JGrads helps connect students


While attending Dartmouth College, Michele Nudelman served as Vice President of programming for Hillel and helped create the Chabad on Campus chapter. After graduating from Dartmouth, she entered Washington University to receive a joint law and business school degree.

Nudelman, along with other law school students, attended Washington University Chabad on a weekly basis, but she noticed the lack of programming specifically for graduate students. Taking initiative to remedy the situation, she and Rabbi Hershey Novack, who directs Washington University’s Chabad on Campus, formed JGrads.


Now in its third year, the organization spread throughout graduate school campuses in St. Louis and offers graduate students and their young-adult peers specific Jewish programming distinct from those of undergraduate students. According to their mission, JGrads aims to successfully meet this need by providing social, educational, and spiritual opportunities to develop a sense of community.

JGrads’ leaders initially turned to technology to spread the word about their activities. The popular social networking Web site Facebook has helped the organization create a presence in St. Louis. “When we first started we were struggling to find 30 Facebook members,” says Nudelman. “Now, we have almost 200 members. It’s unbelievable how our membership has grown.”

Novack, the group’s advisor, also credits Facebook with helping JGrads grow. “Facebook lowers the barriers for participation. People can log on from the comfort of their own home at 4 a.m.” Nudelman feels that Facebook allows her to quickly communicate with their contingent. “We can quickly get feedback from our student leaders. Facebook allows us to reach out to a bunch of people at once. We can send out an event invitation two days in advance.”

Although the group relies heavily on Internet communication, the purpose of the group is all about personal connections. According to Novack, “there is a need for human interaction for people in graduate school in a substantive Jewish way.” He cautions however, “this is not just another singles event.”

Beca Sallen, the JGrads St. Louis University (SLU) representative, agrees. “At a Jesuit university it would be harder to keep your Jewish identity if not for JGrads. It’s important at SLU for the few Jewish students to get to know people at other schools and get in touch with the Jewish community.”

Washington University third-year law student Natalie Benhamou, who also serves as president of her school’s Jewish Legal Society, also takes advantage of the opportunities JGrads provides. “Grad students are typically departmentalized in our area of study. Now we can participate in activities without being mixed in with undergraduate students,” she says. “I have the chance to mingle and meet other people outside my program. I can network with people who have gone through what I’m going through.”

Nudelman welcomes participants from across the city. “Graduate students from many schools have the opportunity to see what’s going on at each campus more broadly. People from other schools who get involved will bring new ideas and that’s what makes an organization better and more likely to last.”

As president of JGrads, Nudelman collaborates with Novack to create programming suitable for area graduate students. Novack recognizes her contribution, as well as the other students involved in the organization. “The student leaders are an inspiration. They collaborate effectively for the common good and they give me hope for the Jewish future,” Novack says. “The students are ambitious and have a lot of other priorities, and they come together from different backgrounds and make contributions to the community.”

The student leaders pack the calendar with events which include monthly Shabbat dinners, an annual Purim party, ethics seminars, a speaker series, and working to raise recognition at campuses about the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover. Each of these events resonates with JGrads members.

Benhamou is thankful for the High Holiday services. “That is the most meaningful aspect of the JGrads program that I participate in,” she feels. “The organization creates a community for those who observe the holidays away from home.”

Novack remains excited about the organization’s future. “This group of students in our community represents great potential. I’m privileged to be at the forefront of developing a community agency to harness some of this energy in a Jewish way.”

In the future, Novack hopes to strengthen partnerships with organizations such as Hillel and birthright israel, and to further explore community service opportunities within the St. Louis area.

As the St. Louis graduate student population is transient, the organization is constantly evolving. “There’s a hint of sadness for the Jewish community at every graduation,” says Novack. “We need to find ways to keep some of these incredibly talented young people in St. Louis for the long-term.” Nudelman plans to move to New York upon completing her graduate education, but leaves a legacy with JGrads. “I hope that JGrads continues to grow and serve the needs of students in St. Louis. It was such an important part of my experience and I hope it will be for others.”