GPATS: 20 years of Advanced Torah Learning Marked with Monumental Enrollment Increase
This semester, Fall 2020, will mark Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program of Advanced Talmudic Studies’ (GPATS) 21st year since its inauguration in 2000. Currently the only Orthodox program in North America for serious, high-level Torah learning for women that confers a Master’s degree upon graduation, this year’s GPATS incoming class size of 23 students is the first substantial enrollment increase since inception, up from only 11 students last year (see chart).
Major parts of GPATS’ current program include pedagogic training and internships, some of which include pastoral training. While many graduates pursue Jewish Education, students have also had the opportunity to participate in a wide range of Jewish leadership internships, including hospital chaplains and clergy positions in shuls like Lincoln Square Synagogue. Additionally, recent graduates pursue many varied careers after GPATS. Many students study in GPATS for one or two years before going on to graduate schools for medicine, law, history, psychology and many more.
As described by Director Nechama Price, “Being in GPATS is a life-changing experience, where you learn a tremendous amount of Torah, enhance textual and conceptual skills in Torah learning, and are exposed to leading Torah scholars. Students benefit from a faculty with deep expertise in Talmud, Halacha (Jewish Law), and Tanach (Bible) and who embody the attributes of humility, kindness, and commitment.”
President Berman commented on the current enrollment increase with the incoming 2020 class, stating that “supporting and increasing opportunities for women’s learning on all levels is a key priority for YU.” He expressed that YU is very proud of these women who “chose to spend additional years of learning Torah at GPATS” and concluded that “these students represent the future leaders and educators of our community, and we continue to look for ways to further grow the program.”
The Early Years: 1999-2003
Originally referred to as the “Torah She-Ba'al Peh program,” GPATS was announced in 1999 under the auspices of then-YU president Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm — who passed away in May — and funded with a $1.6 million pledge by the Avi Chai Foundation.
The two-year program with Gemara seder/shiur in the morning and halakha in the afternoon, started off as a certificate program in advanced Talmudic studies. Women also had the option to simultaneously pursue a Master's degree in Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration by enrolling in evening courses, tuition-free. Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel was appointed the director of this new initiative along with an advisory committee: Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik, Dr. Karen Bacon — who was the dean of Stern College for Women (SCW) at the time — and Rabbi Moshe Kahn. For the inaugural class, Rabbi Kahn was hired to teach the morning seder Gemara along with Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh teaching halakha; Rabbi Eitan Mayer joined the program the following year to teach the new cohort’s halakha shiur.
Beginning in the 2000-2001 school year, this exclusive program which provided an $18,000 stipend (and created slight controversy, especially when compared to the Wilf campus’ much smaller stipend) had an application designed to foster competition, and only accepted 10 women a year. In the first year, they accepted 10 out of 16 applicants and had 8 women enroll, and in the second year, 10 out of over 20 applicants were accepted. With this competitive program, students were expected to have finished a minimum of two years of college-level Gemara study and have adequate skills in Aramaic and Talmudic texts.
For the first two years of the program’s existence, the halakha curriculum constituted Hilkhot Shabbat for first-year students and Niddah for second-year students, but starting in 2002-2003, first-year students learned Hilkhot Kashrut, a curriculum which continued for almost all of the following cohorts. Two “comprehensive examinations” were given in both Talmud and halakha each semester, and today’s program has similar bechinot.
At the time, it was unclear what would be the equivalent course of study for women graduating from colleges other than SCW, but there were women from colleges such as Brandeis, Queens, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the first two years of the program. The opportunity to get a degree from Azrieli as well as the curriculum’s focus on methods to teach Judaic studies, were all part of the vision (but not requirements) to train women to be future educators in Talmud and halakha.
