By: Shira Levy | Features  | 

The Stern Gemara Program: A Look At Where We Are Compared to Where We Started

40 years ago, in 1977, Rav Joseph B. Solovetichik sat in the Stern College Beit Midrash surrounded by eagerly awaiting students, and gave the first gemara shiur on the Beren Campus, initiating Stern’s gemara program. With Rabbi Saul Berman, then serving as the Chairman of the Department of Judaic Studies of Stern College, past YU President Dr. Norman Lamm, current Katz Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon, and current YU Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Mordechai Willig in attendance, the Rav began discussing the opening Mishna of the tenth chapter in tractate Pesachim. There were no ribbons, speeches, or ceremonies; just a teacher, the Torah he gave over, and his unequivocal support. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Rav’s commencing shiur, compelling the YU community to reexamine the program set in motion by that single shiur many years ago. The Rav set the ball rolling, but where have we taken it?

By Rabbi Berman’s account, the Stern gemara program’s first fall semester, taught by Rabbi Willig, had a total of 60 women enrolled. This number is rivaled only by the 63 women registered in years 1989 and 2000. In the few years following its inception, the enrollment in the gemara program dropped such that in 1984 only 13 women were enrolled in the program. Since 1983 the program has averaged 24 students a semester, with an all time low of two women enrolled in 1987, 10 years after the program had begun.

When it began in 1977, the Stern gemara program consisted of an Intermediate and an Advanced Talmud course. The Advanced course met twice a week and required three hours of shiur and six hours of seder per week. At the time, the two courses were divided based on previous experience with gemara learning. Women who had been offered gemara in their high school or seminary enrolled in the Advanced course while women who had not previously encountered Talmud study enrolled in the Intermediate course.

Today, the Stern gemara program consists of four course options: two advanced, one intermediate, and one introductory course. One Advanced Talmud course, taught by Rav Moshe Kahn, meets four times a week, totaling five and a half hours of shiur each week and an hour and a half of scheduled seder time. This stands in addition to the time students are required to find on their own each day to prepare for shiur. The second Advanced Talmud course, recently added for the Fall 2017 semester and taught by Rav Ezra Schwartz, meets twice a week in the evenings for a total of two hours of shiur, and includes four hours of scheduled seder. Both Advanced Talmud classes are worth five credits, the equivalent of two classes. The Intermediate Gemara class, also taught by Rav Moshe Kahn, meets twice a week, for a total of three hours and 20 minutes, with students also expected to independently supplement shiur with seder. Given that this course is one hour more than a standard Judaic studies course, it is worth four credits as opposed to the expected three. Introduction to Talmud is taught by Rabbi Pahmer, twice a week for three credits.

Rav Kahn began teaching in the JSS program (an undergraduate Torah studies program for students with less familiarity with textual studies) in Yeshiva College in 1978, and in 1983 was asked to teach in the Stern gemara program. Despite warnings against him accepting the position, Rav Kahn decided to accept. “I felt like it was the right thing to do and just ignored the people who thought I should not do it,” Rav Kahn explained, “I didn’t believe I was making a mistake.” Initially he shared his time between Yeshiva College and Stern College, but by 1988 he was teaching all of his classes in Stern. Rav Kahn’s teaching style targets what he sees as “the two core aspects of learning successfully:” textual skills and analytical thinking about the texts. Rav Kahn says he finds “many students whose analytic ability is strong but textual skills tend to be weaker, so I try to combine both.” His class is unique in the way he emphasizes “being honest and truthful to the text”. Rav Kahn feels that “to focus on analysis and not pay attention to the text...would be really doing a disservice to the students.”

Since the beginning of his time at Stern, Rav Kahn has noticed consistently fewer women enrolled in the Spring semesters than in the Fall. For example, in the Fall of 1992 there were 28 women enrolled in the gemara program, and the following Spring that number dropped to 13. Rav Kahn speculates that this is due to repeated scheduling conflicts with secular classes required for the different majors on the Beren Campus -- in Spring 2017, Organic Chemistry, Elementary Education, Physiology, Anatomy, Cognitive Psychology, and Cell Biology courses conflicted with the Advanced Gemara course, preventing many students who had been enrolled in the Fall semester from continuing. Talia Edelman, a Junior Neuroscience major, recalls how she “was very excited that [she] would be able to advance [her] learning of gemara in Stern, but was disappointed to see that [she] could not take the Advanced Talmud course while also fulfilling the biology major. Any advanced biology course that [she] could register for was … at the same time as Advanced Gemara.” Rav Kahn described how “over the years students [told] me they want to take my class but they can’t, they have so many conflicts.”

