Preparation for university for most students looks like having to consider what courses they need to take, figuring out where their lecture halls are and meeting new people. However for Jewish students there is an additional component.
My own experience is similar to so many of my peers. I graduated from a Jewish day school, went on a shnat program and returned to begin my degree. Prior to university I never felt any reason to question or be ashamed of my identity. It wasn’t until a few weeks into my classes when I realised this was one of the first times in my life where the people around me didn’t just know why I couldn’t come out on a Friday night, and for most of them I was the first Jew they ever met.
It is at university where our Jewish identity gets placed into our own hands. Outside of our homes, schools and youth movements, we have to make a conscious effort and decide to be Jewish, and what that will look like on a day-to-day basis.
Starting university is a pivotal and exciting time, but for many Jewish students it’s the first time that we find our identity put on trial in spaces where we are meant to feel safe and represented. Across the world, universities are increasingly becoming hostile environments for Jewish students as the political debate on campus focuses more on name-calling, inflammatory language and exclusion than it does on listening, understanding and learning.
However, the story of our people is one of pride. Growing up, I was taught by my family, teachers and madrichim that I am a part of a persecuted people and that my very existence today is the result of my ancestors moving around the world escaping pogroms and discrimination. But it wasn’t until I was faced with the decision of what I wanted my Jewish identity to look like that I learned the importance of being proud of this story.
While sometimes it can be easier to not mention that you are Jewish on campus, our greatest defence against antisemitism is being unapologetically proud of our identity.
Having a strong and proud Jewish presence on campus shows those around us that despite their attempts to tokenise and ostracise us, we will always continue to thrive.
But being proud to be Jewish on campus isn’t just about defending ourselves against hate. It’s also about embracing the richness and diversity of our culture and sharing it with others. We are incredibly privileged to live in a time when we are able to celebrate our culture to an extent that our ancestors were not always able to do. Our story has a long and rich history, and choosing to opt in to that when you step foot on campus is one of the most important things Jewish youth can do.
For 75 years the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) has been supporting Jewish students around Australia and New Zealand along this journey.
We are an organisation which throughout our time has ensured there is always a proud Jewish presence on campus. We have made sure that during every step of your university journey you never need to put your Jewish identity to the side.
It is important to say that the issues Jewish students face are the exact same issues faced by all students; fees, cost of living, problems with their courses, exams etc. However, Jewish students like every other minority face specific issues as well.
Some of these challenges are due to the unique experience of the Jewish community. While others are partly due to the rise in global antisemitism. Whether it’s helping you find kosher food on campus or connecting you with events to gain professional skills, AUJS is equipped to support you.
Being a proud Jew on campus can look different for everyone. For some students, they are looking for a sense of community and belonging in a new environment. Whereas for others, they just need hands on support with the challenges they face at university.
Showing your Jewish pride on campus can look like attending one of our kosher barbecues or our “beers and bagels” events. It can look like taking advantage of all the social opportunities and building a community with Jewish students from across the country.
For others, they want to gain the skills needed to advocate for the Jewish community. For 25 years AUJS has run the Political Training Seminar (PTS) where we send 50 Jewish students to Canberra to spend three days meeting with the country’s top leaders and decision makers. Participants come back with a new-found understanding of how to advocate for our community and how we as Jewish youth can shape the conversations around us.
Being Jewish should never become a hindrance to your academic or personal pursuits, and for 75 years we have worked with Jewish students across the country to ensure they don’t have to sit exams on Shabbat or miss class because of chaggim.
If I could only hand over one piece of advice for first year university students it would be to opt in to being proud to be Jewish on campus. No matter what you are interested in, or how you express your Jewish identity, AUJS is here to support you along your journey.
Alissa Foster is the president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students. Sign up as an AUJS member for 2023 here: aujs.com.au/become-a-member