Jay Stoll is the General Secretary of the LSE Student’s Union. Here he discusses why taking part in LSESU Jewish Society’s first Shabbat meal was so important to him…
LSE’s wonderful new Faith Centre hosted its first Shabbat meal last Friday night. I am acutely conscious of addressing an audience beyond North West London, so I want to start with a suitable-for-Wikipedia explanation of Shabbat, before I explain why this is a seminal moment for Jewish students at LSE.
“Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated every week from sundown on Friday to nightfall of Saturday. In Hebrew, Shabbat means “resting.” As recounted in Genesis, God created the world in six days and on the seventh refrained from creating. The observance of Shabbat by the Jewish nation is mandated in the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Jews sanctify the Shabbat and “rest” on this special day—defined by abstention from 39 forms of creative activity.”
In reality, what Shabbat means to our pluralist Jewish community at LSE is much harder to pin down. For some, it is exactly the above – a time of great spirituality, a break from the materialism devouring 21st century life and a retreat into our thoughts, our communities and our religious practice. All electronic devices turned off, all working commitments postponed and a complete immersion in spiritual indulgence. Hours of prayer/communal singing in the Synagogue, plenty of lessons from the Torah told, and a general celebration of resting in the name of God (a weekend lie-in, a cynic might say).
On the other side of the Jewish religious spectrum, it is less to do with Torah statutes and intrinsically secular in its practicalities. For example, many Jewish students at LSE will make the effort to commit to a simple phone call home to the parents/wider family on a Friday afternoon. By doing this, they might well be fulfilling to a Torah Commandment to ‘honour thy mother and father’, but also reaffirming a commitment to an ethos that whilst prevalent in Judaism, one which is certainly not faith-dependent.
Some people, like myself, sit somewhere in between. Whilst I cannot bear to turn off my mobile phone, nor can I avoid how Manchester United are doing on a Saturday afternoon, though these days I wish I did, I love nothing more than the synagogue services on the Friday night and Saturday morning. Whilst many of the ’39 do nots’ on Shabbat baffle me (pretty sure an iPad is something Moses, the first tablet author, would approve of), being surrounded by my nearest and dearest is an extremely cherished time of the week.
The Friday night meal, for me, is the centrepiece of Shabbat. Denominations and procedural differences aside, the vast majority of Jews will hold one. At risk of sounding sycophantic, this is because the meal symbolises far more than appearances suggest. One should look past conversations on current affairs and the Jewish parents repeatedly asking why their children “haven’t eaten anything” after the 15th course of the meal, to see the enactment of millennia old traditions, the Jewish veneration of memory, the continued defiance of our people to survive and celebrate against the odds of history.
LSE hosting a Friday night dinner is a crucial moment in its relationship with the wider Jewish community. Only 18 months ago, after some particularly egregious campus incidents, an old teacher at my secondary school asked me “should we still aspire to send our students to LSE?” Despite my difficulties convincing some back then, today the answer is a resounding “YES!”
Led by some extraordinary student volunteers, particularly Co-Presidents Dan Osrin and Jess Miron, supported by the University’s Chaplain and its Annual Fund, the LSESU Jewish Society has progressed from an era of insularity and reactive stances, to proactively celebrating our distinct role to play in life at LSE. Have a look at the pictures from last Friday night, with participants from around the world , both Jewish and non-Jewish, stuffing their faces, and try to absorb yet another example of LSE’s diverse student body coming together as one community.