The University of Cape Town will soon see South Africa’s first Campus Centre for Jewish Student Life open its doors to the Jewish student community.
Rabbi Nissen and Ariella Goldman are on a mission to create a ‘Jewish home away from home’ for university students in Cape Town and are committed to making this exciting project a reality.
The young Rabbi Goldman has been serving as Chaplain for the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre at UCT since last year. He was responsible for the general welfare of Jewish student life at UCT. The Kaplan Centre has been an outstanding resource for students at UCT for many years. It provides freshly prepared Kosher food which is acknowledged as being both tasty and affordable. They offer the services of a chaplaincy and a Jewish studies Library too. He adds that “although it is essentially an academic institution the Kaplan Centre has very generously funded many programmes for the students. We’ve had high holiday student services, Friday night and Yom Tov student dinners, weekly Lunch n’ Learn Torah classes and several socials.” Why then the need for another centre? “At the end of the day,” says Nissen, “students want to have a space they can call their own. We needed an actual home that the students can feel is theirs and a space to host all of these programmes and more. At the end of the day every community needs a home.”
The new Centre will be an affiliate of the Chabad on Campus international network which currently has 230 centres, all locally funded on university campuses worldwide with 19 new centres to be opened this coming semester. However, Goldman is emphatic that the centre will be open and welcoming to all Jews regardless of affiliation or level of observance. Quoting the revered leader of Chabad, the Rebbe of righteous memory, he says “Labels are for clothing, not for Jews. The Jewish people are one nation with one Torah and one G-d. Nothing can divide us. Rabbi Mendel Popack, Director of Chabad in Cape Town, is bringing the young couple as the Chabad ‘Shluchim’- emissaries to Rondebosch where the Centre will be located. It will be easy walking distance to UCT campuses and student residences.
Although the Goldmans promise that Chabad on Campus will serve all Jewish students at local universities, Nissen says operating out of UCT makes the most sense. “It has the highest Jewish population by far. The area is up and coming and totally student central. There are also other colleges in the area which works out great for everybody.”
The Centre which will also serve as the Goldman’s home will host Shabbat and Yom Tov meals free of charge for the students as well as Shul services for Shabbat and Festivals. There will be weekly classes in Judaism with different Torah topics and a variety of different social and cultural events.As a passionate musician Nissen also sees the centre hosting many musical events, ideally showcasing Jewish student talent for the larger community to enjoy. Responding to the frequently asked question as to how many Jewish students there actually are at UCT, Nissen opines that without official statistics it is only a ‘guesstimate.’ But he calculates that there are 700-1000 Jewish student currently enrolled at UCT. He estimates that the majority are Herzlians with lesser but still significant numbers coming from non-Herzlia graduates and students from other provinces as well as overseas students who can account for as much as 18% of the UCT student population.
Still in their 20’s, Nissen and Ariella are old enough to share life experiences with the students, but young enough to relate to them. Nissen grew up in Johannesburg where his father is the spiritual leader of the well-known Sydenham Shul. Ariella is an ex-Herzlian and Cape Town local who understands the communal and social scene very well and is able to network with a wide variety of young Capetonians. Nissen feels that the new centre could actually attract more Jewish students to UCT. Having a ‘Jewish home away from home’ could appeal to more committed young Jews both nationally and internationally. They would feel confident that they could still have a vibrant connection to Jewish life even though they were far away from their home base. “That’s the goal, that’s what we’re here for. Nobody should have to compromise their Jewishness for a good education.”