Rabbi honoured for diversity at university with seven world faiths

Image credit: Alex Goldberg

By Lianne Kolirin

A rabbi has been honoured for his work promoting diversity in a university that has 15 chaplains and 22 religious life and belief workers from seven world faiths.

Alex Goldberg, 46, dean of religious life and belief at Surrey University, has received the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in recognition of his work as dean and also co-ordinating chaplain at the university. He is the only rabbi in Europe to hold such a role.

Rabbi Goldberg, who was ordained several years after first joining the university as a lay chaplain, told the Religion Media Centre: “I was a bit shocked — it’s the first time a chaplain has ever got that award and I think that’s a reflection of our growing chaplaincy team.

“I think our team is one of the most diverse teams in the university in terms of ethnicity and age and we are also much more gender-balanced than we were two years ago.”

The chaplaincy has undergone some changes since he took on the role two years ago, with an overriding aim being to operate an “open-door policy”. Some of these changes have been accelerated by the pandemic.

It has run 18 programmes online each week since the coronavirus crisis began, with each one attended by about 1,000 of the university’s 19,000 students and staff. Together they have marked a host of celebrations online and off, ensuring every faith, belief and way of life is catered for.

Over Ramadan the team organised a “grab-and-go iftar” which saw those fasting forming socially distanced queues every evening to collect their takeaway boxes of catered food. Over Christmas, Rabbi Goldberg organised for 500 Christmas lunches to be laid on for those stranded on campus during the festive season.

“We are trying to make this place still feel like a community,” he said. “It was very kind of the university to give me this award but if we didn’t have a fantastic team who weren’t committed to working together and serving the community there would be no award. It’s the commitment of our growing team which is so strong.”

The chaplaincy, based at the Centre for Religious Life and Belief on the campus at Guildford, “offers the provision of worship and spiritual practices, one-to-one pastoral care and the promotion of dialogue and peaceful co-existence between people of different faiths and beliefs”.

While a huge proportion of students in Britain are now studying online, a significant proportion remain on campus. Some courses are largely practical and impossible to undertake online, but others remain on campus to protect vulnerable families at home.

“Isolation is one of the hardest issues some of the students face,” said Rabbi Goldberg. “We had one student here who went 100 days on her own in isolation. It’s about picking up on these things and supporting students who are facing difficulties by just being a listening ear.

“Chaplains are there to direct people to the right places to help get through the crisis intact. It’s a hard time for everybody out there. There are so many students who are having a very difficult experience when this should be the time of their lives.”

Before he became dean in April 2019, Goldberg was the Jewish chaplain for the university on a part-time basis — while also holding down many other roles. A quick glance at his slick personal website reveals he is also a barrister, a human rights activist, a regular on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought, chairman of the English Football Association’s Faith Network and founder of the human rights group René Cassin.

Laura Smythson, the university’s head of wellbeing and welfare, said: “Alex has transformed the chaplaincy into a lively, innovative, inclusive and fresh-faced chaplaincy that has captured the attention of staff and students as well as national and international faith boards and conferences. He has shown that pulling together people of many faiths and backgrounds is possible and can successfully work towards a common goal: to champion diversity and equality.”