Learning Initiative Keeps YU Community Inspired and Connected

Yeshiva University’s Office of Alumni Affairs introduced a Community Learning Initiative, an array of online learning opportunities for the YU community. Below is a summary of the first series of virtual webinars presented by our talented teachers that ran from March 23-31, 2020.

Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman

Judaic Studies Faculty, Stern College for Women; Assistant Director of Admissions
“Growth, Goals and Grit: Religious and Psychological Strategies for Flourishing During Challenging Times” (March 23)

Within the context of coping with the challenges of the coronavirus, Rabbi Schiffman explored Dr. Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset through the prism of Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers], focusing on the importance of reminding ourselves that we can grow and learn in all circumstances.  He then transitioned to Dr. Angela Duckworth’s construct of “grit,” also framed through the lens of Pirkei Avot, highlighting the significance of clarifying long-term goals and persevering towards those goals despite obstacles while also being flexible in adapting the goals when necessary.

Dr. Steven Fine

Director, YU Center for Israel Studies; Churgin Professor of Jewish History
“From Darkness to Great Light: Pesach in the Talmudic Village” (March 23)

Dr. Fine talked about the decisions made by the Tannaim [teachers whose views are recorded in the Mishnah] in the wake of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE to maintain as much of the Passover as possible and of the subtle redirection of Pesach eve from sacrifice to the seder as we know it. He discussed how the Seder of Hazal [Jewish sages of the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud eras] was not a foregone conclusion. After the destruction of the Samaritan “temple” (114-111 BCE) on Mt. Gerizim, for example, the Samaritans continued the sacrifice, a central point of their liturgical year to this day. He set all of this within the contexts of daily life in Talmudic era villages across northern Israel. “Jews chose a very different path,” said Dr. Fine, “one of slow and steady redemption through Torah and prayer.”

Dr. Ronnie Perelis

Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Chair in Sephardic Studies; associate professor, Sephardic Studies; director, Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs
“Dancing in the Dark: Life and Death in Sefarad” (March 24)

As a historian, Dr. Perelis believes that looking to the past can be a source of inspiration and sorely needed wisdom. In his talk, he offered words of inspiration about how people have experienced difficult times before and managed to come through and that during those crises, there were those who lived nobly, with kindness and humanity, alongside those who let fear drive them to cruelty. He explored two poems from medieval Spain that meditated on mortality and the universality of death. One took a humorous, albeit dark, approach that allowed the poet to level sharp critiques at the powerful in society, and the other, by Shmuel Hanagid, channeled Kohelet in exploring life and death.

“During this time of confusion and fear, a university can serve as a refuge, as a place to renew your energy, step outside your particular ‘daled amot’ [approximate measure of six feet] and gain a deeper perspective,” said Dr. Perelis. “I was so honored to join with my talented colleagues across the University in this project to connect to the wider community at this time.”

Dr. Aaron Koller

Professor, Yeshiva College, Bernard Revel Graduate School
“The Origin of the Alphabet/Aleph Bet” (March 25)

Dr. Koller discussed the rise of language, then the earliest art, then the birth of writing about 5,000 years ago. The invention of the alphabet was the focus – a development that happened once, about 4,000 years ago, somewhere in the vicinity of Egypt/Israel. He talked about how the alphabet was invented and the social and cultural implications of this radically different way of writing. “It was a treat to share some of my ongoing work with the broader YU and world community in this way,” said Dr. Koller. “I teach a course on the history of the alphabet at Yeshiva College, and it was gratifying to see so many people tune in from around the world, including Russia, Israel, Germany, the UK, and the United States. We all enjoyed the interesting questions that were asked and the shared thoughts and insights.”

