YOU SHOULD KNOW…Penn Hillel’s Jenna Ferman

Jenna Ferman (Courtesy of Jenna Ferman)

In 2021, Jenna Ferman was living in New York City, studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary and enjoying time with her friends.

She knew she eventually wanted to come home to Philadelphia. She just thought it would be later when she wanted to start a family.

Then she saw a job opening online at Penn Hillel, and she connected with the organization’s director, Rabbi Gabe Greenberg. They had such a good conversation that it turned into an offer.

Ferman moved home that summer, and she’s been here ever since.

The 29-year-old lives in Graduate Hospital and attends services and events at South Philadelphia Shtiebel. Her brother lives in the same neighborhood. Her grandmother lives in Rittenhouse Square. Her parents still attend her childhood synagogue: Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

Since coming home, Ferman has also gotten a promotion. She went from director of student and Israel engagement to assistant director in July 2022.

“It was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” she said.

Growing up, she attended the Perelman Jewish Day School and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. When you go to those schools, Ferman explained, you often graduate on one of two paths.

You either choose a profession outside the Jewish world but still serve your synagogue, or you become a Jewish professional.

Ferman chose the latter.

She graduated in 2016 from the joint program at Columbia University and JTS with a degree in English and Bible/biblical studies. Then she worked at the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia in 2017 and 2018.

After that, she worked at Columbia/Barnard College’s Hillel while pursuing her master’s in education at JTS. Then she saw the Penn job and connected with Greenberg.

“I am someone whose identity has been so shaped by Jewish experiences throughout my life through day school all the way through college,” she said. “And so, I knew kind of always in the back of my mind that I wanted to dedicate my career to giving back.”

Jenna Ferman – third from left – and colleagues at a Hillel event. (Courtesy of Jenna Ferman)

She described both Jewish paths, serving your community or serving as a community professional, as important. But she finds the latter to be fulfilling.

“Personally, intellectually and spiritually,” Ferman said. “It feels fulfilling to be dedicating my career to enriching the lives of Jewish people. And now it’s in the context of Jewish students on a college campus which feels particularly important right now.”

In the past year at Penn, the Palestine Writes Festival came to campus, President M. Elizabeth Magill resigned after failing to say during congressional testimony that she would condemn students who called for the genocide of the Jews and an anti-Israel encampment of more than 60 protesters formed on College Green and stuck around for more than two weeks.

“The last year has been very difficult,” Ferman acknowledged.

“And also very inspiring,” she said.

Hillel engaged more than 1,000 students during the 2023-’24 school year, according to Ferman. At a senior seminar on handling finances, how to build a Jewish home and finding Jewish community after graduation, Hillel welcomed 50 students. The same seminar had 13 attendees the year before.

At one point during the six-week course, Ferman took a step back to observe the room.

“I saw a room full of students meeting other Jewish people they’ve never met before. People talking to each other sharing about their Jewish journey and how they’re going to bring it forward,” she said. “I had a moment where I was filled with so much joy and hope for the future.”

Since Oct. 7, the role of Hillel has changed, according to Ferman.

“It has become a safe haven during a time when Jewish students don’t always feel safe anymore,” she said. “I don’t think some students felt the need for it as much as they do now.”

Ferman doesn’t see herself leaving Penn. She’s also engaged and planning a wedding. And recently, she joined the Philadelphia chapter of the Young Women’s Impact Network in Jewish Women International. The network offers leadership development and social events for Jewish women in their 20s and 30s.

“I really love it here,” she said.

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