This challenge, unique to the women on Beren campus, exists because Stern does not share Yeshiva College’s Undergraduate Torah Studies system of time allotted solely for seder, shiur, or Judaic studies courses. A larger issue arises when discussing the scheduling conflicts -- Stern students are forced to make compromises in their Talmud Torah when Torah competes with required secular coursework. This year, however, Rav Schwartz’s additional evening Advanced Talmud course alleviated some of the conflicts, allowing more students to enroll in Advanced Talmud.

Rav Schwartz, a current Rosh Yeshiva of YU, began teaching in Stern in the Fall of 2017. His Advanced Talmud class was created in response to the multitude of scheduling conflicts discussed above. Rav Schwartz’s teaching style differs from Rav Kahn’s, offering, for the first time, a degree of choice for the women of Stern to determine their preference. Since the beginning of the Stern gemara program, there has only been one shiur option as opposed to the multiple different options of shiurim taught by different Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbi’s in the male Talmud program. Differing from Rav Kahn’s style, Rav Schwartz’s shiur deals mainly with analytical skills. “We try to flush out some of the various halachic nafka minas that are given,” said Rav Schwartz. “We try to flush out why answer one does not look like answer two, and we try to build something upon that.”

Looking forward, Rav Schwartz and Rav Kahn have similar visions of what they would like to see in the future of Stern’s gemara program. They each iterated with great seriousness the importance of making more time available for Stern students to develop their learning skills and gain a wider breadth of knowledge. According to Rav Kahn, “the students need overall to have more time to learn. I think that could improve the quality of learning at Stern College.” The next step for Stern’s gemara program must be enabling more time for shiur and building seder into the schedule. Rav Kahn hopes to see a Stern College where scheduling is not an impediment for Torah learning. He describes the tension between academic responsibility and Talmud Torah as “very self defeating.” He reasons, “why would someone come to Stern College? It’s because we have Torah here! And then they can’t learn the Torah they want because they have to take biology!” Rav Schwartz also underscores the importance of creating more shiur options. “There’s a need for more seder time and there’s a need for more shiur options. When I was the bochen (tester) of YP,” he explained “I would be able to tell every prospective student I have 20 some odd shiurim divided up into 5 styles of teaching, and within each style and I have 3 or 4 different levels.” He hopes Stern will eventually develop a program that is larger and deeper, making more time and resources available to the women involved.

To Rav Schwartz, however, until there are more women involved in the gemara learning, growing Stern’s program does not appear sustainable. When discussing this Rav Schwartz said, “I think one of the impediments to women growing in learning is that if a guy walks around with a gemara everyone says ‘wow he’s frum’, if a woman walks around with a gemara somehow that comes across as being less frum.” Rav Schwartz believes that Stern students who currently take gemara need to speak to each other and encourage others to break this stigma and increase the enrollment in the Talmud classes. He explained how students need to motivate others to “take [the gemara course]! It’s intellectually challenging, it will help you appreciate dvar hashem, it will help you appreciate that the mesorah is imminent, and help you appreciate what gedolei yisroel are.” Both Rav Schwartz and Rav Kahn hope to see Stern’s infrastructure grow to give more to women seeking out Talmud Torah an opportunity to participate in serious learning, but Rav Schwartz adds that internal growth among the students is vital.

Stern’s gemara program has a lot to show for its growth in the past 40 years: its committed teachers, attentive and engaged students, and a vibrant beit midrash. Both Rav Kahn and Rav Schwartz describe the dedication of their students, and the rigorous level of each class, challenging the women to work harder and learn more. Still, there is much to be desired. Teachers and students alike hope to see the issue of scheduling conflicts resolved, seder time built into the courses, and greater enrollment among the women in Stern. 40 years ago, Rav Soloveitchik came forward in unflinching support for a program that would become the pillar of many student’s Torah learning experience at Stern College. 40 years later, both teachers and students are working hard to realize the Rav’s vision. The Rav set the ball rolling, and now it is our responsibility to run with it.