The Students Respond: We Are Interested In Gemara!
After falling in love with learning Gemara in my classes at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) and Midreshet Lindenbaum, I proudly chose to attend YU with the hope to continue learning at the highest levels without compromising on secular academics. When I looked to register for classes, I was intimidated by the Advanced Talmud course, even though I had been in advanced shiurim in the past. It was known to be a very demanding shiur, and I was overwhelmed about committing to this difficult class every morning, along with all the other pressures of starting university. Once I began to warm up to the idea, I learned that my Sy Syms requirements conflicted with the advanced shiur, so it was suggested that I join the intermediate shiur instead. I had not known of the intermediate shiur before, but I’m so glad I found out about it. I had the absolute privilege of learning under Rabbi Moshe Kahn zt”l for a few months until he stopped teaching in November due to his declining health. I will always cherish the time I learned with him because he challenged me and empowered me to hold myself to the highest standard. He created a uniquely warm learning environment for a Zoom shiur, even with his uncompromising demand for precision.
Rabbi Joseph Schwarz took over the intermediate shiur in the middle of the Fall 2022 semester, after Rabbi Kahn was no longer able to teach, and continued into the Spring. Ms. Tzophia Stepansky, a third-year student in GPATS, taught Intro to Talmud, however, this class was cut for the Spring due to a lack of enrollment (despite having had six members in its final semester, and no one knowing how many students might have signed up in the Spring). Because of this, several students seeking an introductory Gemara course joined the intermediate track, eager to learn with the options available to them. Rabbi Joseph Schwarz graciously accepted all the students who joined and was careful to pace his shiur so that no student fell behind. However, some students, including myself, felt that the class no longer fit our needs, now that it was being taught at a more introductory level. With the cancellation of the introductory shiur, the intermediate class no longer catered to either beginner or intermediate students, and dropped to four members. That left the intermediate level students with no shiur to learn in.
This story is not just anecdotal. In fact, the intermediate course, along with two other courses, has now been canceled for Fall 2023 due to low enrollment. Thankfully, right before this article was published, there has been a discussion for the courses to be reinstated. It is still important, however, to discuss the claims that have been circulating that Beren students are no longer interested in learning Gemara. While the enrollment numbers may seem disheartening, I can assure you that there is more behind this story, and that the women at Stern College and Sy Syms are dedicated to Gemara study in university and beyond. So what is the reason for low enrollment? Perhaps it is not a lack of interest, but a lack of accessibility to these courses, specifically Intermediate Talmud.
A number of factors other than “lack of interest” contributed to the recent drop in enrollment in Intermediate Talmud. First, the Intermediate Talmud course did not transition back to “in person” after the height of the pandemic when most others did. This discouraged many students, who did not have a preexisting relationship with Rabbi Kahn, from joining the course. Second, Rabbi Joseph Schwartz took over in the middle of the Fall semester, it was unclear if he was going to be the long-term instructor, or if a new teacher was going to take over in Spring, and people were afraid to sign up without a guarantee of consistency. Additionally, the cancellation of the introductory shiur led to confusion about what the skill level of the intermediate shiur would be going forward. With no set teacher and no continuity, there was no one to explain what the course was or encourage students to enroll.
Low enrollment is very unfortunate because the Intermediate Talmud shiur is valuable for two reasons: it caters to a unique skill level and acts as an afternoon shiur for students who are unable to join the 9 a.m. advanced shiur. The biggest barrier to entry for students who wish to take Advanced Talmud is a myriad of scheduling conflicts with the class. While on Wilf the time slots for Judaics and secular courses are separate, these types of courses occur concurrently on the women’s campus. This forces students to choose between their required secular courses and the beloved Talmud class. Conflicts occur for business, biology, and Hebrew classes, to name a few, and even Jewish Education fieldwork.
Rabbi Kahn valued keeping his shiurim open for any number of students and even continued teaching when only one student joined. This legacy should be continued under any circumstances. Still, we would like to assure everyone that Gemara interest is alive and well on Beren Campus. With a few WhatsApp inquiries, I easily compiled a list of 14 students on campus and about ten more incoming students currently in seminary, who have expressed interest in an intermediate shiur, that's 24 students for one shiur option. This is a good start, and we can only increase these numbers if the classes are offered in the Fall. The more Gemara learning opportunities that exist at Beren at every level, the more students will be interested in them.
We, the interested Beren Talmud students, would love to partner with the administration, to offer our feedback and support so that we can help keep these shiurim. Dean Shoshana Schechter, Dr. Deena Rabinovich and Mrs. Nechama Price have built an incredible foundation of Torah studies on the Beren campus including creating a lively beit midrash, brimming with exciting initiatives such as campus couples, graduate programs, Mechina programs and a wide range of classes. We know that increasing Talmud shiurim on Beren fits into this broader goal. We all should certainly continue the conversation about how to create more interest in Gemara on Beren and the community at large. For now, students and faculty alike are interested in making Gemara accessible to more women in Beren. We look forward to the meeting scheduled to discuss this issue. So let’s work together and make this happen!