Why We Really Lost Our Shiur

By: Sara Verschleisser  |  August 30, 2020

By Sara Verschleisser, Science and Technology Editor

In 2017, an evening advanced Gemara (Talmud) shiur (class) was created on the Beren Campus. Taught by Rosh Yeshiva Rav Ezra Schwartz, the shiur was created due to complaints from students that they could not take the offered Gemara shiurim because they conflicted with necessary secular classes. The addition of Rav Schwartz’s shiur was specifically aimed to accommodate those pursuing science majors, which often have required courses which conflicted with previous Gemara course schedules. While the other advanced Gemara shiur, taught by Rav Moshe Kahn, begins, unofficially, at 8 a.m. (as students are required to prepare for shiur before the shiur course time slot begins), Rav Schwartz’s shiur started around 6 p.m. Despite differences in shiur learning styles, for STEM students like myself, the most significant factor in choosing a shiur is the timing. 

Even with two time slot options, both Rav Kahn and Rav Schwartz’s classes overlapped with my hectic pre-med schedule, so in order to take either of the Gemara shiurim, I had to audit. However, even my audit was not official, as one cannot audit classes which overlap with their registered courses. The schedule overlap with Rav Kahn’s course took place during his shiur, while the conflict with Rav Schwartz’s course only lost me 15 minutes of seder (partnered learning preparation done before shiur), making my decision to join Rav Schwartz’s shiur easy. Despite not being enrolled in Rav Schwartz’s shiur, I showed up 10-15 minutes late to seder each week, and joined the chevra (group). Each day when I arrived, I received a welcome greeting from Rav Schwartz to “check in on my Judaism lately” and became seamlessly part of the shiur. I wasn’t the only student who was unregistered for shiur — Rav Schwartz was happy to have anyone come who wanted to learn. 

This coming semester, I had overlapping classes again. Even so, I planned to rejoin shiur, where I knew I’d be welcome, despite my limited seder time. I may not have been enrolled, but it was built into my schedule, surrounded by MCAT study prep and my countless other extracurriculars. Unfortunately, in mid-June, I learned that Rav Schwartz’s shiur was being cancelled because less than five students, Stern College’s minimum, were registered for the upcoming semester. 

The loss of Rav Schwartz’s evening shiur means that most students studying the sciences are once again prevented from taking a Gemara course. Rav Schwartz’s own words from an article published in 2017 by The Commentator epitomize the problem Beren students face, “why would someone come to Stern College? It’s because we have Torah here! And then they can’t learn the Torah they want because they have to take biology!” Rav Schwartz’s class fulfilled this need for many students, even if those students were often unable to officially register. Personally, the loss of the shiur means that I cannot take a Gemara course this year.

The lack of Rav Schwartz’s shiur is also an unbelievable loss for YU as a whole. Since the creation of Rav Schwartz’s Gemara shiur, there have been four Talmud courses being taught on the Beren Campus: one introductory, one intermediate, and two advanced. This year, due to the five person minimum, both Introduction to the Talmud with Rabbi David Pahmer and Advanced Talmud with Rav Schwartz have been cancelled, halving the available Gemara options. 

Stern College’s five person minimum is in place to prevent excess spending on classes which lack student interest. For Gemara courses however, lower interest is only a small part of the problem. By not creating a schedule in which students can take advanced Judaics without overlap, Stern is forcing students to decide between the two. Even though Rav Schwartz’s shiur was created to help this problem, and did allow students such as myself to take a shiur unofficially, it still didn’t allow science students to take Advanced Talmud for credit. In fact, when students were informed that the class was cancelled, multiple students offered to drop some of their secular courses in order to officially register and maintain the shiur, but unfortunately, it was too late. These students had all planned to join Rav Schwartz’s shiur, they just hadn’t registered. The fact that five people would need to be formally registered for the shiur, and that non-registered attendees were ignored, suggests a significant difficulty when compared to the model of the Mazer Yeshiva Program (MYP).

