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New staff for women's Talmud program

If one were to order Yeshiva’s graduate schools based on their size, this program would come in dead last. The M.A. Program in Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation at the Stern College for Women has been and remains a very small program, currently with no more than twelve students. Many may be more familiar with the program’s previous name, GPATS (Graduate Program for women in Advanced Talmudic Studies). But most people are still unaware of the program’s existence, probably because of its small size and surprisingly sparse publicity.

This program trains women in both Talmudic interpretation and Halakhic practice over a two-year period. Its goal, according to its director, Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, “is to give students the textual and analytical skills to be able to pursue the academic and personal goals that they set for themselves.” Students who graduate the program often become teachers of various areas of Jewish studies in both high school and post-high-school programs.

When the program was first created, the grant from the Avi Chai Foundation allowed for ten students per year. Eleven years later, significant growth has taken place.

For the past five years, Rabbi Shmuel Hain served as Rosh Beit Midrash of the program. Under this title, Rabbi Hain mentored the students, and functioned as a maggid shiur as well as the prime rabbinical presence in the beit midrash. A pulpit rabbi himself, Rabbi Hain was able to arrange for the women to obtain internships and permanent positions in various shuls throughout New York and New Jersey as resident scholars. This year, Rabbi Hain accepted an offer to become Rosh Kollel of SAR’s Torah Mitzion/Yeshiva University Kollel.

In 2004, The Commentator reported that President Joel was so supportive of the program, then GPATS, that he “increased Yeshiva’s share of the funding significantly.” Rabbi Kanarfogel mentioned in the same article that “President Joel is absolutely and fully committed to maintaining the program, as evidenced not only by the significant financial commitment ... but also by his very strong personal and professional interest in the program and his direct involvement in many aspects.” President Joel’s commitment of additional funds to the program was expressed seven years ago, which should have led to growth in the program. This, however, is not the case. In fact, exactly the opposite has happened: funding has depleted, and the program now only has between ten and twelve women in both years combined. This would probably be an unacceptable set of circumstances for any other Yeshiva graduate program.

With Rabbi Hain’s departure, the administration needed to hire new staff to tend to Rabbi Hain’s wide-ranging previous responsibilities. Rabbi David Nachbar has assumed the maggid shiur position. He works alongside Rabbi Moshe Kahn, a maggid shiur since the program’s inception. Additionally, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Senior Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshiva College, is now present in the Beit Midrash twice a week. In order to replace the many other services that Rabbi Hain provided, The Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) has taken on a greater role within the program. According to their website, the CJF “enriches the GPATS scholars through pedagogic training, scholar-in-residence opportunities in synagogues around the country, and placement for significant positions in Jewish education.”

One can possibly attribute the lack of funds to the fact that the grant from the Avi Chai Foundation ran dry. However, this only occurred in the 2008-2009 academic year and, prior to this, when sufficient funding did exist, the program still did not grow. The program receives significant grants from various other sources as well. So why would the program be unable to grow? The Semikhah program, another YU graduate program, currently has over 300 students—on full scholarship. Most Master’s programs, on the contrary, include no monetary stipends, which permits them, presumably, to accept more students. If it is the true goal of the program to give women an advanced education in Jewish studies, then they should accept as many women as possible. Surprisingly, there is no option for admittance to the program without stipend, an option which, if introduced, might raise rates of matriculation.

Some graduates of the program explained to The Commentator that the program’s small size stems from the lack of support from the Roshei Yeshiva as well as the YU administration. This speculation remains unconfirmed, but seems supported by the trajectory of the program. Currently, the administrative staff consists completely of males. When dealing with a program like this, one would assume that a woman would have, at least, some role in the administration. Rabbi Kanarfogel has mentioned that they have “considered adding graduates to the educational and administrative staff.” However, when questioned why this has not been implemented, he refused to comment. Apparently, the administration has yet to be sufficiently satisfied with its graduates to hire any of them.

Hopefully these new changes in administration will enable the program to succeed. It is certain that their goals and ideals are wonderful, and Yeshiva is lucky to have such an institution. It seems obvious, however, that if they were to accept more women, YU could more quickly and effectively achieve its goal of empowering women as Jewish communal leaders.