Read Edward Isaacs' opening speech for UJS Conference 2023-24
Hello everybody, welcome to UJS conference 2023! It is my absolute pleasure to welcome you to our largest conference yet. UJS democracy is alive and well. We have seen the most ever motions submitted, and this is testament to the vibrancy and energy of Jewish student life.
When I sat down to write my President’s report to conference, I didn’t think it would be under these circumstances. We truly have seen a term like no other. Come the beginning of the term, both the UJS team and Jewish students were insatiate for campus life like never before. JSocs were breaking records for attendance at Friday night dinners with the UJS sabbatical team attending more freshers’ fairs than ever before. JSoc socials were a hive of activity and excitement, with Jewish student appetite for JSoc sport and Jewniversity challenge more than ever seen before.
We visited our last freshers’ fair at the University of Essex on October 6th, with our sabs recharging for the term ahead that weekend. Yet sadly, when we returned to the office on October 9th, we faced a challenge like none that we had seen before. I knew the situation was bad, but I didn’t think it would materialise in the way we have seen. There is no hiding it, this term has seen nearly 2 years' worth of antisemitic incidents on campus in just under 8 weeks. And don’t be under any illusion, just because you haven’t been a victim of antisemitism on campus doesn’t mean we don’t recognise the anxiety you may be feeling about being on campus currently.
It is important to note that we have had to quite literally re plan our entire year’s calendar. For example, launching Jewniversity challenge during the week following October 7th didn’t quite feel right. We have also reprioritised our year, including expanding our antisemitism awareness training like never seen before. And despite all of this, UJS has remained resilient, and so have Jewish students.
When writing my year plan in June, I denoted 6 key guiding principles for UJS’ work in the year ahead and I’d like to use this opportunity to reflect upon the outstanding work of the UJS sabbatical team so far this year and outline our plans according to these principles for the rest of the year ahead.
First, inclusivity. The UJS team have endeavoured to make Jewish campus life as inclusive as it has ever been. Our inclusivity work has been led by the phenomenal sabbatical officer Dora Hirsh. Since the beginning of this academic year, we have worked with Keshet to roll out programming both for LGBT students as well as about the LGBT community. We have built a relationship with the Jewish Neurodiversity and Disability Alliance. We have continued our work growing progressive student groups. Our convention that we are all enjoying is testament to both the success of our cross-communal work as well as the increased accessibility of Jewish student events. We have also restructured our JSoc funding model to support small JSocs, such that no JSoc event will ever run at loss. We also launched The UJS Friday Night Dinner project with the first of our free national FND’s throughout the year to make Jewish campus life more inclusive than ever before.
Throughout the rest of the year, we will continue this work and much more. Work has already begun to establish women’s groups on campus specifically for Jewish women. Thanks to Matty Fisher, we will be live streaming many JSoc events to make Jewish student life as accessible to as many people as possible. Finally, we will be continuing our work with all the different denominational prayer groups across campus.
Second, international engagement. My term as UJS President for the UK and Ireland began in Tel Aviv. I attended the AMERICAN Jewish Committee GLOBAL forum with the European Union of Jewish Students alongside the World Union of Jewish Students. I have seen first-hand both the immense value the likes of EUJS can add to our Jewish student life as well as the value we can add to European Jewish student life. This term we sent several students on an EUJS trip to Pisa to develop their journalistic skills alongside other European Jewish students.
While the war in Israel may have necessitated some rescheduling, I am delighted to say that nonetheless we have continued planning a trip with EUJS to welcome European Jewish students to UK campuses in the new year. I am delighted that we have also nominated a new member of the World Union of Jewish Students board, strengthening our international presence.
Third, creating a UJS life cycle. For many Jewish students, their first interaction with UJS is on campus. And while we are the Union of Jewish Students, as an organisation we nonetheless bring immense value to school students who are about to enter the world of university. That is why this year, we put metaphorical rocket boosters under our UJ6 programme alongside taking over the UJIA’s ‘Jewish Activity in Mainstream School’ (JAMS) programme, with our sabbatical officer Taliah so ably taking these programmes from strength to strength. This term we have delivered over 100 JAMS sessions in London, Leeds, and Manchester, including supporting Jewish secondary school students post October 7th with briefings, advocacy, and much more.
