Sarah Schnirer

Sara Schenirer (1883-1935) was the founder of the Beit Yaakov movement and of its network of schools for Haredi girls, which brought about a revolution in the education of Jewish girls in the Haredi world in Eastern Europe. Schenirer’s aim in setting up the schools was to narrow the gap between boys’ and girls’ education within Haredi society in Poland, and to fight assimilationist trends among Jewish women.

Overview

Up to the appearance of Schenirer’s enterprise, it was not customary in Eastern Europe for Orthodox girls and women to acquire a Jewish education, and her enterprise aroused opposition among conservative circles. Today, less than a hundred years since the opening of the first Beit Yaakov school, schools in which almost all religious subjects are taught are common in Haredi communities throughout the world.

Some would argue that Schenirer led a revolution in the status of women in Orthodox Judaism, while others say that Schenirer did not seek to change the status of women in Haredi Jewish society, but rather emphasized the importance of maintaining traditional values, such as modesty, within Haredi Jewish society.

In any event, Sara Schenirer, who only had 8 years of formal education in primary school, and who earned a living as a seamstress, was the founder of an educational network that to this day operates across the world, and includes hundreds of institutions and tens of thousands of students. Schenirer even came to be called “our mother, Sara,” by members of the movement.

Her Life

Sara Schenirer was born in 1883 in Cracow, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to a Hassidic family. In those days, education for girls in Poland took place within the family, or at Polish schools. Later, Schenirer would argue that this alienated many young women from Orthodox Judaism, and attracted them to modern ideas such as those of the Enlightenment, or to new ideologies such as those of Zionism or the Bund.* As was customary in those days, Schenirer also studied for 8 years at a Polish elementary school.

When Schenirer expressed an interest in religious studies, her father decided to allow her to read Jewish texts that had been translated to Yiddish. In her youth, she worked as a seamstress, but in parallel she also studied Judaism, independently and without any organized framework.

With the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, the family migrated to Vienna, in Austria. In Vienna, Schenirer was exposed to new ideas: she attended lessons given by Rabbi Flesch, at which other women with a Jewish education, but who were strictly observant, were also present. Rabbi Flesch was a student of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leader of Orthodox Jewry in Germany, who had held a modern outlook regarding the education of girls. Schenirer began to look into his writings, which were a great influence on her.

These new ideas aroused in her a desire to give Jewish girls in Poland the same Jewish education that girls and women in Germany received, but adapted to the conditions of Polish Jewry. Schenirer believed that, through the study of Jewish texts, it would be possible to maintain women’s attachment to the Orthodox Jewish tradition, and to stop the drift toward the new trends, which, in her view, were foreign to Judaism.

In 1917 Schenirer returned to Cracow, and began her educational enterprise: initially she organized lectures for adult women, but her main desire was to set up a school for girls. Her brother suggested that she approach the Belzer Rebbe, which she did, and the Rebbe gave her his blessing.

Sara Schenirer was a woman of vision and daring? Why did she need the approval of the Rebbe?

The Bund

* The Bund

The Bund was a Jewish socialist party founded in Vilna in 1897, the name is a short form of the organization’s Yiddish name, the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia (Bund, in Yiddish, means federation or union). Unlike the Zionist movement, which also came into being in 1897, the Bund proposed working for Jewish cultural autonomy in the countries in which they lived. The Bund carried out its activities in Yiddish – the language of the Jewish masses in Europe. The Bund rejected the Zionist idea of working to achieve territorial sovereignty for the Jewish people, arguing that such a territory could in any case accommodate only a part of the Jewish people. The Bund saw itself as representing the oppressed Jewish proletariat, while Zionism represented, so it claimed, the Jewish bourgeoisie.

Schools

Schenirer opened an educational framework for 25 students in her home. She called the school “Beis Yaakov” (in modern Hebrew, this is pronounced Beit Yaakov), and her pupils were girls from Hassidic families who, had they not received an education in this framework, would have had to go to the Polish schools, or else study at home. Schenirer’s enterprise received support from others in Cracow, and in 1919 it received the support of Agudath Yisrael, the world organization of Haredi Jews.

