A New Chabad Centre for Oxford Students

by Rivka Chaya Berman - OXFORD, ENGLAND

February 14, 2006

Amit Pundik began lugging a satchel of books and paper around Oxford University four months ago when he arrived to study law. Excelling in an environment populated by a select group of scholastically driven students and some of the world’s finest minds as faculty, where final exam crunch time arrives every few weeks requires discipline. But when Pundik wants to set his heavy load down and unwind he heads for the brand new, half-million dollar Rohr Jewish Student Centre.

Funded by a grant from the Rohr Family Foundation, the Centre is a Jewish oasis in Oxford where many of the 39 colleges have names like Christ Church College, Corpus Christi College and Jesus College. “To have a Jewish place, to feel there is a place in Oxford where being Jewish is not an anomaly is very important for students psychologically,” said Rabbi Eli Brackman. Located along Cowley Road in the heart of Oxford’s all-nighter restaurants, pubs and trendy shops, the Centre’s “location is important so people can just drop in.” The new Centre is also near Chabad of Oxford’s Jewish Student House, which offers kosher dorming facilities.

Student input tweaked the design of the Jewish Student Centre, and the space bears telltale marks of their priorities. Some are pan-collegiate like the wireless Internet network, comfy but modernist couches, and the 42-inch “pub style” flat-screen TV. Browsing the library in the Centre bespeaks volumes of the student mindset. Tomes on Zionist history, Jewish literature, Holocaust history line the shelves of the Jules and Ariella Samson Library because they were on the must-read list of the student led planning committee. So are heavy-duty learning tools like complete sets of translated Talmud and Mishna.

Given the workload shouldered by the students, Chabad of Oxford representative Rabbi Brackman expects the Centre to find its greatest utilization when formal programs and events are offered, which is why Alan Dershowitz will be popping in for an inaugural lecture at the Centre on March 7. His appearance will be the splashy open for the Centre and introduce it to the wider Oxford public. But calling in stateside speakers is not something Chabad of Oxford resorts to often; there’s no need with world-class thinkers like mathematical physicist Roger Penrose close enough to bicycle over for a lecture.

Catering to Oxford’s ‘invitation only’ culture while having an open door policy requires a careful balance. On the one hand, Chabad of Oxford and Shabbat dinners are open to everyone on campus as are Oxford Chabad Society lectures that are routinely filled to capacity. But events such as the Dershowitz lecture are by invitation only.

The Centre is already seeing much use. Munich terror survivor, former Olympian Dan Alon presented the first lecture at the Centre detailing his harrowing dramatic survival, the part of the story skipped in Spielberg’s Munich flick. With the new space, Rabbi Eli and Friedy Brackman can accommodate 70 students for Friday night dinner. Before the Centre opened, Chabad of Oxford events were held in the Brackmans’ front room where at most 50 students could squeeze in. A separate space exclusively for student use “makes a huge difference. When students come into the Centre, they are not coming into a house. It belongs to them. They don’t feel like they are intruding,” Rabbi Brackman said.

Yet part of Chabad of Oxford’s success is precisely because students felt warmly welcomed in the Brackman’s home. Because the Centre is located next door to the Brackman residence, the opportunities to be a home away from home at Chabad are still an option. This means the Brackman’s children can remain university celebs and harried students can still sneak bites of Freidy’s home-baked challah.

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