My experience as a Jewish student at UoN, the country’s biggest ‘jewniversity’

Side note: it is not normal.


Like any normal sixth form student in the early months of Year 13, I began to decide which universities, which courses, which cities would be suitable for my specific requirements. As a Jewish teenager, on the cusp of sitting my International Baccalaureate exams and filling in my UCAS application form, it made sense to apply to handful of ‘Jewniversities’ or ‘Jewnis’.

A ‘Jewni’, a well versed term within the UK Jewish community, are universities with the largest percentages of Jewish students attending. Speak to any sixth form Jewish student attending a Jewish school in North-West London and their top choices on their UCAS form could comprise of just six educational institutions.

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Leading the way in Jewish student popularity are Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, and Nottingham. In fact, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) estimates that 61 per cent of UK Jewish students attended just these six universities in 2014.

For many, attending a university with a high Jewish population is a social choice. 65 per cent of Jewish teenagers attend a Jewish school and thus heading to a Jewni provides a comforting continuation of their social upbringing.

I applied to Leeds, Manchester, Kings, and Nottingham and found myself in the third week of September on the M1 heading from London to Nottingham to begin my path towards educating and socialising.

I always intended to lead a Jewish life as a student in university. Initially, applying to Nottingham opened up the possibility of integrating with the largest of population of Jewish students in the UK – 1,600 according to figures by the UJS.

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Rabbi Mendy (standing) celebrating the autumn festival of Sukkot in the Chabad house of Nottingham, a hub for Jewish Nottingham students.

There are a range of different avenues for Jewish life on campus. A weekly Friday night held in Lenton or on campus, fraternity socials and mixers, Hebrew lessons with the chaplains, educational events organised by JSoc, the Jewish and Israel society; the list goes on.

Both practically and socially, then, many young Jews, like myself, see good reason to apply to Oxbridge, Nottingham, or Leeds on their UCAS application.

However, is this the full story? Undoubtedly, the aforementioned reasons are dominant in explaining the increased popularity of Jewnis in the UK. And yet there may be another, more serious factor drawing Jewish students together: the treatment of Israel on campus.

In June 2015, the NUS's National Executive Council passed a motion to boycott Israel, despite warnings to could alienate Jewish students.

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The Bocott, Divest and Sanction Movement has become a catalyst for the spread of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rhetoric across UK campuses.

This sentiment travels through the minds of many in choosing their university. The National Jewish Student Survey found 38 per cent of Jewish students were ‘very worried’ or ‘fairly worried’ about anti-Israel sentiment on campus, whilst the same number felt that Israel was treated unfairly in their students’ union.

Israel and Zionism is important to most young Jews. Many, like myself, feel a deep connection to the Jewish state, more significantly after visiting the country on organised tours with youth movements after my GCSE exams. My instinctive perception of how comfortable I could engage with Israel and my religion on campus formed an important part of my university choice.

If many view universities as a breeding ground for anti-Zionist hate, hostile to pro-Israel viewpoinst, young Jews may actively seek like-minded people at Jewni's for reasons of comfort and security.

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A talk I attended recently on campus, organised by the JSoc, featured a senior reporter for the Knesset (legilslative branch of the Israeli government) discussing internal Israeli politics and the conflict with Palestine. During the last ten minutes of the hour-length talk, a student stood up and began arguing with her on certain facts relating to the Israeli intervention in Gaza. I remember distinctly him saying 'I am not anti-Semitic, I just oppose what Israel does and its existence'. He would not beckon down to those opposing his strong opinion, which breached on an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist tone.

I felt angsty and on the edge. A safe space for discussion with a profoud Israeli and Jewish reporter was infrined upon by a student who believed the Israeli state should not exist, that the country does more damage than good to its neighbours and worldwide peace.

One might conclude that the perceived condemnation of Israel on some university campuses is driving Jewish teenagers towards applying to Jewniversities.

The positive aspect of being Jewish in Nottingham is an acceptance into a community that always has your back, that is welcoming, and that is safe. However, as a Jewish and Zionist student on campus, I have to bring an open mind to the fact that anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric is still spread institutionally and categorically by those who oppose our existence.