A Traditional Revolutionary: Sarah Schenirer’s Legacy Revisited

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By Leslie Ginsparg Klein

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Illustration from Eim B’Yisrael: Kitivei Sarah Schenirer (B’nei Brak, Israel, 1955)

On a rainy Sunday morning in March of 1935, the streets of Krakow, Poland filled with mourning girls. They joined other Orthodox Jews in paying their respects to Sarah Schenirer, the founder of Bais Yaakov, who had passed away the day before. After the funeral, the girls went back to their school building. There, in the words of Schenirer’s student Pearl Benisch, they sat until late that night, “lamenting and mourning the loss of our dear mother . . . retelling stories and anecdotes about our noble mentor’s great acts of piety and loving-kindness.”1 These girls’ reaction to a teacher’s death might seem a little extreme, but to them, Sarah Schenirer was not just a teacher. She had become their spiritual leader, and she remains a spiritual leader today.  

A little more than a year ago, the Orthodox world marked the eightieth yahrtzeit of Sarah Schenirer and events commemorating the occasion attest to the continued centrality of Sarah Schenirer in Orthodox Jewish life. On a brisk Tuesday morning in March of 2015, over 14,000 women and girls gathered together in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center from all over North America—with many more watching via satellite hook-up. They came to commemorate the life of a woman they had never met, but who impacted their lives profoundly. Sarah Schenirer turned the socially unacceptable idea of girls learning Torah in a Jewish school into a way of life for Jews all over the world, providing a model of how to successfully balance tradition and innovation.

Modest. Radical. Pious. Revolutionary. Staunch traditionalist. Proto-feminist. All of these words have been used to describe this woman. Even more than eighty years after her death, Sarah Schenirer is consistently invoked to defend diverse viewpoints on contemporary issues. For example, Rabbi Avi Weiss, in a Jewish Week editorial supporting women’s ordination (11/3/15), presented her as proof that women can be spiritual leaders in line with tradition, a forerunner to the Orthodox women rabbis of today. The following week, Rabbi Efraim Epstein, in a Jewish Link of Bergen County editorial opposing women’s ordination (11/12/15), presented her as an example of a true Orthodox woman leader, who unlike the women seeking ordination, remained faithful to the mesorah without sparking controversy or being influenced by the secular ideologies of the day. Who was this complicated personality and how does her influence continue to impact the Jewish community today?

Sarah Schenirer founded Bais Yaakov in Poland in 1917. Before that time, Orthodox communities in Eastern Europe considered formal Jewish education for girls to be unnecessary, inappropriate and even forbidden by Jewish law. For most girls, Jewish education took place in the home. Taught by family members or private tutors, girls’ education generally consisted of basic literacy in Yiddish and enough Hebrew to read a siddur. Anything else a girl needed to know about halachah or Jewish observance could be learned by observing her mother and other women in the home.2

With government laws mandating compulsory education, more and more Jewish children began attending secular public schools. While significant numbers of boys and girls attended modern secular schools, a far greater number of girls than boys received this type of education. Some Orthodox Jews considered it preferable that women should spend the time acquiring secular skills, so they could later use them to help support the continued learning of the men in their family. One rabbi, in looking for a shidduch for his sister, boasted that she knew how to write Hebrew, Polish and German fluently and had knowledge of Russian as well. These were qualities that could secure a woman a good shidduch in those days.

Pupils in the Bais Yaakov religious girls’ seminary of Krakow during a visit to Rabka, Poland, interwar period. Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Archive

Pupils in the Bais Yaakov religious girls’ seminary of Krakow during a visit to Rabka, Poland, interwar period. Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Archive

But as a result of their exposure to secular learning, girls experienced a great disparity between their intellectual engagement with secular studies and their informal training in the laws and traditions of Judaism. These girls, who were never formally taught about their Jewish heritage, saw religion as archaic and a hindrance to intellectual growth. Assimilation, intermarriage and conversion became rampant.

Some rabbis blamed this development on the girls’ lack of any significant Jewish education, but community leadership remained steadfastly opposed to any innovation in women’s education. In 1903, at a convention of Polish rabbis held in Krakow, a delegate called for the establishment of schools for girls, stating that his colleagues had neglected girls’ education. The conference almost unanimously opposed his suggestion and stated in its resolutions that Jewish parents should definitely educate their daughters at home, but for the community to establish schools would be wrong.