In 1922, Agudath Yisrael decided to fund a national network of Beit Yaakov schools, and Schenirer traveled to various cities to lecture and to set up additional schools. The Beit Yaakov schools also spread to countries outside Poland, including Eretz Israel, and today they operate throughout the world.

In 1925 Schenirer was involved in founding the Bnos Agudas Yisroel organization, which was intended for graduates of the Beit Yaakov schools; she also founded and taught at the Beit Yaakov Teachers Seminary in Cracow. Schenirer published articles on education, ethics and the Jewish calendar, as well as writing plays, among them “Hannah and her Seven Sons” (1929).

In 1933 Schenirer stepped down from her formal position as chairman of the movement, but to this day she is considered an outstanding figure in the Beit Yaakov movement’s history.

Schenirer was engaged for a short period when she was young, but remained alone for much of her life. Later she married a Rabbi Landau, but they had no children.

In 1935, at the age of 52, Sara Schenirer died of cancer.

Beis Yaakov

Students at a Beit Yaakov school in Jerusalem, early 1920’s. © Tamara's Private Collection. From Wikimedia Commons.

Beit Yaakov is a movement and network of Haredi schools for girls established in 1917.

The name of the movement is based on the Biblical verse, “And Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel’” (Exodus, 19:3). This verse is part of the story of the revelation at Sinai. Because of the apparent repetition in the verse, of the similar expressions “house of Jacob” and “children of Israel,” the accepted interpretation (Rashi) in those days was that the reference to the “house of Jacob” was to the women, while “children of Israel” referred to the men. In Sara Schenirer’s day, the expression “Beit Yaakov” would have been familiar to the public in the context of giving the Torah to women, and it may be assumed that this is the reason for her choosing the name, to mark schools in which girls and young women would study Judaism.

The aim of the educational network was to provide an educational framework in the spirit of Orthodox Jewish values, to prevent the students from going to the Polish schools, and to prevent Jewish girls and women from being attracted to the new ideas of the time: secularism, the acquisition of a general education, and involvement with new ideologies such as that of Zionism.

The first of the movement’s schools was set up in 1917 by Sara Schenirer in Cracow, Poland, and it gained the support of important rabbis in Poland, and even direct support from Agudath Yisrael’s Keren HaTorah. The network of schools expanded within a very short time, so that reports from the years 1934-35 show that there were 225 schools under the movement’s umbrella in Poland and other countries, with about 35,000 students, as well as a Teachers Seminary in Cracow that was part of the network. In addition to the schools and the teachers seminary, the organization began publishing a newspaper, which disseminated the movement’s ideas.

Why do you think the network of schools grew so fast? Was Schenirer responding to an existing need? Did she create a need that did not previously exist, and change the attitude of the parents to the education of their daughters? Is it because she gained the support of the religious establishment?...

Initially the network of schools suffered from a shortage of female teachers, and most of those teachers were brought from Germany. Later, the graduates of the Teachers Seminary in Cracow began to join the teaching staffs. The seminary’s curriculum included in-depth Jewish studies, teaching skills, and so on. The student teachers also took part in large-scale summer camps.

 

The Second World War put an end to the official operations of educational institutions, but groups of Beit Yaakov women continued to work in the various ghettos: they organized prayer and song sessions, study groups, and welfare activities for the residents of the ghettos. The importance of the study sessions during this period can be seen from the testimony of the participants: “Lessons that made our lives more bearable,” “I felt safe in that room. The outside world could not touch me… we were liberated and cut off from the bitter realities of the ghetto. We called it ‘the Cave’ – like the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a hidden place of Torah, in spite of our oppressors.”

Following the Shoah, the Beit Yaakov network grew, and today it includes schools in Europe, America and Israel.

BYHS 50th Anniversary Dinner from Ingenious Productions on Vimeo.

Bais Yaakov of Toronto celebrates its 50th anniversary dinner honoring its esteemed founders.
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