From their home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Singer have been doing virtual outreach to Bristol, England, for some time now. But by the end of the week, they will be settling in across the pond for some hands-on work and a new chapter in their lives.

Recruited as Chabad on Campus UK emissaries at the University of Bristol—about a two-hour drive due west of London—they will serve the school’s Jewish population of roughly 700 out of a total of some 20,000 students. Founded in 1909, the multidisciplinary university has prominent buildings across the city. It received its Royal Charter in 1909; its predecessor institution—University College, Bristol—had been in existence since 1876.

Jewish enrollment at the University of Bristol has grown significantly in the past three years, notes the rabbi, and is expected to hit 1,000 in the next year or two. “It will be a big Jewish center,” he affirms.

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The couple also plans to serve the surrounding community, estimating that another 1,000 Jewish people live in the city and its suburbs. The next closest Jewish community is about 90 minutes away, according to the rabbi, so their reach will be rather extensive.

The university's Jewish student population has grown over the past few years. (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)
The university's Jewish student population has grown over the past few years. (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

Originally from Manchester, about three hours from Bristol, the 26-year-old rabbi says he didn’t picture himself going back to England once he had been in the United States. He studied at Oholei Torah Educational Institute in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and at the Central Lubavitch Yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway—Lubavitch World Headquarters—followed by one year of advanced study at the Kollel there.

But he looks forward to the challenge, he says, and to work in a place that’s somewhat familiar to him.

The Singers, along with their nearly year-old daughter Margalit, are settling in well before the start of the next school year. They went on a pilot trip in January, and the rabbi returned again in March for Purim. There, he read the Megillah and celebrated the holiday with groups of students and others in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Eli Brackman, chairman of Chabad on Campus UK and director of Chabad of Oxford, England, says the Singers are an “excellent choice” for serving as representatives at Bristol University, and that “the filling of this position at this time is of great importance with rising anti-Semitism in Europe and other challenges that Jewish students face on campus.”

The University of Bristol, about a two-hour drive west of London, enrolls roughly 700 young Jewish men and women out of a total student body of some 20,000. Founded in 1909, the multidisciplinary university has prominent buildings across the city. This view is from the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill. (Photo: WikiPedia)
The University of Bristol, about a two-hour drive west of London, enrolls roughly 700 young Jewish men and women out of a total student body of some 20,000. Founded in 1909, the multidisciplinary university has prominent buildings across the city. This view is from the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill. (Photo: WikiPedia)

Past and Present

Jewish history in Bristol goes back to medieval times. A count of 18 Jews lived in Bristol in the 12th century, according to JewishEncyclopedia.com. Of these, the most important was Moses of Bristol, father of Yom-Tob—the author of Sefer ha-Tannaim—and grandson of Rabbi Simon of Trier (Treves), a martyr of the Second Crusade.

A synagogue for the diminutive Jewish population was aptly situated on Small Street, with an ancient mikvah site known as Jacob’s Well nearby, in an area noted for its supply of water to the medieval town. Officially an “English Heritage Listed Monument” believed to date back to 1085, Jacob’s Well is considered the oldest medieval Jewish structure in the United Kingdom, though another medieval mikvah was discovered in 2001. That one—in the basement of a house facing Milk Street in the Old Jewish Quarter of London—reportedly dates from the mid-1200s.

The rabbi with Sam Baderman, wrapping tefillin.
The rabbi with Sam Baderman, wrapping tefillin.

For the short term, the Singers will actually live in the house at the Jacob’s Well site.

Bristol has undergone a noticeable economic revival in the past few years. It is one of England’s top five growth centers with a significant number of business start-ups. And as the community has flourished economically and demographically, the Jewish population has increased along with it, with singles and families moving into the area. In fact, Singer says he was asked by Chabad UK to undertake building a new mikvah to serve Jews in the area because of both a need and a demand.

