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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Born into a prominent rabbinic family in Cracow, Poland, Schenirer, who attended a Polish elementary school for eight years, envied her brothers the opportunities they had to learn Torah. Her father, Bezalel Ha-Kohen of Tarnow (Poland) was a direct descendent of Rabbi Shabbetai ben Meir Ha-Kohen (1621–1662), better known as the ShaKh, an acronym for Siftei Kohen. Her mother, Sheine Feige, was descended from Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561–1640), known as the BaH, an acronym for Bayit Hadash. The family had ties with both the Belz and Zanz hasidic dynasties.
Recognizing her interest in Torah study, Schenirer’s father began to provide her with a steady stream of religious texts translated into Yiddish.
Troubled by Assimilation
The assimilation of her girlfriends troubled her and they began to call her “the little pious one,” not necessarily out of admiration. During World War I, the family relocated to Vienna, where Schenirer was inspired by a neo-Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Flesch, who had been a disciple of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), pictured. One of his sermons described the glorious role women had played in Jewish history. Upon her return to Cracow in 1917, Schenirer decided to initiate some type of educational activity for the women of her community.
Since a lecture series which she organized for adult women did not greatly improve the situation, Schenirer began to dream of establishing a school for young girls. Her brother suggested she consult with the Belzer Rebbe (Issacher Dov of Belz, 1854–1927) at his home in Marienbad. When Schenirer paid a visit there, the rebbe uttered his immortal words, Mazel u-v’rocho–“luck and blessing”–thus giving his sanction to the endeavor. Nevertheless, he added, the daughters of Belz Hasidim could not send their daughters to this radical innovation. Later, the main power base of the Bais Ya’akov movement was the Gur branch of Hasidism.
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