The Beren Campus Beit Midrash has always been a sort sanctuary for me. It has been the setting of many of my most formative moments at Stern: the place where I learn Torah, pray, engage in meaningful conversation and just think. Often, as I look out the room’s large windows and watch the people pass by on Lexington Avenue, I appreciate the openness of the Beit Midrash, and not just in the literal sense of the word.
The Stern Beit Midrash is not just open to women, who are barred from many a Beit Midrash, but to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of their gender. Furthermore, unlike in many other batei midrash, there is no one branch of Torah study that is valued over all others. Women can be found studying talmud, tanakh, machshava, mussar, and chassidut all morning and afternoon.
But anyone who spends any time in the beit midrash knows these aren’t the only disciplines studied there. While the official policy is that the Stern Beit Midrash is only to be used for Judaic Studies, study groups for physics, chemistry and history can often be found taking place, especially during midterms and finals season. My friends and I often debate whether the policy should be enforced, and those studying mathematics or physics told to leave. Many observe how the acceptability of using the Beit Midrash for general studies is not part of the culture at the men’s Glueck Beit Midrash, and attribute this difference to sexism and a lack of seriousness towards women’s Torah study.
I think their points are legitimate. But I also know that asking people to leave would detract from the openness of Stern’s Beit Midrash. Furthermore, there is a certain beauty to the lack of rigid separation of kodesh and chol. Is a space consecrated for holy study, filled with women learning Torah and praying, detracted from when chemistry is studied there as well? Doesn’t every body of knowledge provide a way of better understanding God’s world and coming closer to Him? Perhaps this fusion of secular and Judaic is a better model for what a Jewish study house could look like.
Yet, at the same time I do think there has to be a sensitivity to the fact that the comfortable space on the seventh floor is not just a study room, but a Beit Midrash. And while I personally am not a fan of asking people to leave when studying subjects other than Torah, I believe that it is crucial that at the very least these studies not detract from the Beit Midrash environment. According to halakha, one shouldn’t enter a Beit Midrash without learning something or reciting a pasuk. I think we must all ask ourselves both personally and as a community how we are creating an atmosphere of holiness and respect in this unique space we are privileged to have. We need to be aware that the Beit Midrash is first and foremost a place for devotion to God.
I hope our Beit Midrash continues to be a place filled with color and a variety of approaches to its purpose as opposed to a place of black and white policies. Hopefully, through awareness and sensitivity we can work to ensure that the Stern Beit Midrash is an inclusive space, an open space of holiness, always serving as a sanctuary for our community.