By: Alex Altberg  | 

Stern Graduate Talmud Program: Year 2 (Vol. 67, Issue 3)

On February 18, 2000, Yeshiva University President Norman Lamm announced the establishment of a two-year graduate program for women in Torah She-Ba'al Peh. Yeshiva had long considered promoting such a program, but the University finally actualized its plans when the Avi Chai Foundation a private charitable foundation endowed by the late Zalman C. Bernstein contacted Yeshiva and offered to assist in the development and funding of the program.

The program, which officially began in the 2000-2001 academic year, is comprised of a sequential two-year curriculum in advanced Talmudic studies. In the morning, students prepare the Talmudic texts with a partner, or chavruta, and then attend a one-to-two-hour lecture on the material they have prepared. In the afternoon, students shift their focus to the study of halacha, Jewish law, tracing its origins from the biblical texts on through the Talmud, rishonim, and modern day poskim. In addition, students attend lectures on various topics such as Jewish philosophy and Jewish history.

Students who complete the two-year program will be awarded a certificate in advanced Talmudic studies. Those who wish to simultaneously pursue a Master's degree in Jewish education have the option of enrolling in evening courses, tuition-free, at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. Students participating in the program are eligible to receive annual stipends of $18,000, which are provided by the Avi Chai foundation.

"The program is an important opportunity for women who wish to study Torah at a high level in the Yeshiva environment to do so," explained program Director Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Jewish History at Stern College. "Its first year was a good beginning, and with our excellent students and dedicated faculty working overtime, we're confident that the program will continue to grow," he predicted.

Admission to the Torah She-Ba'al Peh program is designed to foster competition, as the program admits a maximum of ten students per year. Applicants are expected to have completed at least two years of college-level Talmud and halakha study and to be somewhat proficient in Aramaic and the methodology of learning Talmudic and halakhic texts. Applicants must also already have an undergraduate degree. The selection criteria include GPA, the nature of undergraduate courses taken, and academic honors received. In addition, each applicant is interviewed at length by Kanarfogel.

In its first year, the program received sixteen applications, out of which ten students were accepted; nine of the students actually enrolled in the program at its outset. More than twenty applications were received for the 2001-2002 academic year, and ten students were selected for the program.

The larger number of applicants notwithstanding, Kanarfogel does not see the program exceeding its grant allowance for ten students per class anytime soon. "Right now, the select group fits well," he explained, though he didn't rule out the possibility of a reassessment as demand for spots in the program grows.

Most participants in the program's first year were graduates of Stern College, but there were a couple of exceptions. Lisa Seligsohn, who completed her undergraduate study at Brandeis, and Gabi Klein, who graduated from Queens College, were admitted to the program's inaugural year. And this year's class is comprised of a number of students from colleges other than Stern, including Rachel Brenner, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The prevalence of Stern graduates in the program seems to stem from a number of factors. First, graduates of other colleges simply have a more difficult time meeting the admission requirements. Stern undergraduates are offered a wide array of Jewish study courses including intensive Talmud and halakha study courses that are not necessarily available to students in other undergraduate institutions. In addition, the fact that Yeshiva itself promotes and directs the program allows for a greater degree of publicity on Stern's campus than at other institutions. To remedy this second issue, Yeshiva has begun to advertise the program in The Jewish Week and other Jewish periodicals.

The morning Talmud study portion of the program is led by Rabbi Moshe Kahn, instructor of Talmud at Stern College, who has been a critical figure in developing Talmud and Oral Law undergraduate courses at Stern. Because of the program's increasing size, Rabbi Kahn will be teaching two Talmud shiurim starting this year. Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, who earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and was ordained at RIETS, leads the afternoon halakha component of the program. This year, a second course in halacha has been added to the curriculum, which will be taught by Rabbi Eytan Mayer, Assistant Rabbi of the Jewish Center of New York. Rabbi Kanarfogel teaches the Jewish History component of the curriculum, examining "the history of the Torah She-Ba'al Peh."

Two comprehensive examinations in Talmud, and two in Halakha, are administered each semester. Additionally, examinations in the Jewish History and Jewish Philosophy components of the program are given by instructors throughout the year.

Many students who participate in the program aspire to a teaching career in Judaic studies. While in the program, students receive a chance to prepare for teaching by presenting Chaburot, on assigned Talmudic and halakhic material, in front of their peers and instructors. In addition, some of the program's outstanding second-year students may receive the opportunity to prepare and present lectures on Talmud and Halakha to undergraduate students at Stern.

