I dare say a there are few who have Santa coming down their chimney but for myself and my family, I suspect along with many other Jews: we simply don’t do it. It’s just not our festival.

I was once asked by a teacher in my school what I did for Christmas. My answer was “we have the day off and watch a Bond film on the telly”. He was very upset “Please answer the question honestly”. I had already. This was before Limmud and Netflix were on my radar.

International and UK Students from one campus flat receiving gifts and coffees

So given that, how did this come about?

It started in January when still newish in my current post I opted to go to the university induction day. One of those who came to speak to us was Michael Queen, chair of council at the University of Surrey. He spoke about university life. During his short presentation he broke away from his theme a little to speak about his visit to the university during the Christmas closure last year. He painted a dreary picture of the few students left to entertain themselves on our vast campus. Speaking later to our students, I found out a few hundred stayed on campus: many were international students, others had no home to go to or could not afford to get home. I’ve a note somewhere (from that day): make Christmas special in 2020.

The first COVID lockdown only strengthened that resolve. At Passover, I remember sitting around a table with just the four of us. We’re used to having 20 plus. It was the first Passover that I hadn’t spent with my parents. There was a sense of isolation as I am sure there were for many Jewish families. I didn’t want others to experience this if at all possible. It’s why we did ‘grab and go’ iftar during Ramadan and a similar exercise during Diwali; socially distanced Jewish New Year; lit up our centre’s outside walls turning it into a building-sized LED Chanukiah two weeks ago and took 20 plus festivals online. It’s why I told my team of Chaplains we had to do something this year over the holiday period given that many of our students could not get home due to pandemic. A team of 20 volunteers in total came forward.

Thé Roundhouse Religious Life and Belief centre was set up with nine flickering LED flames for Chanukah. A Giant Chanukiah can be seen inside the building.

There are plenty of differences between Judaism and Christianity: the celebration of Christmas is certainly one of them. But we have similarities too. Both faiths emphasise the need to love our neighbour. The importance of this idea in Jewish ethics is highlighted by the 1st Century Rabbi Hillel who said ‘What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.’. So in developing my role as Coordinating Chaplain and leading our team of 15 Chaplains: I’ve learnt that people need their festivals, they need hope and shared joy. To take them away causes harm, causes pain.  COVID restrictions means we have to be creative. Hopefully we did our best because for me, our campus is my second home and it’s our responsibility to make it feel like home for others.

About the Author
Rabbi Alexander Goldberg is a public sector rabbi in the U.K., a barrister and human rights activist. He is currently the Dean of the College of Chaplains and Coordinating Chaplain at the University of Surrey where he leads a team of 12 Chaplains from 8 faith and belief traditions. He is the only rabbi within this role in Europe. He continues to be Chief Executive of the Carob Tree Project, working on a number of international and UK-based community relations and community development projects and is the Jewish chaplain to the University of Surrey. Alex regularly co-hosts a BBC radio show, a contributor to BBC Radio 2's Pause For Thought and was a member of the BBC's Religion and Ethics Conference. He chairs the English Football Association's Faith Network and founded the human rights group René Cassin.
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