Matthew Garcia

Associate Director, Employer Relations and Alumni Programs, Career Center
“Taking Control of the Remote Lifestyle: Working from Home and its Opportunities” (March 25)

Garcia discussed the challenges associated with the sudden shift to working remotely, including maintaining productivity and performance at work, adjusting to a new, non-traditional office setting and navigating personal and professional commitments. Through facilitation and group discussion, reasonable solutions were provided to participants. One participant shared that the session provided “helpful guidelines” to adjusting to a new remote work lifestyle.

Dr. Rona Novick

Dean, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
“Building Resilience for Our Families and Ourselves: Life Skills to Cope with Challenge” (March 25)

Dr. Novick discussed ways to promote our own resilience and that of our families as well as the science and practice of coping in the face of uncertainty and crisis. She explored the physiological, cognitive and behavioral strategies that can promote resilience and stressed the need to recognize our responses to the current extraordinary situation and adjust our expectations. “In a crisis situation, we need flexibility,” Dr. Novick explained. “Sticking to old ways of thinking and expecting everything to be as it always was not only makes no sense, it does not allow for coping and growth.” The session also discussed the challenge for parents who wonder how to reassure children when the situation is so uncertain. In her recently published children’s book, Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain?, Dr. Novick offered guidelines on how parents can and should provide support and love even when they cannot eliminate all the stress in their children’s’ lives.

Dr. Shalom Holtz

Professor, Yeshiva College, Bernard Revel Graduate School; Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Yeshiva College
“The First Babylonian Exiles” (March 26)

Dr. Holtz explored a biblical text (Jeremiah 29) that contains a letter sent from the prophet in Jerusalem to the community of Judeans in Babylonian exile. In the letter, the prophet urged the community to continue daily life and “pray for the welfare of the city” in which they found themselves. Dr. Holtz paired this well-known text with two more recently discovered legal documents written in Babylonian cuneiform on clay tablets. He discussed that these documents recorded transactions conducted in a place called “City of the Judeans” and featured protagonists with Judean names. Together with the biblical text, they offer a glimpse into the earliest Jewish community outside the land of Israel. “By hosting these talks, Yeshiva University is fulfilling its vital mission of ensuring an intellectually engaged Jewish community,” said Dr. Holtz. “When just getting by threatens to become an all-consuming enterprise, YU’s classes are a lifeline.”

Dr. Deena Rabinovich

Chair, Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies; professor, Stern College for Women
“Beyond Cowicide: A New Look at Korbanot” (March 26)

Dr. Rabinovich’s presentation began with a discussion about one of the unsung days of the Jewish calendar: Rosh Chodesh Nissan [the first day of the month of Nissan]. Nissan is the month of redemption, and the final push for the Exodus began with God’s instructions to Moshe on the first of Nissan. She then focused on the first of Nissan the following year, the date that marked Opening Day for the Mishkan [tabernacle], the formal opening with the avodah [worship] being performed for the first time by Aharon and his sons. She continued her discussion about Moshe, who served as acting Cohen [high priest] during the soft opening—that is, during the Seven Days of Milu’im [Installment], had returned to his more traditional role of teacher and set out the various categories of korbanot [sacrifices] for the people. Those korbanot provide a framework for how we can now be able to come close to God, to develop a relationship with Him in various contexts.

Dr. Noam Wasserman

Dean, Sy Syms School of Business
“Rabbi Elazar and the Jews in the Desert: Lessons for Today’s Dramatically Changed Matzav” (March 26)

Dr. Wasserman introduced a concept from business which he called “entrepreneurial blueprints,” that is, our mental models of how the world works. He used the concept to answer a puzzle from the Torah reading for Pesach about the challenges of shifting from a deeply ingrained blueprint to a new one when we are faced with a new situation. He then used that idea to answer a question about a Gemara [portion of the Talmud] regarding the interpersonal dynamics between two of the all-time great rabbis, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yochanan. Dr. Wasserman then applied this thought to the dramatic shifts forced by the coronavirus, gaining insights both for our current challenges and for how we can get stronger from this experience when we hopefully return to our non-corona situation.

