By Sara Schatz
On April 7, the day before Passover, Dean Karen Bacon informed the Beren Campus student body via email that Mrs. Shoshana Schechter, longtime Bible professor and the director of Stern College’s Mechina program, was appointed as the first Associate Dean of Torah Studies at Stern College for Women.
“For some time we have been exploring [this position],” Dean Bacon wrote. “Happily we identified the right person… but then the world turned upside down and we weren’t able to make the announcement. Now, as we pause for the Passover holiday, it seems appropriate to share this good news with you which is forward looking and affirming of the future.”
Word about this groundbreaking dean position started brewing in Fall 2019. During this time, there were many new changes in the SCW Judaic Studies Department, including the appointment of longtime professor and Legacy Heritage Program director Dr. Deena Rabinovich as the new Academic Chair of Judaic Studies. Many of these new appointments sparked inspiration to identify innovative ways to revamp the Judaic Studies Department, including the idea to hire a dean specifically to oversee Torah on campus.
In September, Dean Bacon noted to the YU Observer that “[w]ith each passing year the students and the faculty/administrators of Stern College seek to set the bar higher…for the opportunities on campus for students to grow intellectually and spiritually. […] [W]e believe that having a Dean dedicated exclusively to [this] will enhance everything from the classroom experience to campus culture, all for the benefit of the students.”
This new position hopes to serve as a bridge in the Judaic Studies Department between the academic Judaic courses and the social aspect, such as shabbatonim and shiurim. The former is overseen by Dr. Rabinovich and academic advisor for Judaics, Ms. Miriam Levy-Haim, and the latter is run by the Beren Campus Rabbi and Rebbetzin, Jacob and Penina Bernstein, and Mrs. Rachel Ciment, Director of Spiritual Guidance.
“What we’re trying to create is a positive Jewish environment in combination with our rigorous academic Judaic classes,” Schechter shared. “Our goal is to promote Torah learning. Therefore, as the foremost center of Judaic Studies for women in America, we have to be committed to doing it as well.”
Many students were not surprised by the news as they believed that Schechter is the clear choice for this position. As a professor in every level of Judaic studies and founder of the Mechina program, she has engaged with the student body on campus. In her over twenty years at Stern College, she has already created many initiatives to unite the campus population through Torah learning. The student body showed strong enthusiasm towards this announcement, many noting that it is one of the “best decisions YU ever made.” Erica Sultan, SCW ‘22, longtime Mechina student of Schechter, expressed that “this is a woman who has made it her life’s mission to bring Torah into people’s lives and have them fall in love with it in a very comfortable way.”
“She is like a second mom to us Mechina girls,” Sultan commented to the YU Observer. “She is not only there as a teacher, but as a friend… mentor… someone who is helping you achieve your potential.”
Hadassah Penn, SCW ‘20, is not a Mechina student, but noted that Schechter is the “reason I ended up in YU.” She said, “I was all set with an arts scholarship at a different college, but she came to speak at [my seminary] one night and I was struck by her warmth and her passion for Jewish Studies […] So she’s kind of responsible for my whole life here.”
This position was initially envisioned by President Ari Berman and was created on the Wilf Campus in January 2019 with the appointment of Rabbi Dr. Yosef Kalinsky, Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies, who oversees all four morning programs on the campus. Schechter told the YU Observer that she hopes to work closely with Rabbi Kalinsky to collaborate on innovative ideas to increase spirituality on campus. In addition, she is looking forward to working with the other members of the YU administration, faculty, and Office of Student Life.
Schechter expressed her hopes to create focus groups of students from various walks of life and majors, including members of GPATS, to determine the best ways to ignite Jewish life on campus. While doing so, she plans on maintaining her role as director of Mechina, a program that she holds close to her heart.
Above all, Schechter’s ultimate goal is not to change Judaic studies on the Beren Campus, but improve it. “‘Ein beis midrash bli chiddush’,” she noted. “‘There is no house of learning without adding something new.’ Stern’s Judaic Studies Department has hardly changed over the years. However, the needs of the student body have diversified tremendously. Just like the midrash (homiletical exegesis) tells us that the chatzotzrot (the horns of the Tabernacle) needed to be reconfigured in every generation, so too with our student body.”
Schechter concluded, “Though our rituals stay the same through every generation, our souls do not. We therefore need to meet the challenges of the community we have today and figure out the best way to enhance spirituality on campus.”
Photo: Shoshana Schechter learning with students.
Photo Source: YU News