Lisa Selighson, a second-year student in the program, attended Ramaz high school, where she first encountered the methodology of Talmud study. After learning in Midreshet Moriah in Israel for a year, she attended Brandeis University, where she helped prepare weekly parsha and Talmud shiurim on campus. Asked about why she chose Yeshiva's program rather than similar programs at women's learning institutions such as Drisha, Selighson remarked, "I had considered attending a similar learning program at Drisha, but when I found out that Stern was offering such a program, I naturally chose to apply here because I felt the learning would be on an advanced level, and the hashkafa was more in tune with me." The generous stipend was also a consideration, Lisa explained, because, "It allows me to afford renting an apartment nearby with friends, instead of having to commute from home or somewhere farther away." Selighson is happy with the progress of the program so far and feels that she is gaining the necessary skills in the study of Talmud and halakha. "Rabbi Kahn's style is to be medakdek on the words, he is not the type of teacher to let anything slip by without a thorough understanding of the text." After a full day of learning, she attends night courses at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Selighson hopes that the program will afford her the knowledge and skills necessary to eventually become a Jewish Studies instructor for yeshiva high school students.

Jenny Rosenfeld, a first-year student in the program, attended Yeshiva's Samuel H. Wang High School for Girls, where she enjoyed daily study of Talmud. She went on to attend Midreshet Lindenbaum in Israel because of its focus on the study of Talmud. She was named Bruriah Scholar at Lindenbaum, an honor bestowed only upon those who acquire a high level of proficiency in studying Talmudic texts. As an undergraduate at Stern, she continued taking courses in Talmud, under the instruction of Rabbi Kahn. "Rabbi Kahn is an amazing person, his approach to teaching Gemara is exceptional," Rosenfeld stated.

Like many other studen in the program, Rosenfeld aspires to eventually teach Talmud on an advanced level to young women. But beyond simply teaching, Rosenfeld seeks also to dispel preconceived notions that women should not be learning Talmud on an advanced level, or at all. "I love the methodology and conceptual thinking involved in learning Gemara, and would like to share that with others," she explained. In addition to participating in the program, Rosenfeld is also a recipient of the Bella and Harry Wexner scholarship in advanced Torah learning.

Shayna Lerner is a second-year student in the program. She too attended Yeshiva's High School for Girls. She continued her Torah education at Michlalah in Israel and returned to the United States, earning her undergraduate degree at Stern College. Lerner is especially interested in further building her Talmud skills, and in the examination of its texts and concepts. "I love the way the study of Talmud makes the mind work," she explains, "Learning Gemara is exciting, figuring out the profound meaning of the text itself is a rewarding challenge." Lerner is enrolled in evening courses at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, and she hopes to teach Judaic Studies to young women on a high school level upon completion of the program.

Participants in the program, despite their overall satisfaction, do think that some improvements can be made to further enhance the program's success. A number of students expressed concern that the small size of the program has hindered it somewhat. According to one student, "It. was difficult at first to rotate chavrutot because of the small size of the incoming class. Also, in the beginning there was an odd number of students, so one group had to triple up."

Other participants expressed concern with the fact that students have no selection of shiurim from which they can choose a particular topic or instructor. Some of these issues may be resolved this year with the introduction of a new incoming class of ten students, and with another Halakha rebbe and a second Talmud shiur introduced. But some students seem to think that additional personnel particularly, another top-notch Talmud instructor are necessary in order to broaden the skills of the program's top students and further advance the program in the eyes of Yeshiva's Orthodox community.

Yossi Praeger, executive director of the Avi Chai foundation in New York, believes that the program has already begun to serve a valuable purpose in the Orthodox community. "We at Avi Chai felt that there was a growing alienation or disillusionment among the Orthodox community for women to study Torah She-Ba'al Peh on a post-graduate level," he began. "The absence of a program at Yeshiva University gave off the idea that advanced Talmud study was somehow inappropriate for young women on a superior level. We called Yeshiva with a proposal for the establishment of a graduate program in advanced Talmudic studies for women under Yeshiva University auspices," he explained. "We felt that if Yeshiva would establish and run such a program it would signal to the broader Modern Orthodox community that advanced women's study of Torah She-Ba'al Peh was indeed appropriate and important." The broader purpose that Avi Chai hopes the program will achieve is to prepare women to become outstanding educators of young women in the study of Talmud and Halakha. Judging by the dedication of Yeshiva and Avi Chai to the program, and the enthusiasm of the students themselves, it seems to be a goal that remains well within reach.