If you ever wander into the Stern Beit Midrash, you may find yourself pondering a few questions: who are these women fervently arguing over a Tosfot in Masechet Ketubot? Why are they always in Stern learning Torah every day? And, what motivates these women to inhabit the Beit Midrash more than the average SCW student?
The answer is that these ambitious women are participating in Yeshiva University’s M.A. Program in Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation at Stern College for Women, previously known as GPATS. The program serves as a juncture for post-B.A women who exhibit strong ambition and textual skills in Talmud and Halacha, and provides them with an opportunity to hone their skills in a two-year rigorous academic graduate program.
The program is the first of its kind, and is unique in that it provides a multi-faceted curriculum, which includes in-depth study of Halacha and Talmud. Furthermore, as a part of the completion of their M.A, participants in the program are required to take classes at the Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies, which fulfills the biblical component of the program. Since its origin, the program has taken significant strides, both in size and in promoting professional opportunities and learning initiatives for the participants beyond the program.
Recently, the program has developed a B.A-M.A program which allows for qualified B.A students in Stern to begin the program starting their senior year. Although these women currently participate as part-time students in the program, many plan to continue as full-time students once they graduate. This year there are 18 students in the program, 13 of whom are full-time participants. However, despite the growth in size, the program has not increased the number of stipends given to participants. At this time, students who are still considered undergraduates in SCW are not granted stipends.
In addition to the growth in size, the program now offers a stronger co-curricular element that is sponsored by the CJF. Once a week, different Jewish professionals speak with the students about leadership positions within their respective fields. That this year’s lecture theme is focused on pedagogy is no surprise, as many of the participants plan on using their studies to become teachers and leaders within the Jewish community. So far this year, Rabbi JJ Shachter spoke about using research tools to develop Shiurim, and Chayyim Angel spoke about teaching Tanach. Additionally, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Dean of the CJF, spoke to the participants about the M.A program’s goals, issues, and plans for the future.
Rachel Weber Leshaw, a first-year participant in the program and an SCW graduate ’13, is enthusiastic about the growth, and attributes it to the increased seriousness SCW students exhibit towards their Judaic Studies education.
“I think it’s a very positive development to see that more students are enrolled in GPATS this year than in previous years. It speaks to the fact that more Stern students don’t see their undergraduate courses as the end of their Judaic learning and are interested in pursuing a higher level of learning. I think this is directly connected to the fact that GPATS is located in the Stern Beit Midrash, and undergraduates are slowly becoming more aware of the unique program taking place on their own campus.”
However, Leshaw wishes that the M.A program offered participants opportunities to interact with the SCW students more, as many students in Stern are still unaware of the program. Although the M.A program is not restricted to SCW graduates, as of now, the option for seniors to participate in the program is only available to Stern students.
As part of the greater emphasis on the co-curricular aspect of the program, the CJF provides opportunities for the participants to intern or act as scholar-in-residences in various communities. These roles encourage the students to develop their textual skills in the context of becoming community leaders. When asked about her plans after the program, Leshaw noted the helpful opportunities the CJF provides in directing the students in their future endeavors.
“One thing I love about GPATS is that the CJF helps coordinate internships for students at Shuls around the country. This year I’m interning at United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston, Texas. I spend one Shabbat a month there, giving Shiurim, speaking, and running a Women’s Beit Midrash Program. It’s an incredible opportunity for me to gain experience teaching Torah in a communal setting, and that’s something most twenty-two year olds, male or female, aren’t given the chance to do.”
After she completes the program, Leshaw hopes to ultimately teach Judaic Studies, and plans on taking her endeavors to the next step by participating in the Yoetzet Halacha program in Nishmat.
Sarit Bendavid, SCW ’12 and a second-year participant in the program, commented that although the program has grown in size this year, the curriculum has not changed. She also added that Natalie Taylor, who used to work for the CJF and acted as a liaison for the women for the non-curricular elements of the program, is no longer a staff member. Bendavid notes that her presence is missed in the Beit Midrash, as she took time to get to know the women personally and also was the one who organized many aspects of the program, including the logistics of shuttles and the scheduling of lunch-and-learns and scholar-in-residencies. Her position has yet to be replaced.
However, with regard to the influx of new students, she commented, “It is exciting for me that this year has brought such a large group of women into the program. I would say that the only downside about the increase is that during Halacha class, when we are all together in one Shiur, there is not enough room for all of us to sit around the tables!”
As to the future growth of the program, director of the program, Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel commented, “Future growth and development depend to a great extent on student interest and preparation. The reality is that there are not very many programs of this type and level throughout the Jewish world. Our goal is to be responsive to student interest, while maintaining the lofty goals and high quality of the program. This is one of SCW’s significant contributions to the larger Jewish community.”
The recent expansion of SCW’s Program in Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation is indicative of the greater push to further women’s learning initiatives within the Orthodox community, something which many credit the M.A program for pioneering. The growth further emphasizes the need for high-level learning programs for women throughout the Jewish community. As many Stern students have vocalized, the notion that serious “lishma” learning peaks during seminary and then comes to a halt is both frustrating and wrong. The participants in the Biblical and Talmudic Interpretation Program set a precedent for long-term intensive Torah studies for women both at SCW and in the greater Orthodox community.