Jan 30, 2008 — In the combative, spirited world of high school competitions, Yeshiva University is well known for its basketball tournaments and model United Nations debates. A new program under the aegis of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) is now encouraging students to show their intellectual prowess in learning Talmud.
Some 250 students from grades nine through 12 at yeshivot across North America are participating in the Bronka Weintraub Bekius Program, which involves students in fast-paced study aimed at mastering significant amounts of Gemara (Talmud).
“Participating students have an opportunity to broaden their Torah horizons and forge a lifelong love of learning,” says Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, who created the program. Rabbi Schwartz is associate bochein (examiner of incoming students) at RIETS, and teaches Talmud in the Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program. “We’re hoping that they will come to see YU as the home for this kind of serious Gemara learning.”
Students take five exams a year, for which they will be given cash prizes, based on their performance. A grand prize of $5,000 will be awarded to the student from each division with the highest scores. At the end of the year, a siyum (a celebration of the completion of a Talmudic tractate) will be held on YU’s campus. Students completing the program will receive a certificate outlining their accomplishments that will be sent to the yeshiva they choose to attend in Israel.
Schools are customizing the program to fit their needs. “At a yeshiva in Toronto, the principal is teaching a bekius class before and after shacharit (morning prayers) and during lunch,” Rabbi Schwartz says. “Some schools in the New York area are devoting class time to this program.” At most schools, however, the material is studied on an extracurricular basis, supplementing regular Gemara classes.
Rabbi Schwartz is confident the number of yeshivot participating in the program—now being piloted in 21 schools—will at least double in the near future.
The goal of the program is to instill an appreciation of knowledge for its own sake. “This creative program, under the knowing guidance of Rabbi Schwartz, continues our original and ongoing thrust to intensify Torah learning in our Yeshiva and everywhere,” said Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, the Max and Marion Grill dean of RIETS. “We aspire to bring the best and brightest to our beit midrash (study hall).”
The program has been named for Bronka Weintraub, z”l, a generous donor to Yeshiva University who endowed the Bronka Weintraub Chair in Talmud at RIETS, which is currently occupied by Rabbi Hershel Reichman. She was also a founder and benefactor of YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.