April 26, 2019

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative is preparing tomorrow’s leaders

A program aimed at connecting graduate students with area Jewish nonprofits in the hopes of creating future leaders for the organizations has received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) that amounts to nearly $100,000 over the next three years. 

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative’s (JGSI) Center for Ethics and Fellowship, a semester-long program set to commence in January, will bring together approximately 40 area graduate students, chosen from a pool of applicants, for weekly discussions with Jewish executives and community leaders. 

For this program specifically, an alliance has been formed among three outside organizations: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Anti-Defamation League and Bet Tzedek, an organization that provides free legal services for the needy. Each organization has a young leadership program, and representatives from each will meet with the students. 

The goal, according to Rabbi David Sorani, JGSI founder and executive director, is that by creating meaningful connections between the students and these organizations now, these students — many of them working on law or master’s degrees — will be ready to assume leadership roles by the time they graduate. It’s a model the decision-makers at JCFLA found both innovative and rife with potential. 

“We seek to sustain social entrepreneurs and initiatives which will help shape the future of Jewish Los Angeles,” Marvin I. Schotland, JCFLA president and CEO, wrote in an email to the Journal. “Specifically, the idea of connecting 40 sharp, eager Jewish minds on the cusp of embarking on their professional careers with the leaders of Los Angeles’ most respected Jewish nonprofit institutions is compelling. 

“By giving them access and insights that they might not otherwise be afforded, this program has the prospective power to be both highly transformative and make an indelible impact on the fellows’ lives …” he continued. “We hope the fellows’ participation will spark a life-long connection. Similarly, these individuals have enviable leadership skills themselves which this program conceivably will nurture and, in turn, spur others to service.” 

The program also promises to be a boon to the participating nonprofits. After all, today’s stressed-out, nose-in-the-books, overachieving grad student might just be tomorrow’s dynamic, committed, Jewish community leader. That’s certainly the way Sorani sees it. 

JGSI was born out of the personal experience of Sorani, 32, a Brooklyn native who now resides in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Upon completion of his rabbinical studies in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to attend law school. During his first year, he sorely missed being part of a Jewish community. He also realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer. 

Sorani got a job as a rabbi at a local Jewish educational center, and with memories of law school still fresh, he started visiting local universities and reaching out to graduate students, hoping to give them some semblance of the connection he himself had yearned for. 

In 2011, he left the educational center and JGSI became his full-time gig. Last year, nearly 1,300 Los Angeles and Orange County students participated in its diverse programming. 

Sorani sees graduate school as a key opportunity — perhaps the last chance to engage young adults. “It’s right before they start real life,” he said. 

“Maybe a small percentage will get involved in Hillel or go on Birthright, but then there’s this huge demographic. Eighty percent of American Jews are completely untapped. This is where we come in. If we can successfully engage law and MBA students, and other graduate students while they are still in graduate school, we can absolutely help build the next generation of leaders.” 

JGSI’s approach, Sorani said, is to be “pushy but not too pushy. We don’t do politics. We’re not too religious. We’re very much middle of the road. We’re not really out there. We have a very good medium for what a graduate student needs. We have been successful at engaging that 80 percent.” 

It is worth noting that according to a recent survey, half of JGSI’s program participants had never before been part of any Jewish programming. 

“That blew us away,” Sorani said. 

So what, exactly, is JGSI doing to draw these disaffected 20-somethings from campuses, including UCLA, USC, Pepperdine and Loyola, as well as several Orange County schools? For one thing, it hosts an annual Jewish Executive Leadership Conference. Next year’s will be on Feb. 8 in Santa Monica. The conference brings high-level Jewish executives, who are also community leaders, together with an audience of students and young professionals. JGSI also offers a generously subsidized annual trip to Israel for MBA students and facilitates an MBA mentorship program. 

But perhaps its most popular programming is the Jewish Executive Leadership Speaker Series. This was how Steven Sabel, 26, was introduced to the group. The third-year UCLA law school student learned about JGSI through UCLA’s Jewish Law Student Association, and last year he attended his first event, a dinner at a local kosher restaurant, along with about a dozen fellow graduate students. There were two speakers, he recalls: “a real estate legend and a very impressive attorney.” 

“They spoke about their experience: how they got to where they are; how, if at all, their Jewish faith played a role in their success; what role does it play now in their life,” Sabel said. “A lot of law is about networking. The fact that I am in school, I might not know what the business side or the client side is like. You can’t teach that. To be able to have a small dinner and connect and talk, it’s a fantastic opportunity. 

“In the past two years,” he added, “I have gone to more religious things than in probably the five years prior.” This includes Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations with JGSI, in addition to the speaker series events. 

Sorani believes that programs such as the Center for Ethics and Fellowship offer a high likelihood of future success. 

“I was struggling with how to ensure that these students are going to get involved, how am I going to do something different that will show organizations we’re going to make a hand-off,” he said, employing a football metaphor. “We want the success of a hand-off. We’re not doing a Hail Mary here. I think we’ll have a few touchdowns.”