In Shemot 19:3, God told Moses to prepare the Jewish nation for the giving of the Torah, beginning by saying, “So you shall say to Bais Yaakov and Bnei Yisrael.” In the Torah, the Jews are usually identified simply as Bnei Yisrael; why does it also say Bais Yaakov? One commentator explains that God was referring to the women of the Jewish nation with the words “Bais Yaakov.” When Sarah Schenirer created the first school for Jewish girls, she named it Bais Yaakov after this reference in the Torah. The mother of the Bais Yaakov movement, Sarah Schenirer established the first formal Jewish education for girls, effectively saving the religiosity of Jewish women and the Jewish nation at large.
Sarah Schenirer was born into an Orthodox family in Krakow, Poland in 1883. As she grew up, she was always bothered by the deficiency of Jewish schooling for girls, noticing the assimilated practices of her friends with concern. “Watch how the girls pray; totally without motivation, as if it were forced upon them. Some are here to please their parents…others, as if God needs their prayers,” she wrote. She realized that the dearth of girls’ religious education led to their assimilation. It was only after hearing a lecture about the woman’s venerated role in Judaism that she realized she had to do something to save the Jewish woman.
Her first attempt at educating girls in religion and Torah was a disaster. She realized that the teenage girls were already set in their ways; she needed to start with younger girls who hadn’t yet become assimilated. As a result, she started a kindergarten with 25 girls. People at first scorned Schenirer’s endeavors, but after they saw the quality of the girls she taught, they began to see the purpose of her mission.
Within two years of Bais Yaakov’s conception in 1917, Agudath Israel began supporting Schenirer’s mission and publicized her efforts. People from all over Europe began begging her to open Bais Yaakov schools in their cities. As a result, over 300 Bais Yaakov schools were opened in Poland alone. When Jews emigrated from Europe, especially after World War II, they opened Bais Yaakov schools in their new countries to educate their daughters. A testament to its success is the number of Bais Yaakov and other religious girls’ schools that exist today.
The Bais Yaakov movement was the first formalization of Jewish girls’ education. Previously, girls were trained in Judaism by their mothers, learning only the basic points of what they strictly needed to know. Once girls began attending secular schools (by decree of anti-Semitic European governments) and had no equivalent religious education, they started viewing Judaism as a restrictive set of meaningless laws. As a result, they began assimilating. At the time, women were expected to educate their children in Judaism and make sure all of the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and taharat hamishpacha were kept. When these assimilated young women made their own homes, they were lax regarding religious observance, passing their negative attitudes on to their children and husbands. Sarah Schenirer’s solution for the lessened quality of the Jewish family, to create official schools to teach girls the importance of Judaism and how to live by it, now seems like an obvious idea; at the time, however, it was revolutionary.
Sarah Schenirer’s influence on Jewish history and values is enormous. Because of Schenirer, Jewish girls have the capability to attend good schools and receive an education in religious and secular studies. Jewish girls are no longer ignorant about Judaism and its practices, and can hold their own in the secular arena as well.
The quality of the Jewish woman and Jewish nation was also saved by Schenirer. She recognized the danger of Jewish girls exposed solely to the secular world and ignorant of the Jewish one, and realized that she had to take an active role in making sure girls’ knowledge was equal in secular and Judaic studies. By saving the frumkeit of the Jewish woman, Schenirer effectively saved the Jewish nation.
The Jewish world has a debt to pay to Sarah Schenirer. Because of her, Jewish girls now have the ability to receive an adequate Jewish and secular education, as well as the chance to hand down their knowledge to future generations. “Teach the child according to their own way,” Kohelet says. Schenirer truly adhered to this statement throughout her life: teaching Jewish girls how to become Jewish women.
~ Talia Weisberg