Where others failed, an unknown Polish seamstress and her grassroots Bais Yaakov movement would prove astoundingly successful. Sarah Schenirer was born in 1883 to a prominent Chassidic family in Krakow, Poland. She attended a state school until age thirteen, but her family’s poor financial condition precluded her from pursuing her formal education any further. Schenirer taught herself to be a seamstress and continued her secular learning through reading and attending lectures. She also actively pursued a Jewish education through self-study. She writes about studying the Tze’na Urena, a Yiddish translation of the Chumash that was standard fare for women. However, she also mentions studying texts that were more unusual for women to study—such as a Yiddish version of the Chok L’Yisrael, which contains a daily portion of Chumash, Navi, Mishnah and Gemara.3

Schenirer wrote in her autobiography that she became concerned about assimilation in her community for a number of years before she started Bais Yaakov. She recounted attending a meeting of a Jewish girls’ organization on a Friday night. She expressed her alarm at seeing girls, who had grown up in Chassidic families like her own, violating Shabbat and making heretical remarks. Schenirer also described a gap she perceived between girls and their families in her Chassidic community. While Schenirer saw boys and men involved in intense Jewish learning and spending the yamim tovim gaining spiritual inspiration from their rebbe, she viewed women’s religious lives as empty. She is quoted as saying, “We stay at home, the wives, the daughters with the little ones. We have an empty yom tov. It is bare of Jewish intellectual concentration.”4 Schenirer perceived girls and young women growing disconnected from religion and tradition, and blamed this distance on their lack of Jewish education.

schenirer pull quote 1Sarah Schenirer did not envision playing a part in a solution to this problem until she fled to Vienna during World War I and became exposed to and profoundly impacted by the Neo-Orthodox thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch’s works were not available in Poland and many Eastern Europeans leaders considered his writings non-applicable to their insular society, which had not yet come into much contact with Reform Jewish thought. Schenirer thought that if she could only transmit these ideas to Polish women and girls, they would feel connected with their religion.

Upon returning to Poland, she resolved to teach what she had learned. After failing in her first attempts at teaching women and older girls, who mocked her religiosity, Schenirer decided that her best plan of action would be to start a school for young girls, whom she hoped would be more responsive. Her brother discouraged her from getting involved in such a controversial and political project. He suggested she go with him to visit the leader of their sect of Chassidim, the Belzer Rebbe, and ask his advice. He likely assumed the highly conservative rebbe would say no and thereby put an end to his sister’s crazy plan. The rebbe, however, responded to her query with two words, “Berachah v’hatzlachah” (“blessing and success”). Even though he did not allow the daughters of Belzer Chassidim to attend Bais Yaakov, his blessing was a strategic coup for Schenirer. In subsequent years, Bais Yaakov received approbations from prominent rabbis including the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim in general stressed the propriety of Jewish education for girls and stated that the old system needed to be readjusted in accordance with the times. Jewish communities were no longer isolated from the outside world, as they might have been in the past. Therefore, it was necessary to teach girls about Judaism if they were to stay in the faith.5

In 1917, with twenty-five elementary school-age girls, most of them former customers of her seamstress business, Schenirer opened the first Bais Yaakov school. Within a few months, the school expanded to forty students. Word of the school spread, and other towns petitioned Schenirer for help starting their own schools. Schenirer started a teacher-training program to train older girls to staff the new schools. As the school took shape, the organized community became concerned with its survival. Agudas Yisroel of Krakow took the fledgling school under its wing, and in 1924, when the national Agudas Yisroel pledged its resources, the Bais Yaakov movement grew exponentially. It expanded to include day schools, afternoon programs for girls attending public school, secondary schools, trade schools, summer institutes, youth groups, publications, hachsharot (preparatory institutes) for girls planning to make aliyah and a teachers’ seminary. By the year 1937, Bais Yaakov had over 35,000 students in 248 schools, mostly afternoon programs.6

Announcement of Sarah Schenirer’s death in the Bais Yaakov Journal, 1935. Illustration from the 70th yahrtzeit gathering booklet, compiled and edited by Bais Yaakov D’Gur High School

Announcement of Sarah Schenirer’s death in the Bais Yaakov Journal, 1935. Illustration from the 70th yahrtzeit gathering booklet, compiled and edited by Bais Yaakov D’Gur High School

All this time, Sarah Schenirer was still involved. She was the spiritual leader of the movement, the “mother of Bais Yaakov.” Though she had no children of her own (her first marriage quickly ended in divorce and she only remarried towards the end of her life), her students stressed that she was a mother to them all. Schenirer was constantly traveling, opening new schools and visiting already existing institutions. Schenirer remained actively involved with her students and an active contributor to Bais Yaakov publications. Schenirer died in 1935, after a battle with cancer, at the age of fifty-two.

