Q & A With University Jewish Chaplaincy Chief Operating Officer Sophie Dunoff

How do you feel your role at the Board of Deputies will set you up for your new position?

I feel very lucky to have worked at the Board of Deputies during a period of renewed energy under the direction of its current leadership and as part of its professional public affairs team. Putting the Board back at the heart of parliamentary and ministerial engagement on behalf of the Jewish community was an exhilarating and satisfying experience, one which also gave me a greater insight into the day to day concerns of Jews from across the UK. Drawing on my experiences of challenges and opportunities faced by Jews on a local level will stand me in good stead at University Jewish Chaplaincy, where we aim to be the first port of call for students in need of pastoral support. The structure of Chaplaincy and its national reach is not dissimilar to that of the Board - with more than 50 dedicated members of our own local Boards and our incredible network of chaplains present on more than 100 campuses throughout the country. At the end of the day, both organisations have a common goal: Jewish continuity through enabling a vibrant and secure Jewish experience in the UK, and on campuses respectively.

What is the most exciting project that the Chaplaincy are working on at the moment?

Over the past 18 months we have launched three new projects which we are particularly proud of: we have set up a schools programme through Chaplaincy Ambassador Rabbi Jonathan Hughes. He speaks to 500  pupils a year at non-Jewish schools about the opportunities available on campus – the idea came about because we felt that it was vital we shared our expertise with pupils.

We have also successfully launched an appeal to fund a Chaplaincy couple in the Bristol and Western region: the JSoc felt it was vital to have a couple in order to assist growing numbers of Jewish students in the region, so we listened and acted upon it: the whole process was collaborative, from selecting the suitable couple – Rabbi Avi and Laurie Rosten – to working with the local JSoc to ensure that the couple provide support that is relevant to students’ needs. This has included successful educational projects, particularly around social action; regular home hospitality; personal mentoring and official representation to faculty.

Finally, also in response to student demand, we successfully led an appeal – together with students and the UJS – to hold weekly Friday night dinners in central London. London hosts an incredibly diverse student community, and we recognised that a hub in the centre was vital – so that students of all levels of observance have the option to enjoy a Friday night together. So far over 700 students have attended such dinners.

What are the biggest challenges currently facing the University Jewish Chaplaincy?

The biggest challenge we face can be summed up in one word: demand. It is both challenging and yet reassuring that our chaplains and Chaplaincy couples are called upon by thousands of students every year. Ideally, we would like to have fulltime couples in every region, however we allocate resources according to the greatest areas of need as much as our budget will allow. We are constantly seeking out growing regions, Bristol and Western being a recent example. This does not mean that we will neglect campuses with smaller numbers of Jewish students, such as Lancaster and Bradford: we are all about enabling every Jewish student to experience the rhythms of Jewish life – whether that’s assisting them with religious guidance or inviting them to spend a Friday night dinner with a Chaplaincy couple.

With such a heavy workload, another challenge is ensuring that we arm our chaplains and Chaplaincy couples with the support that they need in order to achieve the maximum in their roles; either by training, through residential weekends or one-to-one sessions with key community welfare providers. This ensures that our Chaplaincy couples are able to deal with the myriad of situations they will be faced with on campus.

What motivates you to be involved in a Jewish Communal organisation?

I have always been involved in communal activities whether as a madricha performing youth work or volunteering in my local community. Working at Chaplaincy, however, is a particular honour as the impact of our efforts are so far reaching – and the challenges so varied. I want to positively shape the futures of our students and in turn ensure that we are growing, empowering and supporting them - ready to leave university and go on to be productive participants in UK Jewish life. Students have a lot of different opportunities on campus - to develop both academically and socially. Chaplains are there to support them in whatever ways students are comfortable with: be it intellectually, with personal challenges, and helping them connect with their Judaism. I hope to play a role in the evolving nature and success of our work.

What do you hope to get from being a member of the JLC?

The JLC has a key role to play in providing leadership training, resources and forums for discussion for its member organisations. The JLC’s commitment to coordinate activities which help to deepen affiliation with Jewish life fits well with Chaplaincy’s own mission statement, and I look forward to exploring this avenue of co-operation in particular.