student networks

The case for more Hillel graduate networks and professionals

[This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS, Student Voices: Perspectives on Critical Issues in Jewish Education.]

There are more than 550 Hillels serving undergraduate students at colleges and universities across North America. Despite this volume, the number of Jewish graduate students engaged by those Hillels is small. The number of full-time graduate engagement professionals is even smaller — although they are scarce, graduate student networks do exist. This slowly growing sector of the Hillel world is engaging a whole new community of young adults who are eager to actively participate in Jewish life. Though there are not graduate students on every campus of undergraduates, there are many graduate students on undergraduate campuses with Hillels that often lack programming and services for grad students. I have seen first-hand the demand for this work whilst doing my practicum placement with The Grad Network: Powered by Columbia/Barnard Hillel. It is essential that the number of Hillel graduate networks and professionals continues to grow in order to reach this underserved but crucial demographic.

Data show that graduate students have high rates of depression and anxiety. Poor mental health is widely accepted as a fact of life in graduate education. Graduate networks can, and do, work to change that by providing robust Jewish life opportunities, community, networking, and so much added value at a level where there is no institutional hand-holding. Unlike undergraduates, who have hundreds of student clubs from which to choose and myriad ways to get involved on campus, graduate students have limited opportunities and resources. A campus graduate network and professional can provide a nurturing outlet to assuage the sense of loneliness and sadness many experience. Moreover, through the pandemic when schooling is primarily online, opportunities for socialization and connection are even further limited. This circumstance only increases the likelihood of graduate students experiencing depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Hillel graduate networks in Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, Boston, and others are adapting to provide desperately needed community by hosting virtual gatherings, sending care packages, and even conducting Zoom coffee dates.

The measurable impact that graduate Hillel engagement can make is only beginning to be discovered; five years ago, Hillel graduate networks did not exist. The impact these networks can have on students is undeniable. On one Zoom ‘coffee date’ with a graduate student, she told me about the absolute necessity of The Grad Network, sharing: “There is an assumption that as a graduate student or professional you don’t need this infrastructure — that you have it together and know how and where to find Jewish life — but that’s not true for most people. The Grad Network has been my home away from home in graduate school.” Past and current participants alike have described the Grad Network within the Columbia/Barnard Hillel community as “warm,” “thoughtful,” “supportive,” and “an essential part of the graduate school experience as a Jewish student.”

Though people enter graduate school at different stages in their lives, the typical 20s and 30s timeline is no less critical a stage in a young adult’s Jewish development than their undergraduate years. It is an equally significant opportunity to foster lifelong Jewish connections and practices. While there are certainly opportunities for 20s and 30s to participate in Jewish life in most communities and cities, graduate students often do not seek them out. One involved Grad Network participant shared with me, “while Jewish community was very important to me throughout my life, I was so busy as a graduate student that I let my Jewish observance go by the wayside. Finding The Grad Network made it so much easier for me to live Jewishly.” He described how wonderful it was for the Grad Network “to host events to mark holidays and provide all the materials I needed so I didn’t even need to think about it.” For him and many others, Hillel graduate networks make connecting with one’s Jewish identity and the Jewish calendar a possibility when it otherwise would not be.

Hillel graduate networks provide so much more than funding for programs, which already exist amongst some other Jewish graduate initiatives. The unique aspect of any Hillel graduate network is the staff member, a trained experiential Jewish educator dedicated to building relationships with each Jewish graduate student. Those mutual relationships are what create the engagement, the innovative programs, and the warm community so desperately needed. It is that person — the campus Hillel professional — who makes the magic happen.

The limited number of Hillel graduate professionals serve a deep need for a demographic during formative years that otherwise have few resources for Jewish life, with the necessary infrastructure already in place to serve them. With a greater number of graduate professionals and graduate networks dedicated specifically to engaging Jewish graduate students, Hillel would more fully accomplish its mission of enriching the lives of Jewish students so they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. 

Jenna Ferman is pursuing a master’s in Jewish Education at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. She is working with The Grad Network at Columbia/Barnard Hillel for her practicum placement. She previously served as the director of Jewish Engagement at the Brody Jewish Center (Hillel at UVA).