Taken from the Summer 2023 Edition of Aleph, this is UJS President, Joel Rosen's Editorial
‘What’s your favourite JSoc?’ is a question I’m often asked. Whilst my rigid impartiality forbids a straightforward answer, the conceptual answer dawned on me last Shabbat. I was staying with the Jewish community in South Hampstead as part of the Rabbi Sacks Fellowship and a source spoke to me. We were exploring the later portions of the book of Exodus (including my Bar Mitzvah Terumah) which depict the construction of the Tabernacle - the temporary Temple the Israelites used for worship whilst in the wilderness.
The Torah spends a surprising amount of time covering the Tabernacle. In Genesis, the world is created in a mere 34 verses. In the books of Exodus, hundreds of verses across Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tissa, Vayakhel and Pekudei are dedicated to the creation of a temporary sanctuary for the Israelites to use whilst journeying through the wilderness. Rabbi Sacks takes this seemingly technical and antiquated set of instructions and reclaims it as a political text. In the first half of the book of Exodus, the traumatised Israelites are taken out of Egypt. In the second, “a nation is created through the act of creation itself … God was in effect saying to turn a group of individuals into a conventional nation, they must build something together”. I’ve seen this idea born out in dozens of Jewish societies across the UK and Ireland. In The Home We Build Together, Sacks details the distinguishing features of the Tabernacle model. In his words:
- Identity is achieved: It is not granted. We are what we do.
- There is an integral connection between giving and belonging. Because we are co-creators of society, we are members of it in a strong sense.
- It is a model that focuses on responsibilities, not rights.
- It focuses on altruism rather than - as in the social-contract model - the convergence of multiple calculations of self-interest.
- It focuses on the future, not just the past. The national narrative, which includes the people's past, is still being written and we are its co-authors.
- It is teleological. It focuses on purpose, not status. Every contribution counts.
- It carries with it a strong sense of the common good: the Tabernacle is a symbol of collective dedication.
When a JSoc President or committee member comes to me with a difficulty, I often think about R’ Sacks’ Tabernacle model, which is strikingly applicable to JSocs. The strongest JSocs are those with a clear sense of collective identity, in which members give their time for the sake of society. They are purpose-driven, peer-led and self-sustaining. In my years at uni, on a Thursday night JSoc would gather and peel potatoes and chop veg in a slightly crusty kitchen. Cooking together brought us together. I’ve seen the unifying atmosphere sustain JSoc committees setting up for socials or laying the tables on a Friday afternoon.
Some wrongly see the Jewish student sector as a marketplace and attempt materialistic incentives to fend off perceived competitors. In my experience, Jewish students resent being treated as consumers. The best activists are unpaid, the most dedicated JSoc presidents are altruists, and the most vibrant Jsocs aren’t the best resourced. Jewish student life is sustained by our common interest, as opposed to the conversation of self-interest.
Another quality essential to a thriving JSoc is diversity. The best student communities prioritise unity over uniformity. In the eleventh chapter of Genesis, we are offered a picture of a uniform and ambitious society, one that built the tower of Babel: “The whole world was of one language and of one common purpose.” Whilst the idea of a society united in a creative endeavour at first seems compelling, this is ultimately rejected by God, the chapter continues: “Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city”. Rabba Sara Hurwitz in her compelling analysis cites the Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, aggadic exegesis of this chapter to explain the problem inherent in the tower of babel: “It had seven steps from the east and seven steps from the west. Bricks were hauled up from one side, and the descent would be from the other. If one man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him, but if one brick fell down, they would sit and weep.” According to the Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, this was a deeply materialistic society, one that valued property over people.
Putting these two biblical passages together, we can infer that the ideal society whilst creative is not conformist. It makes space for difference. Returning to the concept of a Temple, Sacks looks to a lesser-known passage in the John Milton Areopagitica - the seventeenth-century poet’s defence of free speech. I remember struggling with Early Modern England in my first year at university; it was hard to come to terms with the array of religious and political doctrines of seventeenth-century England. Amidst a plethora of differing ideologies - Diggers and Levellers, Quakers and Dissenters and many more - Milton makes the case for free speech: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” The best JSocs aren’t solely Orthodox or Progressive, they aren’t right or leftwing. Rather, they are home to arguments for the sake of Heaven, for it is in the exposure to other ideas that our own become refined. Fascinatingly, Milton uses the building of the Temple, to prosecute the case against conformity and uniformity:
… as if, while the Temple of the Lord was building, some cutting, some squaring the marble, others hewing the cedars, there should be a sort of irrationall men who could not consider there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber, ere the house of God can be built. And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.
At the UJS convention in February, we tried to actualise this ideal. On Friday night we held five simultaneous services recognising our is a song sung in harmony, not a solo. Jewish students pitched into every activity and delivered countless sessions for their peers and we built an unforgettable weekend together. The words of the Talmud in Brachot spring to mind: ‘Call them not 'your children' but 'your builders'’. When students fly the nest, move away from home and build something together they gain as much as they give.
So, to return to the question I avoided at the start of this piece, my favourite JSoc isn’t homogenous. It does, however, possess ‘ brotherly dissimilitudes’. It doesn’t need the grandest ball or the most members. It doesn’t need celebrity speakers or sushi platters, it has a dedicated committee that always turns up out of concern for the community. My favourite JSoc is a JSoc in which everyone contributes a part of themselves and they, in turn, feel a part of it, the JSoc relies on the strength of its students not its sponsors. My favourite JSoc is the one we build together.