IT’S EXACTLY 30 years since I arrived at Oxford, as the first in my immediate family to go to university. I was rather naïve about what to expect.
The first full day of term was Yom Kippur (I went home) and I had to rely on the unforgettably-named Anglican chaplain – the Rev. Bill Sykes – to sort out a Shabbat challenge for me. My father reminded me recently that it took me a while to settle into campus life. I wonder if the hole I burned into a carpet with a frying pan is still there.
This year’s freshers will doubtless have their own experiences. Yet, in contrast to my time at Oxford, our chaplains – mostly married couples – all over the UK are busy attending freshers’ fairs and hosting students for meals to help Jewish students transition comfortably into this new phase in their academic and social lives.
As well as adapting to campus life, students may find their Jewish practice at odds with the teaching schedule.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unusually late in the civil calendar our chaplains, who are Jewish students’ official representatives to university authorities, are supporting students on campus, explaining to lecturers why it isn’t possible to attend or sit exams on certain days.
This is not to mention feelings of homesickness, especially being away from family over the festivals. Again, chaplains are at the ready, inviting students for meals and introducing them to local communities. Isolation and stress are issues that are surprisingly common and persistent throughout our students’ campus experience and seem to be on the rise. Last year, Oxford University published data highlighting that the use of student counselling services has doubled over the past 10 years, a reality that undoubtedly reflects the situation on other campuses.
Aware of these trends, our 19-strong chaplaincy team spend around half of their time talking one-to-one with students, creating ‘a home away from home’ for them, where students are free to drop in and chat whenever they like.
Our chaplains support students experiencing the full gamut of personal issues, including anxiety, financial concerns, worries about sexual orientation, course pressures, relationship crises and substance abuse. University Jewish Chaplaincy trains chaplains to support students through tough times and, where appropriate, refer them to specialist services.
There has also been a sharp rise in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic episodes on campus this past year. This disturbing trend has created a deep sense of uncertainty for Jewish students across the UK, but has been most keenly felt by those who are politically active in campus student bodies or the National Union of Students (NUS). A number of these appalling incidents – notably at Oxford University, King’s College, London and within NUS have attracted national and international attention. Sometimes anti-Semitism crops up in unexpected ways: Holocaust denial posters appeared at two Scottish universities and a team in a pub quiz at another Scottish university thought it funny to call themselves ‘Scooby Jew and the Gas Chambers’.
Our chaplains have offered students invaluable support through this period, both personal and by representing their concerns at the highest levels at universities. In Scotland, our chaplain and local board were able to meet with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was genuinely shocked by their stories of anti-Semitism.
Our chaplains effectively convey the expectation of robust action against those students whose conduct has been discriminatory towards Jews and, fortunately, universities mostly take these matters extremely seriously. However, the consequences for our students can still be huge, as the insidious hatred of anti-Semitism on campus can make them anxious about their identity and insecure about how they are perceived by others.
Yet none of this should detract from the fact that being Jewish on campus is mostly a life-enhancing experience and that chaplaincy thrives on just being there for Jewish students. Whether organising a Yom Kippur break-fast, serving kosher hot dogs in a nightclub ‘Booze 4 Jews’ event at 2am or celebrating with students at their graduation, chaplains make each student feel they are part of the family. This is our greatest nachos.