Community of Learners
At his speech at the Beren Campus orientation, President Richard Joel repeatedly encouraged us to utilize the newly renovated library uptown, while simultaneously informing us of the need to protect the “tradition” concealed within the Beit Midrash next door. The ambiguity of his statement has left me curious, and, passing by the Glueck building on my way to the library, I often wonder what purpose the Beit Midrash serves and the meaning of the tradition to which I am not privy. I do not want to complain about my desire to enter the uptown Beit Midrash or lament the fact that the building has a women’s section that is used by men more often than women. I am going to talk about the significance of a campus Beit Midrash, something that I hope many YU students, male and female, can relate to.
President Joel informed us first-year female students that the Beit Midrash uptown guards the foundation of Torah on which Yeshiva University is based. While it may serve such a purpose, it also acts as a modern center -- a cornucopia of Torah learning, one of the two pillars upon which Yeshiva University was built. The Beit Midrash is where the Roshei Yeshiva, the religious leaders of our university, reside, answering theological questions and assisting students in the constant endeavour of limud Torah (study of Torah). Inside that room is where RIETS, YC and Syms students study Mesechet Kiddushin together during the day and further their Torah learning at night. The single text creates a bond between the students by building a common ground on which they all can stand. While not every YC or Syms student is in a YP or BMP shiur, and not every YP or BMP shiur is learning the same perek, by virtue of their shared learning experience, the students utilizing the Beit Midrash are a community by default -- a community of learners.
A friend of mine at a different university brought that phrase to my attention: community of learners. It came up in a conversation about what she feels YU has and wishes her school would develop.
A community of learners is much more than the Jewish community provided by a Hillel on campus. It goes beyond a shared religious identity and common holiday experiences. What my friend described is a unified group of people who engage in Torah study as a way of connecting to Judaism, using it as a point of reflection for religious experiences and a means to spiritual connection. This is the type of environment created by many Yeshivot and Midrashot in Israel; a life centered around the Beit Midrash and an existence focused on learning with the goal of advancing Torah study. The Yeshiva University Beit Midrash does, well at least on the Wilf Campus, foster a comparable atmosphere of unity. For men at YC and Syms, the option to continue strengthening that connection is both available and encouraged.
Granted it is different, as is expected, when one leaves a life consumed by Torah study and enters a more academic environment. The presence and of the Beit Midrash, however, allows YC and male Syms students to return to that feeling of community.
Stern is a different story. We have a beautiful Beit Midrash, brightly lit with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the city and lined with bookshelves filled with sefarim (Jewish books), but when I walk in I do not feel that feeling. I do not feel that buzz and the sense that the people learning around me had the same thought when they walked into the room — “I came here to learn.”
The Beit Midrash at Stern, tucked away on the seventh floor, does not serve the same purpose as the Glueck Beit Midrash. We have no seder and shiur, making it difficult for the Beit Midrash to act as the focal point for Torah study on campus. There is no organized time during which a large portion of the undergraduate women's student body can convene to participate in the mission of limud torah. I take Judaic classes when they fit into my schedule and prepare for them when I find an hour to spare. While at Stern one is able to continue high-level Torah learning, it becomes an isolating experience. The relationships rooted in learning (aside from with my chavruta) become long distance, loosely based on infrequent run-ins with classmates in the hallway or terse conversations in the elevator. Our learning is independent of each other, preventing a community from forming, from growing, and from strengthening.
I would love if the community of learners uptown was open to me. I would love if I could join the tradition which President Joel hinted lies within the uptown Beit Midrash. But what I want most of all is to be able to create this culture in Stern. I’m not saying it cannot happen, and I am not saying it will not happen, but right now it is not happening. So I will register for Advanced Talmud II, schedule chavruta time in between labs, and do my best to foster the type of learning that could begin to unify the religious experience at Stern.