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Jewish Graduate Student Initiative: The JGSI Fellowship

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
In collaboration with

Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Anti-Defamation League, Bet Tzedek, A Touch of Kindness

Prize category
1 – 3 years
Target audience
College Students
Arts & Culture

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative’s Fellowship Program deeply imparts the Jewish ideals of community and philanthropy to graduate students by introducing them to the greater Jewish community and key nonprofits. Each semester, a cohort of 35 select students joins together for 10 classes focusing on Jewish ethics and leadership, volunteering, and social programs. In partnership with local Jewish organizations, communities, and business executives, the students gain profound knowledge of their heritage through applied Jewish wisdom. The Fellowship leverages the LA's Jewish community’s resources to successfully engage today’s young Jews to shape the next generation of Jewish leaders.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Jewish wisdom is the thread that ties together the JGSI Fellowship. The first hour of each Fellowship meeting is devoted to Jewish ethics, and the second hour to leadership and philanthropy. The Ethics section is conducted by Director Rabbi Matt Rosenberg or CEO Rabbi Dave Sorani. Topics always include Ancient Judaism on Jewish Leadership, Charity Matters, and the Importance of Being Non-Judgmental in Today's Jewish Community. The Fellowship meets for 10 consecutive Sundays and participants discuss selections from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and other foundational Jewish texts. Discussion themes include: finding true happiness, overcoming adversity, the value of friendship, Jewish peoplehood, community building, anti-Semitism, self-motivation, giving the benefit of the doubt, and more.
Presentations and discussions for the Fellows are designed to pose timeless Jewish wisdom in a mature, highly relevant and relatable manner for young working professionals and graduate students of the Millenial generation. “Homework” assignments include readings and videos, as well as topics for further virtual discussion via email and Facebook.
The second hour of each meeting is the Leadership and Philanthropy section, taught by leading Jewish executives and professionals who are lay leaders of local non-profit philanthropic organizations. Guest speakers in the past have talked about their career and the importance of Jewish leadership and philanthropy in their lives, and the importance of leadership in the Jewish community. Speakers often continue to engage with students post graduation.
The Fellowship also includes a mandatory community service volunteering component consistent with our commitment to Tikkun Olam. Our spring Fellows gathered weekly at Tomchei LA Touch of Kindness to pack food boxes for needy local families for Shabbat. Fellows also volunteered at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ “Super Sunday” fundraiser at two locations. Students are also required to dedicate a number of hours a week to their graduate school’s Jewish association to increase Jewish activities on campus.
We are proud that Jewish wisdom runs through literally all aspects of the JGSI Fellowship. In recognition of this program's success, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles awarded the Fellowship its Cutting Edge Grant for 2014-2017. We are seeking additional sources of funding to ensure that this groundbreaking program can continue following the expiration of our previous grant.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