Sarah Schenirer became more than her students’ teacher, she became their rebbe and Bais Yaakov their Chassidut. Like Schenirer, most of the Polish Bais Yaakov students were Chassidic, and Bais Yaakov provided them with the active role in religious life that they had previously been missing. School functions, oftentimes taking place on Shabbat and around holidays, replicated traditional Chassidic gatherings, with intense singing, jubilant dancing and students rejoicing at the opportunity to dance with Schenirer herself. Now girls, like their father and brothers, spent Shabbat and holidays being spiritually uplifted with their leader.

Schenirer’s colleague, Rebbetzin Dr. Judith (Rosenbaum) Grunfeld noted the similarities to Chassidic life in Bais Yaakov culture:

Here among the girls, the inspiration of the chassidic life had found its way into the woman’s world. It had formed it [sic] own style, softened and differently molded, but it was of the same fibre that made the Hassidim crowd round their Rebbe, made them stand for hours to catch a glimpse of him, made them unfold all their latent powers in the elevated atmosphere of chassidic devotion. No longer was the life of the Jewish daughter empty at home. She too had her community life, her school, centre and club, where there were comradeship and studies and well-organized activities—an outlet and a spur for her eager ambitions.7

Sarah Schenirer and her innovative Bais Yaakov movement inspired a new generation of women to be committed to Orthodoxy and provided them the opportunities to reach their potential.

Like Chassidim with their rebbe, Bais Yaakov students revered Sarah Schenirer, tried to learn from her every action, repeated her teachings and expressed joy when she chose them to assist her in some way. Former student Miriam Lubling recalled Sarah Schenirer coming to her town to establish a Bais Yaakov school there and staying with her grandmother. She said, “I had the privilege to prepare her negel vasser and to serve her. The holy countenance remains in my mind and her sweet voice still rings in my ears. Her mouth spoke only holy words and she illuminated the whole Jewish world with her shining eyes.”8 These girls finally had their own leader, someone they could look to as a guide and a role model, and that made all the difference in their lives.

During her lifetime, Sarah Schenirer’s reputation as a holy leader was recognized beyond the world of Bais Yaakov. Pearl Benisch cites a story of a man bursting into the classroom where Schenirer was teaching and begging her to go to the grave of a famous rabbi to pray for his sick child’s recovery. Schenirer immediately acquiesced. She apologized to her students for leaving, charged them to pray for the child and departed with the man.

In the eighty years since her death, her influence has continued to permeate Orthodox society and the impact of her innovation has grown stronger. Bais Yaakov successfully created new and exciting opportunities for Orthodox Jewish women, religiously, educationally, professionally and communally. Bais Yaakov introduced girls to a new world of studying limudei Kodesh (Jewish studies), and made Jewish education for girls an indisputably accepted community norm. Women and girls are no longer ignorant of their traditions. They know halachah, how to daven and how to learn. For many women, this knowledge and the ability to intellectually engage with Torah is a major source of connection to Yiddishkeit. The story of Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov suggests that the more girls and women are introduced to high-level secular studies and secular ideologies, the more compelling, challenging and rigorous their Jewish education needs to be.

schenirer pull quote2In addition to education, Bais Yaakov offered women leadership opportunities that have enhanced Orthodoxy. Sarah Schenirer saw a need for girls to have female leaders with whom to forge a connection. Her movement trained women to be those leaders and educators for the next generation. The Bais Yaakov school system’s primary goal was to create qualified women leaders to run new Bais Yaakov schools. And it did. Then those women’s students went on to start schools. Bais Yaakov helped create new Torah personalities that continue to influence ensuing generations.

Sarah Schenirer’s story also demonstrates that change happens on the ground. One woman, with little fanfare, just did what needed to be done. She didn’t wait for the big organizations to get involved, or let herself get mired in the politics. She started her school, its success spoke for itself, and the organized community followed suit. In this respect, Bais Yaakov is a model grassroots movement. Starting Bais Yaakov was not the only example of Sarah Schenirer initiating grassroots change. In Schenirer’s community, it was not socially accepted for single girls to attend shul on Shabbat. However, Schenirer felt that it was essential to her students’ spiritual development that they daven with a minyan. Schenirer simply began taking her students with her to shul and thereby changed another societal norm.