According to the online class registry, MYP, the Wilf Campus’s “most rigorousGemara morning program, offers its students 27 different options for shiur. There are 484 students currently enrolled in MYP shiurim. Some of the shiurim list as many as 49 students, yet many are small. Of those with students enrolled, there are three shiurim which have less than five students registered, and an additional four with under 10. Furthermore, of those enrolled in MYP shiurim, only 278 or 57% of students are actually taking shiur for credit. The other 43% of students registered for shiurim are essentially auditing. This number is likely higher than the count of who will actually take shiur for credit, as Yeshiva College (YC) allows men to change their shiur credits later in the semester. Therefore, YU is offering at least three if not more shiurim to men uptown which do not fill the Stern College course requirement of five students. 

The reason that these, and other Wilf Campus courses, are still being offered with less than five students is that Yeshiva College does not have the same minimum student requirement as Stern. According to Dean Karen Bacon: “Although there are guidelines, class cancellations [at YC] are decided on a case by case basis taking into account many factors, both academic and financial.”  Despite being two supposedly equivalent undergraduate colleges within the same institution, Stern and YC appear to have different standards surrounding class cancellations, with the former basing decisions purely on the financials while the latter also assesses the value of its courses beyond student enrollment. 

Independent of inconsistent administrative policies surrounding student interest, much of the difference between the treatment of Gemara shiurim on the Beren and Wilf Campuses can be explained by the administrative set-up for MYP and Stern’s Judaic courses. The Wilf Campus morning programs are designed so Gemara and Judaic studies don’t conflict with other courses, with their own time slot. Additionally, Wilf students are counted toward Gemara shiur registration  regardless of whether they plan to take shiur for credit. Gemara shiur at Wilf is also treated as separate from normal courses, with none of the same requirements. In contrast, Stern Judaics are dispersed throughout the daily schedule, and are constantly in conflict with necessary secular classes. Whether one wants to take Bible, Jewish History, or Advanced Talmud, Beren Campus students are always limited by their non-Judaic schedule. This conflict means that classes are judged, not by student interest, but by student availability, ignoring classes which would be more popular if scheduling conflicts were resolved and classes where students may attend, but cannot necessarily register for, like Gemara.

 Maintaining Judaics studies with the same structure as general courses only leads to conflicts between Torah and Madda (science), forcing students to make a decision that is antithetical to YU’s own goals. The current structure of Beren’s Judaic courses takes away from our Judaic studies, when it should be striving to add to it. 

As expressed by Mrs. Shoshana Schechter, the new associate dean of Torah Studies at Stern College for women: “Learning is so important to us at Stern. Learning Torah sheBAal peh [oral Torah], learning Torah Shebechsav [written Torah], learning of Gemara … it’s something that we value… it’s hard when we have to cancel something because of lack of interest or lack of registration, but again, that’s the structure of Stern, … [Judaics] are of tremendous value and that’s why we’re trying to enhance these learning opportunities … even outside of the classroom and make it more of a yeshiva [Torah study] type atmosphere.” Extracurricular learning opportunities, as Associate Dean Schechter proposes, which occur when students are unencumbered by their courseloads, are what truly show the Gemara interest of Stern students. June Zman, for example, had over 60 students in attendance this summer. However, extracurricular activities during the school year face the same scheduling challenges as any class, without the consistency, structure, and rigor of a genuine course. Instead of trying to supplement a problematic system, Stern needs to adjust their schedule to provide a separate time for Judaic courses, so that students don’t need to search outside their classrooms for the Torah learning they desire.

The current structure of Stern’s Judaic studies damages the goals that YU wants to achieve in women’s learning. Students at Stern should not have to sacrifice their learning for the sake of their career, or vice versa. Serious shiurim that are available to all students should not be limited to extracurriculars. Advanced Talmud courses should not be treated as policy-based budgets cuts. There should not be inconsistent standards applied to men’s and women’s learning. If Stern truly values the Torah learning and growth of their students, they should be investing in a system which reflects those priorities rather than undermines them.  For the sake of my lost Gemara shiur and the values the institution claims to uphold, I ask YU to question the impact of Stern’s Judaics structure and realize that it’s time for a change.