It’s back to school across the United Kingdom as university students return to classes for the beginning of their spring term. Among the returning collegians are an estimated 10,000 Jewish students, who last weekend began filling Shabbat tables at campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch centers on every major university in the country.

Each of the 10 Chabad Houses, having just emerged from the largest collection of Passover celebrations in recent memory, have formulated an array of programming with something for everyone, from relaxed get-to-togethers over shwarma to film screenings and one-on-one study sessions.

At Oxford University’s Chabad Society, where a term card full of engaging lecturers and artists has become the rule, directors Rabbi Eli and Freida Brackman have lined-up appearances by Holocaust survivor Madame Margaret Acher – whose family was the subject of the BBC documentary “The Family That Defeated Hitler” – and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel Steinsaltz.

“With centers now on every major campus, Jewish students are finding a home away from home at their local Chabad House,” said Eli Brackman, who also serves as director of Chabad on Campus UK, an organization that has doubled its operations in the past year thanks to the support of philanthropist David Slager.

Speaking from London, Roman Pesin, a second-year student at Kingston University, said that he was looking forward to another exciting term with Rabbi Dovid and Sara Cohen, directors of the new Chabad of South London Campuses.

“For the first time in my life, I can say that from the beginning of the year until now, I have had a place to go to, and I have done something for, each Jewish holiday,” said Pesin, “and that has changed my whole outlook.”

Chabad House administrators have designed schedules with the nature of the spring term in mind. Coming at the end of the school year, the term is notorious for the demands it places on students. In such an environment, students flock to Shabbat tables as a way to unwind.

“This is really the toughest term of the year, as most of the students are focused on revising their work and taking exams,” explained Rabbi Reuven Leigh, co-director of Chabad at Cambridge University. “During the week, it is very quiet, as students are spending most of their time in the libraries.”

For his part, the rabbi has been meeting with students one-on-one over coffee.

“This week for Shabbat, we have one Ph.D. student who will be bringing his parents and fiancée to Friday night dinner, which is really special,” noted Leigh.

Every other week for the rest of the term, he said, discussions around the Shabbat table will focus on a different figure in the development of Jewish thought, such as Sa’adia Gaon, Ibn Paquada and the poet and scholar Solomon Ibn Gabirol.

“In the beginning, we seemed to attract mostly graduate students, but today we are drawing in more and more undergraduate students as well,” reported Leigh. “We’ve grown to what I would say is a core group of 150-200 students who attend regularly, and this coming year we will have a student committee for the first time.”

“For a lot of students, the Chabad House provides their first opportunity for Jewish learning, and they want to know everything,” said Gitty Weinman from Scotland, where she and her husband, Rabbi Pincus Weinman, recently opened the first Chabad House to serve Edinburgh University.

“This is just the beginning,” she added. “We are growing. We see the changes that are happening and we’re meeting new people every day.”

Rabbi Dovid Cohen, co-director of Chabad of South London Campuses, took Jewish university students to a matzah bakery before the holiday of Passover.
Rabbi Dovid Cohen, co-director of Chabad of South London Campuses, took Jewish university students to a matzah bakery before the holiday of Passover.

Growth and Transition

At the University of Bristol, where Rabbi Dovid and Leah Usiskin opened a Chabad Centre in September, both students and members of the wider Jewish community have been exploring their heritage in one-on-one study sessions.

“A lot of what people want is to explore topics of interest to them,” said Leah Usiskin, who’s working with students and community members to plan activities that complement existing Jewish organizations on campus. “We’re also organizing large events for every holiday.”

Students are arriving to a Chabad House in transition at Leeds University, which is building a new center to meet the growing demand for its programs after just two years of operation. The institution, under the direction of Rabbi Michoel and Chana Sora Danow, purchased a building on a corner lot of a main street back in February with the help of a private donor.

“The building is described by many as one of nicest in the area,” said Michoel Danow, who is currently raising funds to finance the move. “It is located on one of the main streets that go around the entire university, an excellent location.”

Back in London, Pesin said that the presence of Chabad of South London Campuses in Wimbledon has unified Jewish students at not only Kingston University, but at the Wimbledon School of Art, Royal Holloway, Surrey College, the S. Georges Medical School and two other schools as well.

“Before, we were just several small groups of Jewish students each at our own school,” explained Pesin, but the Cohens are really building one community here, and it is much more active than the Jewish Student Societies were before.”

Along with the Cohens, Rabbi Yisroel and Devora Lew of Chabad of Bloomsbury, and Rabbi Mendy and Sara Lowenthal of Chabad at Imperial College also work with Jewish students in London.

“At any given time, there are 400,000 people studying in the greater London area,” stated Yisroel Lew, quoting an often repeated statistic, “several thousand of whom are Jewish. Our challenge is reaching out to the many schools in our area: the schools that are organized under the University of London as well as the dozen or so American university centers such as Yale in London and NYU in London.

“We really want to be a place where Jews of different backgrounds feel comfortable not only coming to programs, but just stopping by to study and chat,” added the rabbi, who opened the Bloomsbury center in 2006.

Pesin offered himself as evidence of the approach’s success.

“I will definitely continue to be involved in the Jewish community after I graduate,” he said. “And I didn’t feel this way last year. We’ve gone from zero to having a community and the chance to be very involved.”