A Forgotten Shoemaker: A Pragmatic Solution to Women’s Torah Learning at YU
A celebrated story in “the yeshivas” tells of a young Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin). Young Naftali, like others his age, didn’t take Torah too seriously. However, that changed one evening when Naftali overheard his parents discussing his educational progress. They had decided, following Eastern European style parent-teacher conferences, that Naftali’s lack of intelligence and/or effort showed him unfit to continue learning in yeshiva. Instead, Naftali would be trained as a shoemaker. When Naftali overheard this gloomy conversation about his future, he broke into tears, burst down the stairs, and begged his parents for one more chance. What did they do? They conceded to the distraught child, and the rest is history. The Netziv is the archetypical story of how a once hopeless child joined the chain of Jewish intellectual history. Unlike Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik, the Netziv’s co-rosh yeshiva in Volozhin, the Netziv wasn’t known for his analytic acuity but for his work ethic. His story occupies a warm spot in my heart; it’s a story about the intersection of opportunity and hard work in religious excellence.
Recently, a Stern student penned an article detailing the struggle of female students at YU to connect to the "Yeshiva." That article's frustration, I believe, is based on the premise that the women of Yeshiva are part of the "Yeshiva." The truth, sad as it may be, is that they're not. Let me explain. The term "the Yeshiva," as colloquially used on the Wilf campus, refers to the male yeshiva, RIETS. The semantic confusion can be summed up as "Yeshiva" versus ישיבה. While the former is a shorthand of Yeshiva University (which includes both male and female students), the latter is a more narrow term referring to Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchannan (known as RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University limited to men. Yet, even this distinction does not do full justice to clarifying the mix-up. Some refer to the semikha program as RIETS, further adding to the confusion. The distinction, albeit artificially semantic, reveals an acute tension at Yeshiva University. Undergraduate men maintain membership in a yeshiva, in addition to their college courses, whereas undergraduate women are restricted to Jewish studies classes and Batei Midrash. RIETS, the (male) yeshiva branch of YU, is an aggregate of undergraduates, rabbinical students, and post-semikha fellows.
As far as the male Yeshiva is concerned, YU offers a developed program. The RIETS staff includes eight mashgichim (spiritual guides) for MYP/BMP/IBC, a mashpia (Rav Moshe Weinberger), and many roshei yeshiva and magedei shiur. In addition, eight night chaburot and six day chaburot— according to the "Guide to the Yeshiva" brochure—are available for students throughout the day, to keep the proverbial flame alive. Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu, how fortunate are we for these remarkable opportunities and resources!
Some belittle or denigrate RIETS offerings and resources. Personally, I enjoy shmoozing with mashgichim, meeting with roshei yeshiva to discuss personal and communal challenges, and attending the myriad of shiurim. What's more, the occasional Rosh Chodesh farbregen with the Mashpia or the heart-to-heart series of shiurim on contemporary religious struggles brings me back to my yeshiva-in-Israel experience.
Torah Learning and Spiritual Opportunities on the Beren Campus
But while the multitude of resources available on the Wilf campus are impressive, the parallel resources and opportunities on the Beren campus are egregiously insufficient. Let’s begin with Beren’s religious staff. There is Mrs. Rachel Ciment, Director of Spiritual Guidance, who arranges shiurim with RIETS roshei yeshiva and mashgichim, runs the seminary madrichot program, and meets one-on-one with students (among other things). In addition to Mrs. Ciment, Rabbi Yosef Blau, senior mashgiach ruchani at RIETS, and Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg are the campus mashgichim. Although Rabbi Blau spends most of his time on the Wilf campus, he travels twice a week to be with students at Beren. These three positions along with Rabbi Daniel Lerner, campus rabbi, who gives shiurim and facilitates a meaningful Shabbat experience, comprise the entire religious staff on the Beren campus. The disparity in religious staff on the two campuses is shocking, especially since they are similar in size. There is one more key religious figure on Beren campus who I neglected to include, but this is due to the complex nature of his position. Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, chair of the Beren Jewish Studies department, is also intimately involved in Torah learning on campus. However, while YU embraces the interface of academia and Torah, it must be recognized nonetheless that a proper religious environment requires religious personalities and the opportunity to interact with them in the beit midrash and at religious events. A department head—even one responsible for tremendous positive change on the Beren campus—is not a rosh yeshiva or a rosh beit midrash. Ideological leaders and personalities with whom the students identify are necessary for religious growth.
