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Mevateir on Masmidim? Full Scholarships Halved

The Yeshiva University Masmidim Honors Program, which “offers accelerated study and scholarship support to a small group of budding Torah scholars,” according to the program description, will continue to offer scholarships next year, though of considerably smaller sizes. According to Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Director of the Masmidim Program (which operates under the Mazer Yeshiva Program), future Masmidim scholarships will cover half of tuition. Up to this point, the program offered full scholarships to accepted students.

The program was designed to be a counterbalance to academic scholarships, for students who demonstrate “potential to become genuine talmidei chachamim.” Students receiving scholarships are required to participate in a more rigorous schedule in Torah studies, particularly Talmud, including mandatory weekly night sedarim and bechinot to test their progress throughout the program. The program currently consists of 29 students.

The reason for the cutback was purely financial, explained Rabbi Reiss. This is another part of the broad attempt of the university to adapt to the current economic climate. Rabbi Reiss notes, however, that “those students who initially received full scholarships will maintain those scholarships throughout their time in YU.” The cutbacks have affected the university broadly, including denying tenure recently to several professors who were relatively popular among the student body.

Despite the cutbacks, Rabbi Reiss stresses that the program still has its same mission, to identify students who show excellence in Talmudic study coming into YU and encourage them to push themselves to become intellectual leaders in the Jewish community. While there is no requirement to follow the Masmidim Program with a career in the rabbinate, a fair number of Masmidim graduates go on to study for semikha (rabbinic ordination) at RIETS.

The cutbacks are not the only continuing changes in the Masmidim Program. There have been structural changes recently as well, specifically regarding the way the program relates to students. A current Masmid explained that these changes were directly in response to the input of current members of the program. “Starting last year, after receiving numerous complaints about some of the requirements, the hanhala [leadership] came up with a couple of reforms: making the parasha bechinas more manageable, as well as creating two tracks for bekiyus,” he said. This student explained another reform, one “that truly shows the direction that the program needs to continue to go in: making the program more devoted to the individual growth of each of its members.”

The Masmidim Honors Program has been criticized occasionally since its formation. Among the criticisms lodged is that the university should not pay for something that students would do anyway, namely study Talmud seriously, and that incentivizing them with scholarships may give the appearance of trivializing Torah study. Rabbi Reiss, however, sees this in precisely the opposite light. “There was a desire to highlight the importance that we assign to proficiency in Torah learning,” he said. It seemed logical to him that “just as we have an honors program for the college, there would be an honors program for those who have demonstrated excellence in Talmudic study.”

Rabbi Reiss ended on a note of encouragement for anyone who takes their Torah learning in YU seriously. “The truth is that all of our students who commit themselves to fulfill the mandate of “vehagita bo yomam va’laylah” [to meditate on the Torah day and night] are masmidim, and we are very proud of each and every one of them.”