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GPATS Students: New Proposed Changes to GPATS Threaten Women’s Learning at Yeshiva University

Note: The Commentator will provide updates on this developing story as more information becomes available.

Recent developments at Yeshiva University’s Master’s Program in Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation, commonly referred to as GPATS (Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Study), indicate that proposed changes to the program may significantly alter the future of women’s learning at Yeshiva University.

GPATS, established by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm as a certificate program in 1999, was initially financed by a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation. Since its first class in the Fall 2000, GPATS has undergone many changes, notably becoming a two-year degree granting program conferring a Master's of the Arts. Until now, GPATS has been the premier program for women to study Talmud and halakhah in the United States and has offered the most rigorous course of study for those seeking to immerse themselves in Torah learning. Recent documents, however, reveal that its commitment to maintaining that course of study has been called into question.

“such curriculum changes undermine the level of learning in the program and undercuts the progress that has been made in women’s learning in the Orthodox community in the last few decades.” - GPATS student

The current financial turmoil at Yeshiva University have led Stern College to give up the reins to the program. As was reported by The Observer, Rabbi Kenneth Brander has assumed leadership of GPATS and has committed to continuing the program despite the financial difficulties. However, a proposal stemming from his office detailing a significantly different vision for GPATS has recently emerged, with notable changes to curriculum, schedule, and finances. This new vision has greatly alarmed students and alumni of the program, who are deeply concerned about the potential direction of the program. If incorporated, these changes would only begin after this year's cohort graduate the program next year.

The released proposal suggests a complete overhaul of the GPATS curriculum. Currently, GPATS’s full-day learning schedule reflects the curricula of traditional Yeshivot, and includes gemara be-iyyun of a chosen masekhta during morning seder. In keeping with the rigorous schedule of torah learning, the program continues with halakhah be-iyyun, including a year of hilkhos niddah and a second year focused on basar be-chalav and ta’aroves during afternoon seder.

The tentative curriculum would eliminate traditional iyyun study of gemara in favor of studying selected sugyos in Shas – the "top twenty" sugyas. Even more concerning to the women currently in the program and the program's alumni is the removal of Yoreh De’ah from the curriculum entirely, including both issur ve-heter and niddah, which will be replaced with the relatively less sophisticated Orech Chayyim, including hilkhos tefillah, Shabbos and mo’adim. Most importantly, the suggested adjustments seem to replace the dual halakhah and gemara curriculum with one year of gemara study and one year of halakhah study. If true, this would effectively cut the number of daily study sessions in half.

A current GPATS student who wished to remain unnamed was deeply disturbed by the proposal, stating that “such curriculum changes undermine the level of learning in the program and undercuts the progress that has been made in women’s learning in the Orthodox community in the last few decades.”

In addition to changes in Torah content, the proposed change to GPATS would further incorporate so-called "professional development" in the curriculum to teach skills such as public speaking and preparing shi’urim. Although the GPATS program already includes such training, these sessions have only taken place during lunch break and have not been held during time allotted for seder. However, the proposal expects that this training take place during the afternoon and early evening, thus conflicting with--and likely replacing--afternoon seder. This modification would significantly reduce the number of hours spent on Torah study.

Beyond the curriculum changes, the financing of GPATS would undergo a drastic shift. Whereas until this point all fully matriculated students have received a stipend for study, under the new plan stipends for students will be discontinued. Instead, students who plan to pursue a professional career in Jewish communal work can attend the program for free, while those who choose other professions would be required to pay $15,000 per year.

In a meeting with GPATS students, Rabbi Brander suggested that further financial changes might be necessary, including the possibility of finding a "creative way" to reduce the number of faculty to ensure a salary would be available a new potential director position. Such changes reflect the difficult financial reality of YU and are part of a broader trend of budget cuts and reductions throughout the university.

According to women in the program contacted for this story, the lack of stipend will drastically limit the pool of applicants who can afford to spend two years on talmud Torah. This is especially true since there is less of an expectation that women in the Orthodox community immerse themselves in full-time Torah study as compared to men, and thus women often have relatively limited parental support. Additionally, those in the program question the choice to impose tuition on those who want to focus on Torah study le-shemah (for its own sake) which, they say, will further constrain the applicant pool, and lower the learning level of the program by dissuading more intellectually oriented students from attending.

The various elements of the proposed program appear to reflect a new vision for GPATS, one that sees it first priority as producing female community leaders for the Jewish community. This stands in contrast to the original vision of GPATS, which, in the words of Rabbi Lamm, “represents a unique opportunity for women to continue their study of Talmud and Talmudic Literature beyond the college years,” as published by the Commentator in 1999.

Many students and alumni fear that the new proposal represents a transformation of GPATS from a program centered around Torah study to a vocational program, a "complete overhaul," according to one student.  Derora Tropp, an alumna of Stern (’10) and GPATS (’12), is “extremely dismayed” to hear of the tentative changes and says that the “new vision demeans not only the people who have invested in and participated in the program but to anyone who thinks that women should have the opportunity to learn gemara and halakhah seriously."