Liberate yourself: Reflections on the UJS Liberation Conference

As a global Jewish community, we love to speak about and celebrate our diversity. We love to champion the variety of Jewish customs, traditions, food and experience. The creation of EUJS as an umbrella organisation through which we can each take part in this is only further proof of how much we love to interact with multiple Jewish identities. One of our big problems, however, is that we’re not always as keen on championing the individuals and groups within our community who are bringing the diversity. 

To challenge this, UJS launched its first ever Liberation Conference in February which saw students from across the country come to London to discuss issues affecting women, disabled, LGBTQI and mentally ill Jewish students. 

The Liberation Conference focussed on creating new and unprecedented spaces for enthusiastic conversation in the British Jewish community around these marginal Jewish identities. Beginning with a panel of current and recent students giving their testimony of being involved in Jewish student life as a woman, disabled, LGBTQI or when suffering from mental ill health, the Conference’s first aim was to make these students’ voices heard by their peers. This created a great foundation to then allow participants to move into breakout discussions facilitated by leading activists and professionals from Jewish organisations.

Throughout the rest of the day, activists and educators from both within and outside the Jewish community came to speak at the Liberation Conference. Sessions included a mini-version of the Misogynist Film Club, which discussed how prejudice and stereotypes of Jewish women are utilised in popular films, and a conversation with activists from the National Union of Students’ LGBT campaign to talk about how to push for social change within the student movement more widely. The current UJS President Hannah Brady, who has a severe hearing impairment, gave a session on perceptions of disability in the UK and how to make Jewish student life more accessible to those with disabilities on campus. The Conference also welcomed the Time to Change mental health charity, which introduced attendees to issues surrounding mental health in faith communities. 

Our final session saw the Conference participants meet with Benjamin Cohen, a campaigner for LGBTQI and disabled rights, and founder of the highly successful Pink News. It’s incredibly important for the Jewish communities to have varied leaders, and for young people to see those with minority identities lead powerfully and successfully. 

UJS also took the opportunity to launch its student-led mental health campaign Reclaim at the Liberation Conference, which saw many students engage with student testimonies of mental ill-health through articles, vlogs and campus events, including one with former UJS activist and current Member of Parliament, Luciana Berger, who is currently serving on the British shadow cabinet as the first ever Shadow Minister for Mental Health. 

It is through events and campaigns such as the Liberation Conference and Reclaim that we can begin to have an impact on how inclusive Jewish communities and societies are for future generations. Even though UJS first hired an openly gay fieldworker fifteen years ago, the Liberation Conference was a huge step forward in ensuring that UJS creates a more welcoming and rewarding environment to Jewish students of all identities, disabilities, genders and sexualities. We hope this is the start of truly exciting progress in the UK Jewish community to make our community more inclusive!

Hannah Brady (Outgoing UJS President)