student networks

JGSI + Hillel: A Game-Changer for Grads

As a former Hillel professional and a recent graduate student, I read Jenna Ferman’s article “The Case for more Hillel graduate networks and professionals” with great interest and felt this a perfect opportunity to respectfully share my own perspective. 

For three years I worked at Hillel International: first as the Bronfman Fellow in the CEO’s Office under Eric Fingerhut, then for general counsel Tracy Turoff, and subsequently for current CEO Adam Lehman. After that deeply rewarding experience I moved on to Georgetown Law Center, where I served as co-president of the Jewish Law Student Association (JLSA) and graduated last June. So I believe I have a decent sense of the Jewish graduate student population and the Jewish campus landscape overall.

As Ferman correctly points out, graduate students are all too often a forgotten demographic within large established Jewish organizations, at times even Hillel. But fortunately for those students, there is one Jewish organization that has made this population its sole priority: the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI).

If you haven’t yet heard of JGSI, it’s probably because it’s an upstart out of Los Angeles that only really broke onto the national scene a few years ago. But you should–and will–hear of it. In less than a decade it has built a network on 87 graduate campuses across North America and engages over 6,000 students per year.

I was one of them.

So, I’d like to share more about my personal experience with JGSI and my conviction that more Hillels and graduate students should be aware of this incredible resource.

When I was involved in Georgetown JLSA, JGSI’s partnership was instrumental to our success. The strategic guidance and support that JGSI provided to our organization allowed us to be more active and reach hundreds more Jewish students than ever before. JGSI helped create a network of graduate campuses throughout the greater DC area, connecting law students, medical students, business students and alumni from all walks of life. I remember attending JGSI’s debut DC networking mixer in Fall 2018 and seeing a line that stretched around the block, because the organization brilliantly tapped into a hunger for personal and professional connections previously not met for Jewish graduate students.

But what really impresses me as a former Jewish communal professional is how JGSI staff members and educators are able to build meaningful relationships with students who rarely or never show up to Jewish events. The kind who, unfortunately, had never managed to be part of Jewish life during their high school or college years. By focusing exclusively on the needs and interests of grad students who are typically at least five years older than undergrads, JGSI has developed a niche expertise that allows them to reach even the most disengaged Jewish graduate students and give them a second shot at Jewish involvement.

My own personal relationship with JGSI has been incredibly enriching both professionally and personally. One example: At a JGSI networking event early on in law school, I met an attorney who just so happened to be a partner at the firm I would later join as a summer associate. After connecting over our shared involvement in JGSI, I learned that she was on the hiring committee! Today, she has become a good friend and a dear mentor.

And thanks to JGSI’s innovative educational programs, I have attended a Jewish learning class every week since March 2020 (which has not happened regularly for me since Hebrew School!). I know I speak for myself, and for countless graduate students and alumni across the country, when I say that the deep, lasting relationships I’ve formed with JGSI’s talented campus professionals have been so helpful in maintaining a strong Jewish identity during a very isolating global pandemic. One of the best parts of being involved in these classes too is that I’ve made friends with graduate students and alumni from across the country who I look forward to seeing virtually every week and from whom I learn so much.

Grad students need their own unique entry point into Jewish community. As mature adults on the cusp of career, they are contemplating the role that Judaism and Jewish identity will play during the rest of their lives. JGSI has helped me and thousands of others answer that question positively.

I urge all Hillel professionals–and anyone else who cares about Jewish graduate students–to seek out JGSI’s services. They have so much to offer, are amazing at what they do, and have the expertise and national presence to engage thousands more. JGSI and Hillel already have partnerships at several key universities and it is my fervent hope that these two wonderful organizations find even more ways to collaborate on campus together. Combining their resources and talent will be a complete game-changer for this underserved population.