READ the UJS President Esther Offenberg's address at the Board of Deputies February meeting.
"Hello everyone, thank you for giving me the honour of addressing you today and to the Board for all your great work and the work we’ve done together. I’m Esther Offenberg, the current UJS President.
I would like to start by highlighting only a few of our many successes, achievements and moments of beauty I, my team and students all across the country got to experience in just the last six months.
In freshers’ week in September, we visited 57 campuses out of our 67 campuses, gave out 1500 goodie bags (named Shlep bags) and saw 5 new J-Socs created or revived: Lincoln, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Newcastle and Huddersfield.
At our annual UJS national summit which provides leadership training to J-Soc committees and Jewish student activists, we brought 120 elected student leaders from all around the country together.
We pioneered a brand-new counter-antisemitism training for Student Unions and University leadership, and have already delivered training at over 35 institutions. No more are we reactionary, approaching universities and student unions after there has been an incident. We are now proactive, building relationships with stakeholders all over the country, so that gd forbid, if an antisemitic incident happens at a university or in a students union, not only do we have the relationships to resolve the situation, but through our detailed training University leaders have a greater understanding of their Jewish students’ experience, and understand modern day antisemitism for what it is.
The last year hasn’t come without antisemitic incidents on campus, whether it be academics teaching conspiracies about the Jewish community, incidents of Holocaust trivialisation at student parties, and attempts to shut down dialogue around Israel on campus. But the work done by Jewish students to combat Jew-hatred is remarkable.
We just need to look to Holocaust Memorial Day, where together with Jewish students, we have organised, facilitated and supported events, speakers, memorial services and more on 53 campuses, which will run all this month and into March, engaging over 7000 students – Jewish and non-Jewish. It is so important to take all the messages of #we remember and #never again that we hear all the time, seriously.
As Jewish students we know our unique responsibility when it comes to Holocaust education. We will be the first generation where we will be bringing up our children without living Survivors. We are slowly approaching a time, where we will have to shift our whole understanding of commemoration culture so that we can truly say Never Again and be confident that this message is reaching everyone around us, with the same impact as before. I am so proud that our students, our Jewish students are leading on that and carrying our history into the next generation.
It is stories like these, of which I have just scratched the surface, that we should be hearing and reading about in our newspapers, in our shuls and community gatherings or even just at the (Friday night) dinner table. Jewish students are doing an incredible job on campus, bringing Judaism to life, what it means to be Jewish and every other possible angle we could be indulging in. Interfaith, mental health, LGBT+, Israel, social action – you can find it all. And numerously so. In the same vein, and I’m allowed to say this because I’m president: UJS is doing an incredible job. Our team has been working tirelessly all year and will continue to do so to support and represent Jewish students all around the country, following on from the countless amazing teams and students before us – many of you in this room will have contributed to UJS’ successes over the past decades.
UJS is in its 100th year this year, going on 101. We are the oldest Union of Jewish Students in the world – and there is a reason the rest of the Jewish student unions in the world look to us. That is the narrative I want to be hearing at the Sunday gossip brunch. We need to bring some proportionality to how the Jewish community talk about Campus, focusing on the many positives Jewish students are experiencing every day on and off campus, which far outweigh the negatives.
And it is up to all of us, that is me and you, as leaders of our community, to change those narratives.
We are all here because we care, because we love our communities and want to create change, make our community the best it can be. Of course it can be fun to tear others down, criticise what that other shul or organisation did: “We would have done that differently..”. You know what would be even more fun? Listening to students and young people – don’t just hear what we say – LISTEN. UJS sends the largest number of delegates per organisation to the Board of Deputies – we want to be here! We want to be in this room and the many other Jewish communal rooms of this country. I always hear the question: How can we attract young people more? Why are there no youngsters here? Let us be part, be part of the decision-making, consider our thoughts and voices and really include them. Only then can our spaces truly flourish and be sustainable. And that goes for the many diverse voices in our community – we are not one narrative, we are many woven into one!
As UJS we are beyond proud to represent so many young people at a such an exciting and crucial time in their lives. A lot of students are not members of the many organisations in this room – they opt out, don’t know or choose otherwise. UJS is the only organisation that is the Voice of Jewish Students. We are leading, defending, enriching life on and around campus every day.. --- Whether you are a student on a campus like Leeds or Birmingham with 1000+ students, or Hull or Coventry with around 10 students, somewhere where we fund the Hillel House or your weekly lunch’n’learns. Or a student on any of the other 67 campuses where we support over 10,500 Friday Night Dinners every year. We are there – with financial support, non-stop campus visits, nurturing, promoting and celebrating students everywhere. Without UJS, student life would cease to exist in some places and be significantly harder in others. And who will catch our students then?
I don’t mean for this to sound glorifying, but it is important to remember that UJS and Jewish students are a core part of our community, just like the Board and the many other Jewish organisations that empower us so much.
You are about to have a chance to ask me anything but if you only take one thing away from today, it’s that it is everybody’s responsibility in here to ensure the continuity of strong Jewish life on campus, of UJS and our many shared successes. "
Union of Jewish Students of the UK and Ireland