The social network



May 15, 2017

When Nuriya Neumann moved cross country to Philadelphia from California for graduate school two years ago, she knew only one person in the City of Brotherly Love – her partner. The now second year occupational therapy student at Jefferson Medical College was not sure she would find the Jewish community she was hoping for.

Her hopes were buoyed after a coffee date with Alicia Broudy, programming director for the Jewish Graduate Student Network (GSN), a program of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. Broudy got to know Neumann’s interests in the LGBTQ community and Jewish life, and immediately connected her with Spectrum Philly, a group for Jewish LGBTQ young professionals. Neumann is now a member of the GSN’s city-wide Student Program Board, as well as co-president of the Jefferson Jewish Student Association.

“Arriving to a new city without support or friends or resources can be really intimidating,” recalled Neumann. “The grad network supports us in finding community and the activities we’re interested in.”

From programs like “Shabbat in Scrubs” for medical students to Passover seders, the GSN serves the more than 5,000 Jewish graduate students across Philadelphia.

Jewish dental students volunteer at the Graduate Student Network’s “Cook for a Friend” event last fall.

“Grad students are very underserved in the Jewish community at large, so I feel this is really important work,” said Executive Director Tslil Shtulsaft.

Programs like these prove Hillel is not just for 18-22 year olds; throughout North America and around the world, Hillel enriches the lives of undergraduates, graduate students and their friends.

For example, Jconnect, a program of the Hillel of University of Washington, serves more than 1,800 graduate students and their friends across Seattle.

For Eli Grunblatt, a student in the University of Washington Medical Scientist Training Program, the three or four Jewish students in his program were not enough to give him the sense of community he craved. “Jconnect has been a very convenient way to meet people in my demographic,” said Grunblatt, who looks forward to traveling with his friends from Jconnect this summer on its Birthright Israel trip.

Remember those factory tours from elementary school field trips and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on TV? Thanks to Graduate Programming Coordinator Joshua Jacobs, graduate students at Columbia University get to take grown up versions of those tours, like a visit to Sims Municipal Recycling Facility this year for Tu B’shvat.

Columbia graduate students visit Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in February.

Of course, Columbia provides the Hillel staples, too, like Shabbat dinners and High Holiday services. “After a full week of classes, exams, papers and research, the Shabbat table provides a place where students reconnect with each other, their Jewish life, and themselves,” said Jacobs. “For some students, this is the only Jewish life they get a taste of during their stressful semesters.”

“Thanks to the graduate student events at JTS, I’ve had among the most intense conversations of my life,” said Jared Gimbel, former graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Small talk doesn’t happen often at a Hillel table, which I think is fantastic.”

In 2015 Hillel International’s Office of Innovation launched the Base Hillel initiative, opening homes of rabbinic families to serve as home bases for graduate students and their friends. There are two Bases serving New York City (Base BKLYN in Williamsburg and Base DWTN near Union Square), as well as the Silverstein Base Hillel in Chicago, and in fall 2017 the newest Base will open in Miami.

“Through Torah classes, Shabbat and holiday meals, service projects and good old fashioned schmoozing, I’ve been able to explore my Jewish identity more deeply while meeting tons of new friends at Base DWTN and Base BKLYN,” said Jacob Leizman, Hunter College ’16.

In the best tradition of Hillel, the typical graduate experience includes leadership opportunities. University of Pennsylvania student Alison Ederer was on the planning committee for this year’s GSN’s annual graduate student Shabbat dinner, which drew more than 180 attendees.

“I really loved being part of that,” said Ederer, who is working on a Master’s of Education at Penn. “The experience taught me about managing a budget and people.”

“Graduate school is where people are really making relationships – both friendships and romantic relationships – that will last long after graduation,” said Shtulsaft. “We work hard to build vibrant community to give students a real reason to stay in the area.”

“The grad network is like a family,” Neumann agreed. “I’m really thankful for all the support.”