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OK in the UK: As College Students Grow, So Do Chabad Services

By , Cambridge University, UK

( University students heading back to school in the United Kingdom will find their Chabad centers on campus expanding in new directions. Opening a daycare, Hebrew schools and mikvahs, Chabad on Campus UK is serving students as their lives take on the complexities of adulthood and family.

For Avi and Elisheva Machlis, raising three children on a campus without an active Jewish community may have been one of the more challenging aspects of Elisheva’s studies at Cambridge University, where she earned her doctorate in Middle East studies.

So when the university’s Chabad Jewish Society decided to broaden its mission and expand its services to include programming for children and families, the Machlis family was especially enthusiastic.

Students pursuing advanced degrees often complete their studies with a child or two in tow.  Addressing the needs of such students and their growing families is now a priority for Chabad on Campus UK.

At Cambridge University, 18,000 students study everything from Greek Theology to agricultural economics to sociolinguistics, but until recently, there was no Hebrew school  catering to the children of students and academics.

“A Chabad representative must be open minded about the direction of his work,” said Rabbi Reuven Leigh, director of Cambridge University Chabad Jewish Society. The Sunday school operated by the Jewish society graduated its first class last year thirty children are enrolled for the upcoming academic year. Additionally, the Society’s new child care service is fully enrolled. Chabad also runs a weekly after-school club, where  students are given the tools to advance their Hebrew reading skills and their knowledge of Jewish studies.

“For our children to have the ability to go once a week to Chabad formed an important part of their Jewish identity during our years in Cambridge,” said Avi Machlis.

This September, in Bristol, a new Hebrew school will cater to 18 local children. Rabbi Dovid and Leah Usiskin arrived in Bristol two years ago to serve the university’s Jewish student body of 300. But the city’s Jewish residents, totaling some 1,000 people, called on the young Chabad couple to address the needs of its more permanent community as well.

The lack of Sunday school options in particular was an issue raised repeatedly by local parents. Although some locals were initially suspicious of the Usiskin’s ulterior motives, the Hebrew school and other educational programs that Chabad has established here in Bristol has given the couple legitimacy in the community.” 

At Cambridge, Rabbi Leigh’s approachability and involvement in Jewish life on campus and beyond landed him a pulpit position. He was asked to lead the Cambridge Jewish Traditional Congregation this year.

“Reuven organizes the events for the holidays, and there is always something interesting going on,” said Ithai Rabinowitz, a post-doctorate neurobiology researcher. “He and Rochel communicate easily with everyone. They are accessible and have a broadminded approach. It helps form and fashion the community. It’s my replacement family.” 

New programs, however, have not detracted from Chabad’s campus presence. Indeed, the couple continues to host Friday night dinners and classes that succeed at drawing crowds. As a result, there is always a steady supply of “relationships to develop” on campus.

Chabad of Cambridge’s next big project is a community mikvah, a vital component of Jewish family life. For now, the closest mikvah is a several-hours-long drive away. At Bristol, Mrs. Usiskin is determined to continue reaching out to Jewish people in the area, whether or not they are affiliated with the university.

“You have to flow with the tide, and go where you are needed.”


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