The original grant from Avi Chai was only for three years, and Rabbi Lamm was unsure if the grant would be renewed until June 2002, when the Avi Chai Foundation informed YU that they would provide a new grant for another cohort of 10 women. At that point, it was announced that some of the grant money would be used to hire a second Talmud teacher. Rabbi Mayer switched to teaching Talmud alongside Rabbi Kahn, and Rabbi Gedalya Berger started teaching the second year halakha shiur, Niddah. Around that time, the question of the grant’s goals for the graduates’ careers came into question; perhaps it was expected for all of them to go on to be Talmud teachers, but Avi Chai insisted that they did not have such an agenda. However, women in the first cohort requested for a twice-a-week Tanakh option and were denied by the foundation, citing Bible options available to them at the Bernard Revel Graduate School.
While it seems that the program in its early years did not have problems attracting applicants, in its fourth year, 2003, Rabbi Kanarfogel reported that they were now having an easier time finding fully qualified applicants, with the required strong Gemara skills. Another change was that many women enrolled in GPATS were not completing the full two-year program, instead choosing to attend for one year only before entering a different graduate program, a departure from the original intended goal to prepare Jewish educators. Overall, the growing interest in the program was seen as a potential sign of increased acceptance from the wider Orthodox community for women’s learning and dwindling controversy. Students proposed ideas to ramp up recruiting, including getting the word out to SCW students and GPATS participants giving shiurim or chaburot to undergraduate students. Ultimately, however, only seven fully-qualified women applied for the next cohort by the deadline, prompting the faculty to suggest making the application requirements a bit more flexible. At the time, Rabbi Kahn also pointed out that a significant number of SCW women were opposed to learning Gemara on hashkafic grounds, which could have been contributing to the low application rates.
Expansion and Evolvement: 2004-2013
Four years after its inception, two of the program’s rabbis, Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh and Rabbi Mayer, made aliyah and left the program, and Rabbi Binyamin Tabory joined the staff for his sabbatical year from Yeshivat Har Etzion. Around that time, Rabbi Daniel Wolff joined the program for a short time teaching Halakha, and upon his departure, the shiurim were combined into one halakha shiur. At that time there were conversations about the program conferring a master’s degree upon completion, and it was reported by The Commentator that the process had begun. The process ended up taking a lot more time, nearing completion in 2008, when they gained approval, and SCW began to grant the degree in Fall 2009. Reflecting back on that time, some alumni noted that the transition of the program to a master’s program was a practical decision because prior to that, graduates were only receiving a certificate which was not comparable to smicha awarded to men for similar learning, and, therefore, didn’t improve job prospects. However, they also expressed that the program was originally designed to be for full-time, yeshiva-style learning and not for a master’s degree.
In 2006, Rabbi Shmuel Hain was appointed as the Rosh Beit Midrash and taught a Gemara shiur. It was then that the program began being known as GPATS. A new collaboration between GPATS and Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) began with a senior fellowship for women who finished the two-year certificate program, but it was not continued much longer after that year. The 2006 class had 11 graduates, reported to be the largest class yet, with most of the graduates also pursuing graduate degrees in education. However, at that time GPATS did have some diversity of student’s career paths. For example, an Australian student, Leonie Hardy, received an MD and practiced medicine for two years before joining the program. In 2007, GPATS’ mission statement was “to develop an elite cadre of female scholars of Talmud and Halacha who will serve as leaders and role models for the Orthodox Jewish community,” and didn’t mention anything about training teachers.
The Avi Chai Foundation stopped providing financial support for the program in 2008 and subsequently, SCW took over providing funding for the program. GPATS began granting a master’s degree in Biblical and Talmudic interpretation in 2009, with an added requirement of two fully-funded courses from YU’s Revel and/or Azrieli graduate schools. Any additional courses at these schools were also free for current GPATS students up until 2018. Rabbi Hain left the program in 2011 and was replaced by Rabbi David Nachbar as a new maggid shiur while Rabbi Yosef Blau started increasing his presence in the Beren Beit Midrash. The Center for the Jewish Future began to have a larger role in the programming, enriching GPATS scholars “through pedagogic training, scholar-in-residence opportunities in synagogues around the country, and placement for significant positions in Jewish education.” Despite all of these changes, the program had very little growth, partially due to high acceptance requirements for applicants, and perhaps, as some speculated at the time, due to a lack of support from YU roshei yeshiva and members of the YU administration.
