The idea of studying and living in a foreign town or city is incredibly exciting. The search for foreign and familiar experiences is constant, even as an Antwerp native studying at Maastricht University.
Soon after I arrived in the city, I was wondering what the Jewish student community was like. Yet, I had no idea where to begin as nothing could be found online nor at listings of campus organizations. I was lost and quite frankly had easier times finding Jewish student communities in small cities on another continent than in the student city of Maastricht. Noticing that I was the first Jewish person many people had met at Uni, I had started giving up on finding an organized community.
Then, three years ago on Halloween night, I stumbled upon a girl with three of my friends across a coffee shop. Nearly immediately at the beginning of the conversation, we both discovered our Jewish heritage and I was immediately added to a Whatsapp group entitled ‘’Jewish Students Maastricht’’ with more than 90 members.
I was very excited yet still dumbfounded by the steps it required me to find out about a Jewish community. This felt incredibly odd and akin to a secret network that I suddenly was upgraded to. It is stunning to realize that individuals who rely on community as part of our culture, are gathered into an online chatroom that one has to be added to as a result of a random encounter.
Evidently, this made me think of what events and meeting opportunities are being established and if there are active board members that organize our interactions. Turns out that, besides Shabbat dinners at the Rabbi’s and the occasional celebration invitation at a former student’s flat, there are no real opportunities to connect with the community. We remain digital and we remain a statistic, with people in the group ranging from freshman students to Jewish professors.
Wanting to replicate other communities, I wanted to help create a structure for Jewish students to remain close to their identity.
But how is that accomplished?
Then comes the next step, organizing. Yet, I was immediately phased with questions; what is there to organize? Does the community prioritize celebrating holidays together or activism and representation at university? Are there more dutchies than internationals?
I consider activism and inclusion in society elements that are dear to my heart. But I understood that a solid community feeling must first be established. And yes, with students, that requires parties and a range of strong liquor.
Fortunately, slowly but surely, a couple of dedicated students and myself decided to create more opportunities to simply meet and have fun as Jewish students. It seemed that this was the priority for the group’s participants. Rosh Hashana, Hanukkah and Purim celebrations were all great successes.
To further help establish a community, it is important to help create ties in other regions and within the University associations. Yet simultaneously, no issues of conflicting Jewish organizations and interests should be permitted to split communities in half. This occurs too often.
Once a strong and connected small community develops, the issues of accessibility should be addressed so that Jewish students do not feel lost once first arrive on Campus.
Interestingly, more than 50% of Maastricht University’s are internationals and are looking for associations to which they can belong and feel at home at. It should be prioritized to make the Jewish presence heard as to avoid the individual from putting aside core aspects of culture and identity.
Lastly, Jewish presence must be felt inside the University systems as well. Therefore, I urge all to reach out to the local Diversity & Inclusivity Office to aid in creating a home for Jewish students on campus. Declaring Jewish holidays as days off, celebrating holidays and reporting hate crimes are all tasks of the University. Yet, students absolutely need to identify themselves and approach these existing systems.
If we do not identify as ourselves and defend ourselves, who will?
I truly believe that creating young Jewish student communities has to be prioritized and contribute to the next step of Jewish education and introductions to the wonders of Judaism as adults. Therefore, let us ensure that we have the tools to establish them!