He also relates an anecdote that says something about the people he will be serving. Prior to visiting Bristol over Purim, the rabbi received an email from a prison chaplain asking if he would visit a Jewish inmate who wanted to hear the Megillah. Even though the rabbi had a full day of Purim events—including six Megillah readings and a party at the university—he managed to schedule time with the man, who is in his 20s, early in the morning.

With prior permission, the rabbi was able to bring the young man a gift bag of sealed kosher snacks and a beverage—a mitzvah on Purim. To the rabbi’s great surprise, the inmate had saved up the meager allowance earned in his prison job to buy a similar food gift, known at Purim time as mishloach manot, for his visitor in the form of a can of sardines and a banana. The two men ended up talking for more than an hour.

“He was so excited to finally meet another Jew,” reports Singer. “He said this had been the highlight of his last three years.”

As the young couple embarks on their new journey, they say they draw strength from being tasked with such an important job—reaching out to Jews of all backgrounds and showing them the beauty of their heritage.

“It’s coming from the power of the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory], going on shlichus to carry out his mission,” says Chaya Singer. “With everything we do and plan to do—programs, activities, classes and more—we keep that in mind.”

Students at Purim read the Megillah. Rabbi Singer, who grew up in Manchester, England, celebrated the holiday on campus this year. It was one of six readings he did on Purim day, in addition to visiting a young Jewish man in a local prison.
Students at Purim read the Megillah. Rabbi Singer, who grew up in Manchester, England, celebrated the holiday on campus this year. It was one of six readings he did on Purim day, in addition to visiting a young Jewish man in a local prison.

Building a Network

Singer and his wife both grew up on shlichus—he in Manchester and she in Rochester, N.Y., which “taught us to be giving and to teach others,” notes the rabbi. They both knew they wanted to go out on their own in some capacity.

“It was clear that would be the goal,” says Singer of their plans after getting married.

He had spent a summer at Chabad’s Jewish Summer Fellowship (previously known as the Ivy League Torah-Study program) in the Catskill Mountains area of New York, where he worked as a counselor and teacher. Once married, he went back again with his wife. “It opened a new window into the world of students and Chabad on Campus,” he says.

After that summer, he realized that he wanted to focus on students: “Students are willing to learn and are full of questions. They are the future.”

When the position in Bristol became available, with the generous support of the Slager family foundation, he says he put his name into the running, “and the rest is history.”

The rabbi reads the Megillah to students as they follow along. The March visit followed on the heels of a pilot trip in January, which he took with his wife.
The rabbi reads the Megillah to students as they follow along. The March visit followed on the heels of a pilot trip in January, which he took with his wife.

As for Chaya Singer, 22, “I always wanted to go on shlichus. That was the way of life—going beyond yourself. We will deal with challenges as they come; it will be what it will be.”

The two have been actively in touch with students online, primarily via Facebook. With more than 200 “Friends” and counting, they continue making connections and building a network remotely.

While in the past, Chabad rabbis would rifle through an area phone book looking for names that sounded Jewish and then cold-calling people, Singer says the Internet and Facebook “have opened up a whole new way to interact.”

When he was in Bristol earlier this year, he met with students and asked what they wanted in terms of Jewish needs and services. Some were looking for social events and holiday programs; others were interested in classes, individual Torah study and other learning opportunities. He took note and will strive with his wife to meet such goals; regular Shabbat meals will be in the works as well.

“That was missing from their school experience,” he explains, the chance for regular Jewish communication, socialization and learning.

So their Chabad House, like the other 13 full-time campus Chabad Houses in the United Kingdom and 20 across Europe, will aim to provide all kinds of offerings in the backdrop of a “warm and comfortable place for Jewish students and a family life that may be missing on campus—a home away from home.”

The back of the Old Quad, as seen from the Cellar Lawn. The university received its Royal Charter in 1909; its predecessor institution—University College, Bristol—had been in existence since 1876. (Photo: WikiPedia)
The back of the Old Quad, as seen from the Cellar Lawn. The university received its Royal Charter in 1909; its predecessor institution—University College, Bristol—had been in existence since 1876. (Photo: WikiPedia)