In 2013, GPATS was reportedly flourishing, with a new opportunity for SCW undergraduates to begin the master’s degree in their senior year with a joint B.A.-M.A. program, of which five women enrolled in that year. Additionally, the CJF continued to help further expand GPATS with its co-curricular pedagogical program, with Rabbi Kenneth Brander and Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter at the forefront of these changes.
Financial Instability, Transition and Perseverance: 2014-2019
In 2014, however, no new students enrolled in GPATS; since the program only consisted of second-year fellows, there were worries about GPATS shutting down. In light of YU’s grave financial situation at the time, numerous master’s programs were discontinued, and many thought that GPATS would follow. Instead, GPATS was restructured — largely by Rabbi Brander — and was transferred from being part of SCW to being under the CJF, which also started covering the program’s funding. The stipend for fellows was lowered to the current sum of $5,000, which is less than 20% of the original stipend in 2000 (taking inflation into account). In May, The Commentator reported a potential curriculum overhaul, with changes to the Gemara learning and halakha sugyot, such as swapping Gemara B’iyun for a “top twenty” sugyot course and replacing Yoreh De’ah with Orech Chaim, which students were very unhappy about. Ultimately, these changes were withdrawn, and GPATS maintained a full morning seder of Gemara B’iyun and generally followed a two-year halacha cycle of Niddah or Kashrus (though a cohort may vote and choose a topic from Orech Chaim).
While the curriculum swap was unrealized, GPATS transitioned from mainly training teachers to producing female community leaders, like yoatzot halakha, for the Jewish community. The GPATS administrators envisioned GPATS to be a pre-professional program, to prepare “students for careers outside the Beit Midrash,” as Rabbi JJ Schachter phrased it.
Following the uncertainty surrounding GPATS’ future, in Fall 2014, Professor Nechama Price, a GPATS alum of 2003 herself, was hired as the new director and the first female faculty member of the women’s graduate program. In 2016, Professor Price brought back and reenvisioned the Beit Midrash Summer Program that ran from 2006 through 2009 by establishing the highly successful Beren June Zman, led by Rabbi Nachbar, a GPATS Gemara maggid shiur. Parallel to the Wilf Campus’ June Zman program, this summer learning program was created in an effort to increase Torah learning opportunities for undergraduate students and recent graduates of SCW and other universities. As explained by Rabbi Nachbar, “June Zman is one way in which GPATS seeks to enrich the religious life of undergraduate students on campus.” For the past five summers, the summer course typically attracted 25-30 students; this summer’s online platform had over 60 women participate via Zoom. Professor Price also spearheaded the “Sunday Night Learning: Empowered by GPATS” program in 2017 for female high school girls, giving them a chance to learn under GPATS students and faculty.
Following the announcement of Rabbi Brander’s departure in 2018, there were renewed concerns about GPATS’ stability due to the absence of a successor. Nevertheless, Professor Price assured that the program was financially stable and had President Berman’s full support.
Provost Selma Botman assumed a new senior advisor role in the GPATS faculty, and met with GPATS students who, afterwards, voiced tentative optimism to the YU Observer about the support from YU, pointing to vague statements and asked for a clearer vision for recruitment and advertising to ensure the program’s longevity. The 2018 year also had the smallest class size since the establishment of GPATS, with only 8 students enrolled, but 2019 saw an increase to 11 students.
In late 2019, Professor Price announced a new Tanach track starting Fall 2020. As Professor Price noted, she had envisioned this second track from the start of her appointment in 2014. In the early years of GPATS, women had expressed a desire for such a track and Rabbi Brander noted discussions in the works in his 2017 interview.