“The audience insights and questions afterward were golden,” said Dr. Wasserman. “I learned a lot from them, including how to apply the blueprints concept to the changes we might face at this year’s seder, to the Jewish concept of teshuva [penitence] and to other realms of halacha [Jewish law].”

Dr. Lynn Levy (with Dr. Philip Levy)

Associate Clinical Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
“Modeling Resilience for Your Children and Grandchildren” (March 27)

Drs. Lynn and Philip Levy, authors of The Resilient Couple: Navigating Together through Life, provided a webinar for parents and grandparents. During their presentation, they pointed out that even as we are practicing social distancing and enduring emotional distance from our friends and loved ones, we are also challenged to rely on our own resilience to sustain ourselves and those close to us. They talked about how this is an opportunity to be role models for our children and grandchildren and to demonstrate not only our own resilience and coping strategies but to assist our adult children as well, who may be juggling having to work at home in the presence of their children. They also discussed the importance of self-care and stressed that we must nurture ourselves before we can support others. “The skills we have learned to manage minor and major stressors in our lives can be put to use during this extraordinary time,” said Dr. Levy. “The most important thing to remember is that we are all in this together, and even if we are not inclined to ask for help, now is the time to do it when we need it; only then can we be of help to others.”

Other presentations were given by:
Rabbi Gideon Shloush
Adjunct Professor, Stern College for Women, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
“Tehillim for Difficult Times” (March 24)

Dr. Ari Mermelstein
Associate Professor, Yeshiva College, Bernard Revel Graduate School
“Did the Wise Son Own a Haggadah? Talmud Torah as an Alternative to Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim on Seder Night” (March 24)


The Office of Alumni Affairs also produced a second series of webinars presented by our talented teachers from March 29 to April 2, 2020.

Sunday, March 29
7:45 – 8:30 p.m.
Rabbi Daniel Feldman
Rosh Yeshiva, RIETS, Rabbi, Congregation Ohr Saadya, Teaneck, New Jersey
The Ethical Message of Mechiras Chametz
This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Ozer Glickman z”l

8:30 – 9:15 p.m.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt
Chair of the Department of Medicine, Mount Sinai South Nassau, Chief of Infectious Diseases, Hospital Epidemiologist, Associate Rabbi, Congregation Anshei Chesed and Assistant Rabbi, Young Israel of Woodmere
Something to Say at the Seder

Monday, March 30
8 – 8:30 p.m.
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs
Director of Professional Rabbinics, RIETS, Rabbi, Congregation Beth Aaron, Teaneck, New Jersey
“As If He Himself Has Left Mitzraim”: How the Most Difficult Obligation of the Seder Night Just Became a Whole Lot Easier

8:30 – 9 p.m.
Dr. Michelle Levine
Associate Professor of Bible at Stern College for Women
The Symbolic Ritual of the Korban Pesach: Israel’s Ticket to Freedom

Tuesday, March 31
7:30 p.m.
Laizer Kornwasser
Adjunct Professor, Sy Syms School of Business
J&J Tylenol, The Iowa Caucus and the RCBC: Crisis Management 101

8 – 8:30 p.m.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser
David Mitzner Dean, CJF, Rabbi, Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton
The Seder in Bnei Brak

8:30 – 9 p.m.
Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman
Clinical Assistant Professor, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Assistant Rabbi, Kingsway Jewish Center, Brooklyn, New York

Wednesday, April 1
8 – 8:30 p.m.
Dr. Rona Novick
Dean, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
The Psychology of Empathy – Can We Personally Experience Yetziat Mitzrayim?

8:30 – 9 p.m.
Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg
Mashpia, Congregation Beth Abraham, Bergenfield, New Jersey, Rebbe and Mashgiach Ruchani, Stone Beit Midrash Program

Thursday, April 2
8:30 – 9 p.m.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman
President, Yeshiva University
Shabbat Hagadol Drasha: The Message and Meaning of Pesach Today