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IBC Honors: A One Year Retrospective

In the setting of a large university, it is rare for students to have to opportunity to meet with top administrators, propose a new program to fill a gap in their education, and see it come to fruition only one semester later. However, in Yeshiva University, a grassroots, student led initiative has led to the creation of the IBC Honors program, now in its first semester. 

Around one year ago, a small group of YU students who were not totally satisfied with their morning, Torah studies programs began to talk amongst themselves about addressing this issue. I was involved in some of these early conversations. The gist of the matter was that we felt conflicted in choosing between the morning programs. On the one hand, we were looking to expand our Jewish knowledge beyond the realm of Talmud. Most of us were MYP students, and the laws detailing what transpires when various people find numerous types of cloth (the yeshiva was learning Bava Metziah last year) were simply not speaking to us. On the other hand, those of us who were in IBC or BMP missed the rigor and textual analysis found in many MYP classes. If only there was a middle ground.

A few students (not including myself) went to speak with Rabbi Kalinsky, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies, and Vice Provost Dr. Lawrence Schiffman. A possible solution was proposed—an honors IBC track was to be created. There was a “niche of students looking for something that didn’t exist,” explained Rabbi Kalinsky. “We wanted to raise the bar in IBC,” creating a program that “assumes a strong background in Jewish learning.” Last Spring (2013), one IBC Honors course was offered as a try-out; Classical Jewish History was taught by Dr. Schiffman, a leading expert on Dead Sea Scrolls. Benny Statman, a current IBC Honors student and member of Dr. Schiffman’s class, explained that “the class helped us figure out both what worked in IBC Honors and what needed improvement.” Mr. Statman was pleased with the intellectual level of the class, but was concerned about the onerous workload. After some fine-tuning to the program, it was decided that for the Fall 2013 semester, a full course-load of IBC Honors classes would be offered.

Course offerings this semester include Prophecies of Consolation with Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Biblical Midrash and Aggadah with Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Philosophical Writings of Rav Soloveitchik with Rabbi Yosef Bronstein, Hilchot Shabbat in the Talmud with Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank, and Practical Hilchot Shabbat with Rabbi Michoel Zylberman. As I am enrolled in three of these five classes, I can personally attest that the IBC Honors classes are exciting, challenging, and intellectually stimulating. Rabbi Angel’s class offers the opportunity to discuss the complex world of Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, and Yechezkel with a small group of motivated students and Rabbi Angel, himself, a world class educator and rabbi. Rabbi Wiederblank’s class offers a dynamic overview of the Melachot of Shabbat from the perspective of the Talmud, Rishonim, and modern day Halachik authorities.  Finally, Rabbi Wieder teaches us how to analyze Midrashim in a serious and meaningful way. You can find our class preparing various Midrashic sources in the Beit Midrash every Monday and Wednesday. I have heard excellent things about the other classes as well.

We are also looking forward to some exciting classes next semester. Dr. Schiffman will be returning to teach “Land of Israel through the Ages.” Rabbi Angel will be teaching more Tanach classes, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman will be exploring “Halachik Controversies,” and Rabbi Bronstein will be continuing his Jewish thought series with “Contemporary Jewish Thinkers.”

As of now, IBC Honors is not a wholly separate program. Any student in IBC is welcome to take an honors course. However, there are fewer than a dozen students taking two or more honors courses. Now that the first semester of IBC Honors is rapidly coming to a close, having successfully provided stimulating, rigorous classes for its students, we are looking to expand. What might IBC Honors have to offer you? I’ll answer this question by sharing my personal journey into this program.

Anyone who studied in a yeshiva in Israel prior to starting YU, (and many who did not) is used to hearing the question “so what shiur are you in?” The assumption behind this question, of course, is that anyone who has demonstrated interest in Torah study must be enrolled in an MYP shiur. And, in fact, many students coming from yeshivot begin their YU careers in MYP. After a short stint in a shiur that I could not follow for the life of me, I spent the majority of my first two years in YU in a serious and engaging MYP shiur. I enjoyed the shiur tremendously, having become proficient in the analysis of Talmud and Rishonim. However, as I matured and developed intellectually, I began to develop a desire to learn more than just Talmud. Through my exciting Jewish Studies courses and personal intellectual endeavors, I came to realize the world of Jewish learning is much vaster than the realm of abstract Halacha. As I approached the end of my formal Jewish education, I wanted to make sure I engaged with the many exciting fields of Jewish learning.

There also was a practical issue—it was becoming more difficult to concentrate on my MYP sedarim. As the schoolwork and extracurricular work began to pile on, the three hours of unstructured seder in MYP quickly became my time to catch up on work. I wanted to study Torah, but, practically speaking, it became exponentially harder and harder to spend the first three hours of my day sitting in the Beit Midrash. “IBC Honors provides a golden opportunity for students to grow spiritually in a unique structured environment,” wrote IBC student president Max Gordon in the IBC brochure. After hearing about Dr. Schiffman’s class and this new initiative from friends I decided to make the switch to IBC Honors.

I have identified three distinct elements in IBC Honors that I have personally benefited from: 1) Diversity in learning: I am no longer limited to the often esoteric minutiae (in a non-pejorative sense) of the Talmud. I am able to engage with a variety of texts related to the Talmud, Tanach, and beyond. 2) Structure: As I mentioned, the structured class-setting has benefited my learning substantially. 3) Conversation: IBC Honors contains a diverse group of motivated, thinking students. I have found that the group of students in IBC Honors are thinking about issues, be they related to a text or beyond, in interesting and nuanced ways. As Rabbi Hayyim Angel put it: “The students in my IBC Honors Tanakh shiur truly live up to the term ‘Honors.’ Their motivation, intellectual acumen, and contributions to the shiur make it an absolute pleasure as a learning experience.”

Granted, IBC Honors is not perfect. The administration still has to decide on whether or not the honors will be a separate program in IBC,with a special registration status required (such as the YC Honors Program, which is totally unaffiliated with the IBC program). Also, a major turn off of IBC for many students is the fact that 3 IBC credits must be transferred via an aggregate grade onto the regular college transcript, limiting IBC students to 14.5 credits per semester (really 12, considering that almost all college classes are 3 credits). IBC courses do fulfill Jewish Studies requirements for YC, so these courses need to be reflected on the transcript somehow, but a student should be able to take IBC for 1, 2, or even 2.5 credits, as in MYP. Students not fulfilling Jewish Studies requirements could conceivably have a zero credit option. No student should miss out on the Torah education that is best for him because of seemingly arbitrary credit limits.

YU teaches the many different aspects of Jewish learning to different people, at their own levels. “We want to cater to the students,” said Rabbi Kalinsky. “Each student must first decide what type of learning and schedule they want, and then they can choose a level. The other programs all have various levels. MYP has more skills based shiurim and more advanced shiurim. BMP has different levels. JSS has the Heritage program. And now IBC also has various levels to cater to different students.” Finally, added Rabbi Kalinsky, IBC Honors may have one more advantage: “We now have an attractive program that may be more appealing to a prospective student, particularly one that is considering YU against an Ivy League college.”

Each YU student must make a decision as to what they want to learn in the morning, how they want to learn it, and at what level they are most comfortable learning. Fortunately YU has filled a long empty void for the serious, motivated student with a strong background in learning looking to explore the broader world of Jewish texts.