Adam Becker came to the Jewish Graduate Student Network’s New Year’s Soiree last week because, he said, “I was told I was going to meet my wife.”
Becker, a second-year medical student at Drexel, was among some 100 students of medicine, law, business and liberal arts at area universities who packed the lower level of Penn Center on Sept. 12, eager to start 5774 by finding a new friend or significant other.
As the 20- and 30-somethings milled around drinking wine and beer, the number of smartphones being pulled from pockets and purses to swap numbers suggested that many people had found success.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has taken note of the role the grad network plays and boosted the organization’s funding for the current fiscal year from $45,000 to $80,000.
The funding comes after significant growth in the organization over the last several years. Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, director of the organization, said the number of students attending events has increased from 856 several years ago to around 1,100 students last school year.
Steinberg-Egeth said she hoped to reach an additional 200 students this year and that the organization was using the funding to hire another staff person, which she did.
The director said student involvement in the organization, which is part of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, has increased to where leaders on a programming board now organize smaller events for students at their individual schools and foster “micro-communities” within the larger framework of the network. She said that represents a significant change from when she started working for the organization more than five years ago, when most direction had to come from her.
For example, Daniel Wolf, a graduate student at Penn who is on the programming board, organized a sukkah building at a Philadelphia park in Center City, which he said allowed him to blend his field of study, city planning, with his Judaism.
“By having this additional staff person, we’ll really be able to increase the connection with those student leaders,” said Steinberg-Egeth, who also writes Miriam’s Advice Well , a blog for jewishexponent.com .
Deborah Shroder, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Penn, is among the leaders who helps organize activities, particularly ones outside, like a weekly running club called “Let My People Run” and regular hiking trips.
She said the outdoor activities tend to attract smaller groups, which can be more of a draw for students who might be intimidated by an organized happy hour at a crowded bar.
“People will say, ‘I wouldn’t have gone to the big event if I hadn’t met someone at the smaller thing first,” said Shroder, 25.
The network fills a different need from organizations like The Collaborative, which serves people in their 20s and 30s, because graduate students often just move into the area to start their programs and don’t know anyone in advance, Steinberg-Egeth said.
The graduate students “aren’t going to have as much in common with people who are working,” Steinberg Egeth said.
And the organized events lead to more informal socialization.
“At the end of a long day of lectures,” she said. “it’s so gratifying to grab a drink with someone who understands what it’s like to be in these super-intense academic programs.”
Emily Gerstell is now on the boards of Young Friends of the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Young Friends, but her leadership development in Philadelphia started with the grad network.
“It’s helped me build my leadership and teamwork skills,” said Gerstell, a 29-year-old doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, “and translated into opportunities beyond the grad network.”