By: Dean Shoshana Schechter  | 

Torah Study at Stern College: Clarifying Misconceptions

We need to talk.

It’s time to have a real conversation about serious Torah study for women.

The Commentator’s attention-grabbing headline, “Three Talmud Courses on Beren Campus Canceled for Next Year,” has been widely perceived as heralding the elimination of Talmud at Stern College for Women, arguably one of the most serious institutions of advanced women’s Torah learning in North America. This is not the case.

So what is the real story behind this headline that has created a firestorm of reaction? 

First let’s establish the facts. Currently, there are more students enrolled in Judaic studies classes and more Torah learning taking place in classrooms and in our beit midrash than at any time in Stern College’s history. There are a record number of Torah classes in a variety of areas on five different levels. Rav Moshe Kahn, of blessed memory, can never be replaced, but his advanced Gemara shiur, as well as his advanced Halacha class, will be taught in the fall by Rabbi David Nachbar, a friend and colleague of Rabbi Kahn’s. We have 75 classes in the fall semester alone. Twenty of them are skills-based Halacha classes. 

In addition to the official classes, there are close to 15 optional shiurim and chaburot every week. Every Monday night one of the YU roshei yeshiva gives a shiur to a packed beit midrash.

Every Wednesday during club hour (at 2:45, smack in the middle of the academic day) there are shiurim given by renowned speakers that an average of 200 women attend. The beit midrash is overflowing at all hours with animated chavruta learning. We have two rabbinic couples, living on campus, organizing the campus wide learning throughout the day and into the night. My position as the associate dean of Torah and Spiritual Life is a newly established position put in place as a result of YU’s commitment to women’s Torah learning, and I am charged with driving these positive changes.

Torah at Stern College is flourishing.

There is also a more diverse student population on campus. Today’s Stern College students come from a wide range of backgrounds, skills, learning styles and hashkafot, different spiritual orientations. And all of these students are taking classes at their respective levels to accommodate their respective backgrounds and interests. The inclusive and broad kolah shel Torah — voice of Torah — reverberates throughout the day and into the night, from Mechina students who come with little to no learning background to our GPATS scholars. 

Here is the issue that no one is talking about. Women are choosing not to register for the array of Talmud classes we offer. The opportunities are available. We encourage students to take these classes. Shrinking enrollments in them means that we cannot offer certain classes. What we need to understand is why this is the new reality here in the United States, and, based on anecdotal findings from our colleagues in Israel, also true in some seminaries in Israel.

When we offer text-based Gemara classes on the beginner and intermediate levels, there is poor student registration. When we offer these same skills-based courses and call them Halacha classes that have Gemara study as a central activity, registration is much higher. 

Why is it with greater opportunities for women’s Gemara learning, fewer women are interested? It seems to be the trend that women are less interested in learning Gemara. This is not a Stern issue. It is a Jewish communal issue.

That is the real story.

Turning inward, our mission at Stern College has always prioritized serious Torah learning for women and ensuring that learning is axiomatic to every student’s spiritual and religious development. While we are staunchly committed to teaching Gemara to women on all levels, our ultimate objective at Stern College is to offer high-level Torah learning opportunities without imposing the particulars of that learning. We can provide opportunities. We cannot nor should not force them.

“A person only learns in a place that their heart desires,” states the Talmud (Avoda Zara 19a). 

Rashi explains that a person’s teacher should only teach students what they want to learn. If you do otherwise, students will focus on what they want to learn, not what they are currently learning. If we want our students to grow in their learning and have Torah shape their lives, they must drive the process, one consistent with their individual interests and paths.

We are very proud of the positive Torah developments of the past few years and the centrality of Torah in the Stern College experience and are committed to the constant and continuous growth in breadth and depth of its learning.

Please do not misunderstand me. We are not resting on our laurels. We are working on creative ways to address the larger global issue. We need to both better secure the base and continue reimagining women’s undergraduate Torah studies to attract and encourage our students to gain exposure and expertise in all areas of Torah. We have been working on these plans and seeking donors who are interested in working with us to invest in the future of women’s education in our community to either contribute annually or ideally endow our programs.

It is time for a community-wide conversation about what we all need to do to promote and sustain serious women’s Torah learning in all different forms. We open each volume of Gemara with a gate as an invitation to what’s inside. It’s the visual way of welcoming each and every student into the world of Torah. We are here for whoever is ready.