The lack of leadership and religious staff at Beren only becomes more striking when viewed together with its lesser educational opportunities. In terms of non-course, learning opportunities: each week different roshei yeshiva and rabbeim from Uptown offer shiurim on the Beren campus. Even so, these shiurim do not maintain the same constancy as chaburot on the Wilf campus. The shiurim are topical rather than sequential. In a spectacular occurrence this past Yom Ha'atzmaut, there was both a tefilla chagigit and yom iyun on the Beren campus. Yet, many students bemoaned the lack of spiritual staff and leadership at the aforementioned programming. Nevertheless, both events represent tremendous breakthroughs for the female undergraduate population and are worthy of recognition.
A Beit Midrash Institution for Women on the Beren Campus
It seems that YU needs a new institution on the Beren Campus, parallel to the “Yeshiva.” First, let me clarify what I do not mean and then what I actually envision. (In this article, I am not calling to reform the Jewish studies curriculum on the Beren campus, although further discussion on the matter is imperative. It should be noted that many women on the Beren campus have taken interest in a YP-like morning program. This is beyond the scope of this article, but should remain part of the conversation.) I am not calling for an equivalent of the RIETS semikha program on the Beren campus. It must be acknowledged, however, that the creation of GPATS (the Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study) is a wonderful accomplishment, allowing women to continue to learn and connect to Torah on an advanced level and to prepare (much needed) leaders and educators for the Jewish community. Now, for the institution I do envision. I believe the new Beit Midrash institution should have a female rosh beit midrash. It is crucial to have an ideological leader, guide, and role-model at the center of the Torah institution; in addition, the rosh beit midrash must not only be charismatic but a genuine talmidat hakhamim. Moreover, as one prominent Jewish educator noted, women in the Jewish community lack close access to and relationships with roshei yeshiva and community leaders and, therefore, struggle to relate to rabbinic authority. Having an erudite Torah personality at the top of this new institution would aid this tumultuous problem. Furthermore, other rising stars in the Modern Orthodox community should be brought in, both as teachers and as mashgichim and mashgichot, similar to the ones on the Wilf campus. Just as the Wilf campus faculty is devoted to the Uptown community, the Beren faculty should be dedicated exclusively to the Beren community. This faculty should be involved on campus during chagim and other religious events, allowing women to connect to their teachers beyond the classroom or beit midrash—as holistic Torah personalities. Just as Yeshivat Har Etzion and Migdal Oz are separate batei midrash, yet exist under a larger umbrella institution and share common values , I believe RIETS and the Beren Beit Midrash should be two independent entities within the larger YU community. Each should have their own religious staff, learning programs, and facilities. We should see ourselves as one community, but recognize that we have separate needs. Lastly, parallel to the MYP on Wilf campus, I believe GPATS should be included in the new Beit Midrash, to foster a more holistic Torah-learning community and to set up role-models and aids for younger students. This article is meant to advocate practical change. I refer the readers to Adin Rayman’s April article for the reasons why these changes are necessary.
The story of the Netziv contains one additional layer. When the Netziv had completed his commentary on the Shi’iltot, dubbed the Ha’emek She’ayla, he had invited friends and students to a party in celebration. At this party, the Netziv recalled the aforementioned childhood story. The Netziv concluded the story with the following thought: What if he had become a shoemaker (perhaps a good one)? What would he say at the Heavenly tribunal when they asked him for his work the Ha’emek She’ayla or his commentary on the Torah, Ha’emek Davar, or his commentary on the Talmud, Meromei Sade? He would reply, ‘I am but a shoemaker, unable to read, let alone write, any of those works.’ It was then the Netziv realized his calling, that he wouldn’t be just a shoemaker. Nevertheless, the Netziv only achieved spiritual connection and religious greatness because of an opportunity. Let’s give our women an opportunity, too.