The JGSI Fellowship is designed to make Jewish wisdom real and relevant to the unique needs of our constituency to ensure the continued stewardship of our valuable community institutions. This program has had a successful track record of engaging future leaders for the last five years. This success is not surprising; for one, the program is an optimal way to meet other Jewish graduate students for both business and social purposes. Furthermore, it offers unique opportunities to network with executives who are leaders in the business and Jewish communities and inspired by their community leadership. Finally, many graduate students are interested in learning more about a side of Judaism they were never exposed to before and are searching to connect to a relatable Judaism.
Recent national statistics show that a growing percentage of American Jews, particularly young adults, are almost completely disengaged from Jewish life. Not only are more and more Jews abandoning the ranks of the Jewish people all together, but even those who remain identifiably Jewish are less likely to actively support Jewish communities, organizations, and causes. It is our belief that the most critical time to reach out to unaffiliated Jews is in their graduate school years while they are formulating their future values, deciding on their next path of adult life, and making key decisions regarding what kind of lives they want to live. By firmly imparting Jewish wisdom to students during graduate school, the chances that they will go on to play active roles in tomorrow’s Jewish community are dramatically increased.
While there exist other programs and organizations that cater to Jewish youth, young adults, and undergrad students, there is no other organization specifically dedicated to the unique needs of Jewish graduate students. Since 2011, the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) has been catering to this significant demographic. The JGSI sees itself as the bridge between graduate students on campus and the greater Jewish community and the values and wisdom it possesses.
JGSI places specific emphasis on engaging law and business students who are forging their way into an industry rife with opportunities to lose sight of personal values, goals, and ethical principles. Law schools across the country are addressing this problem by requiring students to take a course in legal ethics, and many bar associations require applicants to pass a legal ethics exam and/or background check prior to admission into the bar. JGSI seeks to supplement this programming for Jewish law students by giving them the opportunity to learn about ethics through a Jewish lens, network with key Jewish industry leaders, and give back to the community.
At the majority of JGSI's campuses, JGSI is the only organization currently attempting to target this crucial population and is uniquely positioned to do so. Our highly professional and dynamic programs are aligned with graduate student's career goals to inspire them to grapple with Jewish issues that are relevant to their lives. JGSI’s staff and board is made up of a diverse team of rabbis, educators, and lay leaders, many of whom have a business or law background and have experienced graduate school first hand. CEO Rabbi Dave Sorani himself grew up in an unaffiliated Jewish family and attended law school, and Director Rabbi Matt Rosenberg was a corporate attorney with a large firm and taught Jewish Law at Georgetown Law School before joining JGSI full time.
The Fellowship program provides graduate students face time with leading industry professionals, hour-long teachings in Jewish ethics during every meeting, and peer-networking time with other participants. All of these pieces are highly valued by graduate students in how they spend their small amount of free time while unpacking the puzzles of career and adulthood. The JGSI Fellowship program strengthens students’ commitment to professional ethics and their personal connection to Jewish wisdom within an environment that addresses the specific issues they are facing. Students gain understanding of how to be successful in their community and career without sacrificing one for the other.
Thus the essence of the JGSI Fellowship is to present Jewish wisdom in an accessible and directly applicable manner to a critical and underserved target audience, with the goal of preserving our community institutions for posterity.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Participant feedback has been phenomenally positive and prove that the JGSI Fellowship has presented Jewish wisdom in relevant and appealing way to our audience. According to the results of our 2016 online survey:

• 100% of surveyed respondents would recommend this program to a friend
• 100% felt that this program provided them with knowledge of Jewish values and ethics
• 95% felt that this program gave them a deeper appreciation for Judaism
• 95% felt a deeper connection to JGSI as a result of completing this program
• 65% were not involved in any Jewish organizations prior to completing this program
• 65% would like to remain involved in the organizations with which they volunteered during this program

Testimonials from our past Fellows confirm our survey results:

“JGSI provided me with an opportunity to explore my Judaism with like-minded graduate students. It provided a space to questions I've only recently begun to consider and, as I've seen, that Judaism has long provided answers for. JGSI also gave me the opportunity to listen to speakers who started out like me and found success in their respective industries and in life. Perhaps most importantly at JGSI I was able to meet people my age, just starting their journey into adulthood, and looking to form bonds and become a part of the Jewish community. I look forward to continuing my involvement with this incredible organization.”

“The JGSI fellowship was an incredible experience that reconnected me to my Jewish values. As a graduate student, I am always busy and balancing a million different things on my plate and it was amazing to have two hours a week where nothing else mattered but learning about the ethics of my people. One of the most valuable lessons I learned is that Jews persevered through the generations by thinking differently and sticking together. Further, I came to appreciate the importance of learning about Judaism as an adult, when you can really start to understand the philosophies, as opposed to maintaining a pediatric understanding of the religion. My fellow fellows are what really made the program. So many different types of individuals, all with their own questions, curiosities, and perspectives that fueled very engaging and enlightening discussions. I hope to be a part of the JGSI community long into the future. What they are doing is amazing, and I hope that more Jews in graduate school can experience this amazing program.”

“The JGSI Ethics and Leadership Fellowship has been an incredible opportunity to meet successful and influential business leaders, explore Jewish philosophy and values, and meet other smart, inspired, motivated young Jewish Professionals. I left each session with plenty of food in my belly and food for thought, with unique lessons both from the world of business and insights on how Torah and Tanakh relate to my current day-to-day life as a student and entrepreneur.”

