Minyana Lama Li? A Look at Historical Beren Talmud Enrollment
Since Rav Soloveitchik’s inaugural shiur at Stern in 1977, one of the noteworthy aspects of Stern College has been its willingness to provide opportunities for women to learn Gemara. In the aftermath of several weeks of intense discussion prompted by the since-reversed planned cancellation of three Beren Talmud classes, now is a particularly pertinent moment to present some of the recent enrollment history of the undergraduate Talmud offerings on Beren campus.
The enrollment numbers utilized here were obtained using YU’s InsideTrack registration numbers. Enrollment data available goes back to the Fall 2003 semester. Numbers for Beren enrollment are based on the number of female students enrolled that can be found on the Office of Institutional Research page. It is important to note that for several of these classes, students interested but who didn’t want to register directly, be it for partial class overlaps or some other reason, would attend by auditing, and these do not show up in the numbers. When available, numbers of students actually attending the classes have been included in addition to the actual enrollment numbers. Also, for convenience, I have not normalized the enrollment numbers for overall Beren enrollment, but I included the numbers on the spreadsheet when they were available.
Intro to Talmud, which, as its name suggests, was primarily intended for students without prior Gemara background, has averaged about 7.5 students per semester since 2003. In the beginning of the time span where the data is available, the eight semesters spanning the four years from Fall 2003 through Spring 2007, Intro was only offered five times, with an average of 6.2 students per class. In the seven years after this, spanning Fall 2007 to Spring 2014, the class was offered every semester, and had fairly consistent enrollment, averaging 7.7 students, never dipping below five, and only going above ten once.
After two years of rocky enrollment, the class was again offered consistently between Fall 2016 and Spring 2019, with average enrollment similar to, but slightly below, the averages in its consistent offering period. More recently, from Fall 2020 to the present, the class has been offered exactly once per year, averaging 11.5 students per class, due in large part to 21 students — the largest number on record — enrolling in Spring 2020. In addition, while the official enrollment for Fall 2018 was nine students, Sara Verchleisser-Pittinsky (SCW ‘21), who was a student in the class, stated actual attendance was significantly higher, which she attributed to the time slot mostly being composed of Jewish Studies classes.
Until recently, Intermediate Talmud, intended for students with some experience with Gemara study, was always taught by Rabbi Moshe Kahn z”l. From the beginning of when data is available through Fall 2012, it was reasonably well attended, averaging slightly more than ten students per class, with only three semesters below eight. After that, attendance dipped over the following semesters, with an average of 6.7 students per class in the period through Spring 2017. Following a brief uptick, attendance cratered heavily in the nine semesters from Spring 2019 to the present, averaging just four students per class, and not being offered twice. It may be worth noting that the class was lengthened starting Spring 2012, and average attendance was significantly larger before the change. Several students informed me that the time slot Intermediate had been offered in was incredibly inconvenient. It must be noted, however, this analysis doesn’t take class size into account, and is heavily weighted by the lackluster enrollment of the most recent years. With Intermediate this coming semester returning to a shorter time commitment, it remains to be seen if numbers will increase.
Advanced Talmud, which was also taught by Rabbi Kahn, is a more complicated story. Looking at the data, it seems that there was a general growth over time from around ten per class in the 2000s to around 15 in the early 2010s, and, after a short lull, three semesters with 20 students, as well as a semester with 18 and one with 17. This coincided with an additional Advanced Talmud taught at night, to be discussed shortly. The following drop seems to coincide well with COVID and the class being taught on Zoom. However, Advanced Talmud was also fairly frequently audited, making the statistics somewhat unreliable. Thus, while only 12 students are listed as enrolled for Spring 2020, a former student estimated the actual number at around 20. Similarly, both Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, listed at 20 and 18 students respectively, were estimated as being attended by around 25.
In addition to Rabbi Kahn’s advanced Talmud shiur, another advanced Talmud option has been offered several times in the past. This article will only focus on the most recent one, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz’s night shiur, which opened advanced Talmud to students whose majors would’ve required classes in the mornings. After a few semesters with approximately 6.5 students per class, the shiur was marked for cancellation due to insufficient interest, failing to meet the minimum of five students. However, as an Observer news article and editorial explained, this was due to a significant number of students taking the course as audits, in part because required classes still partially overlapped with the shiur. For example, while Fall 2019 lists nine students as being enrolled, about 16 seem to have actually attended.
The registration data for Talmud classes on Beren doesn’t paint a clear picture, composed of increases and decreases that often lack particularly clear reasons. It also would be unwise to use this data as evidence for interest without considering scheduling and other factors. However, these numbers do provide a look at trends in attendance over time, and can help with identifying reasons why these trends occurred to orient future planning.
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Photo Caption: Students in Rabbi Kahn’s zt”l Gemara shiur
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University photographer