“St Andrews? But there’s no Jewish community there!” I’ve lost track of the number of times this has been said to me.
So I rattle off the shpiel every time: “There’s actually a small but thriving student society with regular Shabbat dinners, bagel lunches and festival events. We even held a ball last year with 120 guests. No, there’s no synagogue, kosher food or Rabbi based in St Andrews, so we do everything ourselves with support from external organisations.”
Do I wish I had gone to Manchester, Birmingham, or any of the other traditional ‘Jewniversities’? Absolutely not.
I’ll happily be the first person to admit that going to a university with a small Jewish community isn’t for everyone. If you need kosher and Shabbat-friendly accommodation and a synagogue within walking distance, some university cities are going to be higher up your list than others. I chose to go to St Andrews based purely on the course and the town itself; when I was 17, a Jewish life at university was more of a bonus than a requirement. I never expected that I would dedicate the majority of my free time to developing the Jewish student community.
But there lies the beauty of the smaller Jewish Societies (J-Socs): it provides an approachable and intimate atmosphere, with opportunities for students to really get involved and help develop an ever-changing community. Without copious amounts of external organisations present on campus, a strong sense of peer-leadership is instilled, ensuring that the J-Soc is both for students and by students. Although these smaller J-Socs have more limited resources, they don’t let that get in the way of achieving incredible things. That ranges from preparing a Shabbat dinner to organising peer-led Yom Kippur services. Although I can’t say that waiting for a kosher delivery from Glasgow was a highlight of my time at university, the gratitude and sense of community felt during these events made up for it.
Because for me, that’s what it was all about. The day after J-Soc’s first Seder in 2014, a girl sent a message to the committee thanking us for creating ‘a home away from home.’ Three years later, that’s still the comment that sticks out the most for me. Every time I’m asked about the ‘non-existent’ Jewish life in St Andrews, I can happily say that actually, the students have created a vibrant society and a thriving community.
That’s not to say that the bigger J-Socs don’t do the same. I’m sure they do, but I personally prefer the atmosphere of a Shabbat dinner of 20 students rather than over 100. Within that small group of Jewish students in an isolated corner of Scotland, I found like-minded people who wanted the same amount of Judaism in their lives as I did. In short, I found a family.
Every J-Soc is different but the experience is there for you to have as your own. Breaking out of the Jewish bubble isn’t for everyone, but I don’t regret it at all.
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