For the Orthodox community today, one of the most important lessons we can learn from Sarah Schenirer is how to successfully and appropriately balance tradition and innovation. On the one hand, Sarah Schenirer was reconnecting girls with the past and reinstating tradition. Her students and Bais Yaakov publications stress how she embodied traditional Jewish values such as tzeniut and followed da’at Torah. On the other hand, Sara Schenirer went about reinstating tradition in a very modern way. She challenged convention after convention in a highly conservative society.  She called for change in an anti-innovation culture. Modest. Radical. Traditional. Revolutionary. Can all these traits exist in one person?

Perhaps a clue lies in a speech given by Sarah Schenirer herself. Schenirer taught her students that they must learn to balance two important concepts: the idea of turning inward—for the traditional Jewish concept of modesty, and the need for turning outward—for extraordinary action. Schenirer did not believe tradition and innovation were mutually exclusive. You could be a traditional revolutionary—which is exactly what she was.

An artist’s rendering of the Bais Yaakov Seminary building in Krakow. Illustration from the 70th yahrtzeit gathering booklet, compiled and edited by Bais Yaakov D’Gur High School

An artist’s rendering of the Bais Yaakov Seminary building in Krakow. Illustration from the 70th yahrtzeit gathering booklet, compiled and edited by Bais Yaakov D’Gur High School

Sarah Schenirer saw a problem. She saw frum girls disengaged and alienated. And she formulated a solution: educate and empower. She saw that the community’s approach was no longer working, and while remaining staunchly traditional and committed to halachah, she pushed for innovation and creativity. Like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Chofetz Chaim, Sarah Schenirer demonstrates that innovation is an integral part of the halachic process. A commitment to mesorah does not preclude an understanding that if we remain complacent and don’t continue to move forward with respect to building and expanding educational and leadership opportunities—opportunities that address the challenges of the contemporary world—we will be failing as a community.

At the eightieth yahrtzeit commemoration event, Rabbi Paysach Krohn recounted a story about Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Chevron, who told a crowd of people that the person who had done the most for Am Yisrael in the past 100 years was not the Chofetz Chaim, the Alter of Slabodka or any of the great Chassidic rebbes of the previous generation. It was Sarah Schenirer. She fought assimilationists, she fought community leaders, she fought threats of excommunication. She fought l’shem Shamayim and she persevered. In doing so, she has become an integral link in the mesorah. She continues to serve as a connection for girls and women to Orthodoxy and she provides an approach to tradition and innovation that, b’ezrat Hashem, can help our community thrive and grow.

Notes
1. Pearl Benisch, Carry Me in Your Heart: The Life and Legacy of Sarah Schenirer (Jerusalem, 2003), 319-320.

2. For women’s education in Poland before Bais Yaakov, see Shaul Stampfer, “Gender Differentiation and Education of the Jewish Woman in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe,” Polin 7 (1992): 63-87.

3. For the history of Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov in Europe, see Benisch; Sarah Schenirer, Eim B’ Yisrael (Bnei Brak, Israel, 1955); and Deborah Weissman, “Bais Ya’akov—A Women’s Educational Movement in the Polish Jewish Community: A Case Study in Tradition and Modernity,” (MA Thesis, New York University, 1977).

4. Sarah Schenirer’s words, as recounted by Judith Grunfeld in Judith Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, “Sarah Schenirer,” in Jewish Leaders: 1750-1940, ed. Leo Jung (Jerusalem, 1953), 410-411.

5. Chofetz Chaim, Likutei Halachot, Sotah 21b.

6. For the role of Agudas Yisroel in the development of Bais Yaakov, see Gershon Chaim Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916-1939 (Jerusalem, 1996).

7. Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, 419.

8. Miriam Lubling, “Every Bais Yaakov Girl Is Her Memorial,” in booklet commemorating the 70th yahrtzeit of Sarah Schenirer, sponsored by Zichron Sarah Schenirer and compiled by Bais Yaakov D’Gur.

Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is the dean of secular studies at Maalot Baltimore. She previously taught at Touro College, Hebrew Theological College and Gratz College and has lectured internationally.

Listen to Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein speak about the life of Sarah Schenirer at ou.org/life/education/savitsky-klein

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2016.