At the other end of the spectrum, we also see immense value in expanding our alumni engagement. To be a part of UJS is to be a part of a unique, values driven community, with parents and grandparents still reminiscing about their nights-out and campaigns with UJS to this day. Through our alumni engagement, we will be connecting current Jewish students with alumni in careers of their interest through our Careers Hub. Be in touch with Matty and keep an eye out for these events in the new year.
In total, this work will truly create a UJS life cycle.
Fourth, impactful political engagement. Often UJS is criticised for being too reactive in its campaigning and while we have quite literally had to react to the largest terrorist attack in Israel’s history, nonetheless I am deeply proud of our campaigns team comprised or Emi and Guy in how they have proactively sought to advance the welfare of Jewish students. In the immediate aftermath of October 7th, we wrote to every Vice-Chancellor in the country with practical steps on how they can support their Jewish students at this time. Since we have briefed over 120 VC’s and written to every SU. We continue to be in direct conversation with Downing Street, the Department for Education, counter terrorism, Universities UK and many more, holding them to account and working with them to advance the interests of Jewish students. Our team has delivered more antisemitism awareness training sessions than in any other year and we won’t stop here.
In the new year, we will be fully launching the UJS Leadership Fellowship, with both political and community tracks as well as having international trips included too. We will endeavour to expand our antisemitism awareness training further and will always stand by and support Jewish students, no matter how big or small their problems may be.
Fifth, continuity and expansion. This year I am proud to build upon Joel’s legacy with the continuation of Aleph, the expansion of Jewniversity challenge and much more. We have expanded our provision for Jewish student sport with Maccabi, supporting more teams, delivering more kits, and ultimately delivering more matches while supporting even more women’s teams too. And I am happy to reassure you that despite its delay, Jewniversity challenge will be relaunching in the new year. I look forward to seeing Bristol retain the title. No pressure.
Finally, Israel engagement. I began this year pledging to you that I will enable every Jewish student, regardless of their personal politics, to engage in debate and discussion about the Israel they want to see in the world. While Israel and the wider Jewish people are still reeling from the shock of October 7th, nonetheless the significance of the role Israel plays in the majority of Jewish students’ Judaism has not. This term we have provided insightful speaker sessions with the most senior of government spokespersons in Israel to brief you on the current situation, we have provided educational sessions on the history of the conflict, while also providing spaces on campus for you to engage in dialogue about the current situation with our awesome schlichim, Adi and Linoy. While all of this has been incredibly impactful, there is still so much more to do. Questions including ‘what does it mean to be a Zionist student in the 21st century’ still linger, questions of ‘occupation’ are continually raised on campus, questions of ‘what does the future hold for Israel’ remain at the forefront of our minds. While I may not be able to give you the answers today, I certainly will work my hardest to ensure that you all have access to a nuanced Israel education. We will bring peacebuilders to campus to expose students to multiple narratives of the conflict, we will host outstanding academics answering questions of identity amongst much more, and all being well we hopefully will be travelling with you all back to Israel very soon.
Before I end, it would be remiss of me not to touch upon UJS’ finances. I am happy to report that the Union’s finances are very healthy. Over 80% of our expenditure directly supports Jewish students on campus and the Union continues to grow year on year in the wake of the pandemic.
As I come to a close, I’d like to focus on the theme of family. The late Rabbi Sacks noted that “To be a Jew is to be a member of a family”. For me, UJS represents the family of Jewish students. All family members have their idiosyncrasies, and they don’t have to agree. I’d go further to say that it is healthy that they often do disagree! But often we mistake conformity with unity. No family conforms to one set of opinions. Yet there is a wider unity and love within a family that binds the individual members together to form a collective greater than the sum of its individual parts, in turn creating a singular family story.
Today we will write the next chapter of our family story. We will debate, we will discuss, at times we will extensively disagree, at other times we will find consensus. Yet don’t mistake the lack of conformity in this room today with a lack of unity. Now more than ever before, Jewish students are united in their desire to live meaningful Jewish lives on campus. And when people ask me how things are going, I don’t shy away from saying that things have been bad, but I always end on a message of hope. Because your resilience to be here today advocating for a better Jewish life is testament to the success our community will enjoy for years to come.
Thank you, good luck today and I declare conference open.