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Presidential Task Force on Torah and Jewish Studies Seeks More Integrated Approach

Following significant changes to Yeshiva University’s core curriculum, President Joel has created a committee to examine the current state of Academic Jewish Studies courses at Yeshiva University. The Presidential Task Force on Torah and Jewish Studies will respond to long-standing student concerns over difficult Judaic requirements and courses – primarily Bible and Hebrew – and ultimately make recommendations to the President on creating a system that is more “holistic” and “integrated,” in the words of key committee members.

The committee consists of a diverse faculty body, hailing from the Academic Jewish Studies department, RIETS, and the university administration. Specifically, the committee is chaired by Vice-Provost Lawrence Schiffman, and includes Revel Dean David Berger, YC Dean Barry Eichler, Interim University Registrar Diana Benmergui, Professor Steven Fine, Professor Jeffrey Glantz, Vice President Rabbi Josh Joseph, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, Professor Debra Kaplan, Syms Dean Moses Pava, RIETS Associate Dean of Operations Rabbi Menachem Penner, RIETS Dean Rabbi Yona Reiss, Assistant to the President for Research and Communication Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, and Rabbi Baruch Simon. Noting the diversity represented within the committee, Schiffman commented that “many of the faculty are meeting each other for the first time,” a sampling of the integration the committee hopes to engender.

A number of factors necessitated the creation of the committee. Citing a difficult academic combination in both the Yeshiva morning program and afternoon Jewish Studies requirements, Schiffman said that “students have requirements which in three years are crazy to be able to complete, and this is where the problem comes up. […] We want to see if we can do a better job.” In addition, and of major concern to the university, the rigorous requirements are a consistent source of angst for undergraduate applicants. Schiffman further explained, “There are very large numbers of students who go to other colleges that would fit in here perfectly, but they feel it’s too difficult.”

Fundamentally, the committee hopes to redefine the Academic Jewish Studies program to fit the lives of busy YU students, while still complementing their Judaic growth with key courses. “I think one of the problems so far has been that we haven’t offered the students what will excite them, and we haven’t offered them enough variety,” Schiffman noted. Continuing, Schiffman floated the possible inclusion of topical Bible courses in contrast to the current, often more pointed courses, as one possible solution.

Interestingly, Dean Berger currently heads a parallel committee within the Jewish Studies Department that will focus more closely on the Academic Jewish Studies curriculum within the courses themselves. Berger refused to comment for this article.

On the logistical side, the committee is examining two issues of contention within Academic Jewish Studies – the number of requirements and the scheduling of the courses. Some changes have already been made to the morning program like the implementation of an early Hebrew once a week. While one option being discussed would be to couple Academic Jewish Studies courses with the different morning programs, many object to the idea. “It would encroach on morning seder time, and that can only have a ripple effect,” Rabbi Schwartz explained. Rabbi Reiss voiced a similar opinion, saying that “YP and the three-hour seder are sacred.”

Other students have cited specific issues with the Bible requirement, alleging that particular Bible professors teach and or promote kefirah (heresy). Rabbi Ezra Schwartz denied that this was a concern of the committee, pointing out that the committee is working on much broader issues than specific curricula or syllabi within the courses themselves. “The student body is diverse – there will always be students who call it kefirah, and there will always be students on the other side who say that the Bible courses are not academic enough.”

The fledgling committee has met twice already, first to set up a structure and plan ahead, and then to establish measurable goals. In terms of student input, the committee is currently utilizing data obtained in a recent survey by the university’s Institutional Research department. Moving forward, the committee hopes to have direct student participation through student leaders, as well as a broader student perspective that will most likely involve written recommendations by students.

The formation of this committee reflects other broad changes within YU. The “IBC Honors Program,” a new initiative being discussed by members of the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies and the Jewish Studies administration as a whole, serves as one potential model for the committee. In speaking about the IBC Honors program, Noah Small (YC ’15), a sophomore who piloted the program, echoed the committee’s concerns: “Learning should be meaningful. So many people go through all these years in YU and never get to learn topics that interest them.”

Going forward, the committee faces similar challenges in creating a program that – above all – students want to be a part of. The committee is still in its infancy, and much remains to be seen in terms of its effectiveness at solving this age-old issue. Ultimately the committee hopes to further refine the balance of Torah u’Madda that defines Yeshiva University.