“I am extremely grateful to have been a part of JGSI’s Fellowship. I loved the intimate speaker series and the access we gained to such a diverse and accomplished set of entrepreneurs. Their stories reminded me how lucky I am to be part of such a strong community which supports each other and gives back. Their inspiring paths to success also helped me step back and pause during the hustle and bustle of everyday life... I started thinking about what I'm working towards in my business career rather than maintaining a short term, day-to-day perspective. Even more exciting was the impact I feel the program made on my Jewish identity. As an adult, I had not explored what being Jewish means to me and I'm happy the fellowship sparked a curiosity in me I had not felt since pre-Bat Mitzvah years. Rabbis Rosenberg and Sorani were amazing mentors who put together a brilliant program I hope many more students continue to enjoy!”

“The JGSI Fellowship program was an extremely valuable experience for me. Having moved from San Diego, I really enjoyed the opportunity to network with new friends in LA and develop a dialogue with them regarding interesting topics of Judaism. Rabbi Sorani and Rosenberg secured some really great speakers to come share their professional and personal experiences with our group who were all extremely insightful and open to helping the students develop their careers as leaders in the Jewish community. I am extremely thankful for the opportunities the JGSI has provided for Fellows and I intend on helping the program grow and develop. I would highly recommend this program to all Jewish graduate students interested in making new friends and developing a foundation of Jewish community in the Los Angeles area.”

“The JGSI Fellowship did something that my previous Jewish education was unable to achieve -- connect Jewish teachings from the Talmud to adult life in a realistic, intellectually stimulating matter. The ability to get this renewed foundation in Judaism has been particularly satisfying for me, and I’ve already integrated many of the philosophies and teachings from our discussions into my daily life. Additionally, the set of speakers Rabbi Sorani has been able to bring in from the business and law worlds was extremely inspirational. To hear from Jewish leaders, learn how they got their start and grew both personally and professionally with a Jewish foundation is an opportunity that is impossible to find anywhere else. I highly recommend the Fellowship to a Jewish graduate student who wants to be inspired, connect with Jewish values on a personal and professional basis, and meet the next leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community.”

“The JGSI Fellowship is an amazing experience! I couldn't believe how fast these 8 weeks had gone by. The sessions with Rabbi Matt were interesting, inspiring, and very engaging. I loved coming home, sharing my experience with my husband, and just keep the conversation going. The speakers were incredibly talented and inspiring. I’ve learned something about business, Judaism, and/or myself in each session. Getting involved and giving back is an amazing experience and I would recommend with all my heart.”

“The Fellowship connected me with other amazing Jewish individuals who I would have never met, and who have become good friends. It has given me a gateway into the community and helped me develop my Jewish identity. Now I have a deeper understanding of Jewish ethics and appreciation for our culture, heritage, and dedication to service to our community.”

“As someone with a very incomplete Jewish upbringing, JGSI helped me, “fill in the gaps”. JGSI supplied biblical and Talmudic teachings to achieve this effect, and JGSI fellows with more traditional backgrounds were called upon to mentor us. Because all of us participants regardless of our Jewish education were full-time graduate students, we thus learned Judaism and also professional wisdom from each other. I am very glad I participated, and I wish I had more time in grad school to do it all again.”

“I always left each session with more to think about and an overall feeling of happiness after spending the evening with new friends. Thank you, JGSI, for this special and unforgettable opportunity.”

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We believe that the JGSI Fellowship has been successful because it reaches participants where they are, according to their unique needs and interests as graduate students and aspiring young professionals. Our program is tailored to impart an applied Jewish wisdom that goes beyond the Synagogue but touches at the core of their professional dreams. We demonstrate to participants that Judaism and the Jewish community is not a stale, sterile burden relegated to ritual matters or membership dues, but rather that applied Jewish wisdom and involvement in the Jewish community can contribute to their career success and provide great personal and professional fulfillment. We present timeless Jewish wisdom in a language that speaks to their generation and tackle issues that they all navigate in their own lives from a Jewish perspective. Many participants, still turned off by forced Hebrew School education and Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons, have been completely unaware that Judaism even addresses the topics of their personal concern until they participate in the Fellowship. Further, we introduce them to living examples of the most successful Jewish executives who are equally passionate about Jewish wisdom and the Jewish community, who demonstrate how being a proud Jew has actually enhanced their career. In our experience, there is no substitution for directly fostering relationships between present and future leaders of the Jewish community. From our students we have learned that it is this targeted, specialized, applied Jewish wisdom--learning how to LIVE Jewish, not just be Jewish--which sets the JGSI Fellowship apart.