Prosperity and Growth: 2020
For Fall 2020, SCW Tanach professor Dr. Michelle Levine and Revel professor Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Berger will be running the morning Tanach seder with chavruta learning and an accompanying shiur. Dr. Levine, GPATS’ first female instructor, will be teaching Parshanut (Biblical exegesis), specifically about the different commentators and their unique approaches, while Rabbi Berger will be covering literary aspects within Tanach as well as Bekiyut learning. Tanach students will then join the Talmud students in the same afternoon halakha shiur and will receive the same $5,000 stipend. Instead of afternoon seder, they have the option to take classes at Revel Graduate school and count Tanach morning seder as 12 credits towards an M.A. from Revel. Aliza Pollack (GPATS ‘21), who is currently enrolled in the Tanach track, expressed that she’s been hoping for a program like this for years and is “so happy that it’s finally happening.”
For Fall 2020, there are 23 students enrolled in GPATS, a historic enrollment increase since its inception 20 years ago. Of that, 18 students are in their first year of learning, four are Shana Bet students, and one is Shana Gimmel. From the early years of the program, many women chose to stay an additional year (or more) to continue their learning as a fellow and received funding and had a role in assisting newer students in the program. Dr. Shana Strauch Schick, the first woman to receive a doctorate in Talmud from YU, and a student of GPATS from 2002-2007 reflected on her years in the program, sharing that “GPATS offered a unique opportunity to spend significant time in an immersive beit midrash environment.” Over the course of her five years at GPATS she was “able to engage in serious learning b'iyun in Gemara and Halakha, with a cohort of dedicated women.” Dr. Strauch Schick concluded, “GPATS is where I gained an understanding for what it means to learn Torah, and in turn established my path as a student and as a teacher.”
In more recent years, Shana Gimmel students stopped receiving a stipend, but some women still choose to stay a third year for the sake of additional Torah learning. There are 16 full-time students taking both morning and afternoon classes and two undergraduate students taking GPATS classes. Five students are enrolled in the Tanach track and the other 18 are in the Talmud track. As is the case with all Fall 2020 Beren courses, some GPATS faculty members are planning to teach on campus, while others will hold classes online. Nevertheless, all GPATS courses will be fully accessible via Zoom. This online format provides geographic flexibility for GPATS students, who previously needed to live in New York to attend courses. Pollack, whose husband’s last-minute job complications due to COVID-19 required them both to live in Chicago instead of in New York explained that only because GPATS is going to be online will she be able to continue with the program.
Furthermore, the two Revel or Azrieli courses that were required for the GPATS degree for over 10 years will no longer be mandatory. Instead, a GPATS student may pursue a second degree from another YU graduate school with a discount. In late spring 2020, newly appointed SCW Associate Dean for Torah Studies Shoshana Schechter took over Provost Botman’s role as the GPATS supervisor, working closely with Professor Price to administer the program. She added that GPATS classes will offer in-person instruction early (compared to other YU programs), Sept. 8., right after Labor Day, and is glad that there will be women learning in the Beren Beit Midrash before undergraduate students return to campus.
When asked what she attributes the growth of the program to, Professor Price identified a number of factors. First, she described that more women are recognizing “the impact” that learning Torah has on their lives. Nodding to the varied student make-up, she asserted that this impact holds up “whether these women are treating GPATS as a gap program prior to graduate school, or as a preparation for a lifetime as an educator.” She also pointed to the noticeable impact GPATS alumni left after 20 years of the program’s existence. Professor Price detailed the deliberate recruitment efforts, as was requested by GPATS fellows in 2018, including outreach to seminary students as well as in various SCW education classes. She finished off by expressing how thrilled she was to witness GPATS double in size and in programming, commenting that “this reflects a growing excitement amongst women for learning Torah and dedicating years to studying it.” Dean Schechter also conveyed that she is very much looking forward to GPATS’ continued growth. “Yeshiva University should be on the forefront of high level learning for women and GPATS is an integral part of that vision,” she said.
Editor’s Note: The second paragraph was edited to reflect the Jewish Education aspect of the GPATS program.
Editor’s Note: The first sentence in the second paragraph was edited to more accurately refer to the role of "pastoral training" in the program.
Photo Caption: GPATS Class of 2019 made a siyum to mark their learning in the two-year Gemara and Halakha program and their awarding of a master’s degree.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University