The time has come to build a national community for Jewish graduate students.
By Rabbi Matthew J. Rosenberg, JD
When I told people that I was leaving my corporate law firm to help build the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI), I got lots of thoughtful responses:
“Another Jewish organization?” “Grad students? Really?!” “Doesn’t someone already do that?” “Why not just send them to [X] undergrad organization?” “Why not just send them to [Y] young professionals’ organization??”
The mindset reflected by these comments is based upon a paradigm of the Jewish engagement lifecycle which hasn’t changed much since the 1960s: Jewish child is born. Parents send child to Hebrew school, Bnai Mitzvah lessons, summer camp. Kid grows up, college, marriage, synagogue dues, Federation membership. Repeat.
But with Jewish identity and affiliation among Millennials at an all-time low, it’s time to rethink the formula. Is it possible that the presumptive trajectory no longer aligns with the actual life experience of young Jews?
In 1960, the average age of Americans at their first marriage was 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men. By 2017, that had increased to 27.4 and 29.5, respectively. So by and large, the quick succession from college to marriage (and by extension, to participation in the family-centric Jewish communal structure) no longer happens. Young Jews are headed somewhere else after college besides the chuppah. And more and more frequently, the destination is graduate school.
In 1960, only 8% of Americans had any college degree. By the 2010s, that percentage had quadrupled. Today, an even greater proportion of people earn a postgraduate degree than had earned a college diploma in 1960. And of today’s university students, over three-fourths intend to pursue an advanced degree. The simple truth is, for so many individuals and industries in today’s economic landscape, the master’s (or higher) is the new bachelor’s.
According to the 2016 CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, there are approximately 1.8 million master’s and doctoral students in the United States. Adding law and medical students brings the total over 2 million. The number of applicants to medical school has increased by 50% since 2002, and the number of LSAT administrations increased by 18.1% this past year alone. And, over 6 out of 10 domestic grad school applicants are women.
Assuming that Jews comprise 2.2% of the U.S. adult population, a conservative estimate of the number of Jewish graduate students in the United States would be around 44,000. However, given Jews’ well-known predisposition toward higher education, the true number is likely far larger.
These Jewish graduate students, bright and ambitious, have largely been forgotten by their community. Having both attended law school and served an adjunct law professor myself, I’ve witnessed first-hand just how much unrealized potential there is for consistent Jewish engagement among these students.
In our experience, the top Law and MBA programs in the country have student bodies that are often upwards of 20-30% Jewish. These are our future Supreme Court justices, Fortune 100 CEOs, innovators, disruptors, and philanthropists. One of them could wind up being our first Jewish U.S. President. And somehow, when it comes to maintaining their Jewish existence on campus, they are pretty much expected to fend for themselves.
I spoke recently with Jewish student leaders at an elite graduate program with an estimated Jewish population of 400-600. Astoundingly, they receive zero funding from the university or any Jewish organizations, and simply have no budget to host Jewish programs for their classmates.
JGSI was founded nearly eight years ago out of this necessity, after coming to the surprising realization that an organization solely dedicated to supporting the forgotten demographic of Jewish graduate students simply did not exist.
To be sure, undergraduate Jewish organizations do a wonderful job creating welcoming Jewish communities on campus. Some even run programs for grad students. We ourselves proudly partner with several Hillels around the country. But there are several important reasons why Jewish graduate students deserve a national organization all their own:
First, many graduate programs are standalone institutions that don’t host a Hillel or any other campus organization onsite. Even when affiliated with an undergraduate college, they are often located in different campuses, neighborhoods, or even cities.
Then there’s the age issue. Applicants to law school are on average 26-27 years old. For MBAs, the average age is 28, with 4+ years of prior work experience. And the average age of graduate students overall is 33! Yes, grads are “students,” but they are also mature, sophisticated adults. Can we really expect to successfully lump them together with teenaged undergrads as much as 10-15 years younger? Many graduate students express to us that they never venture into Jewish campus life for this reason alone.
Most importantly, graduate students share unique interests, calendars, lifestyles, and aspirations. They’re not just another amorphous cluster of “young professionals” to be consigned to a third-party organization’s young ambassadors’ division. They already live and breathe in their own campus communities, and deserve their own accessible Jewish organization – on their terms, on their turf.
We’re not surprised, therefore, by our organization’s rapid expansion. Starting with just 15 students in Los Angeles, we currently reach over 3,000 unique students at 45+ campuses nationwide, with 66% annual growth. Our programs empower student leaders and dovetail with their grad school experience and professional goals. And our intensive, personalized follow-up has helped transition many of our alumni into leadership roles throughout our community.
Notably, according to our 2017 survey by University of Chicago, nearly 50% of these alumni never participated in anything else Jewish prior to graduate school – not even Birthright. To our gratification, over 99% of these same alumni reported that involvement in JGSI maintained or increased their Jewish identity during grad school.
So why are they coming to us? Because grad school is the time to grapple with life’s big questions – career, family, community – and ask: What does being Jewish mean to me? Will I raise my children Jewish? Does any of this matter?
Graduate school is, in many ways, where the buck stops for Jewish programming for young people. It’s our last opportunity to find a (somewhat) captive audience of Jews and give them some lasting connection to their heritage before they scatter to disembark toward the rest of their lives.
Let’s ditch the playbook of engagement penned in the 1960s, embrace the facts on the ground, and finally start paying attention to this forgotten demographic. It’s time to give Jewish grad students a chance at their own community. No less than the future of Jewish leadership depends on it.
Matt Rosenberg is a rabbi, attorney, and Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative. He lives in Los Angeles.