Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Founded by Sarah Schenirer as a way of combating assimilation among her contemporaries, Bais Ya’akov is an Orthodox Jewish educational movement for girls and young women that began in Cracow, Poland in 1917 and spread rapidly throughout much of the Ashkenazic Jewish world.
Education of Women
Since the commandment of Torah study is not incumbent on women, there had not been a tradition of formal schooling for girls within the Jewish community. Instead, they were trained at home, usually by their mothers and other female relatives, for the largely domestic roles they would be fulfilling as adult Jewish women.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, as economic conditions in Eastern Europe deteriorated, partly due to the rise of yeshivot for men, there arose an economic need to send girls to school to acquire the linguistic and vocational skills necessary to support a family. There was also pressure by governmental forces to educate Jewish children in non-religious venues.
As a result, many observant Jewish parents began to send their daughters to non-Jewish and sometimes even Catholic schools, where they were often influenced by anti-traditional cultural and social trends, including a nascent form of feminism. This exposure caused many of them to question and even abandon the traditional structures of family and community within which they lived. In 1903, at a rabbinical conference in Cracow, a suggestion was made to establish Orthodox schools for girls, in order to keep them “within the fold,” but this suggestion was rejected as being too radical an innovation.
Sarah Schenirer’s Vision
It took fourteen years, World War I and a courageous and dedicated seamstress–Schenirer–to change the situation. During the war Schenirer lived in Vienna and was influenced by the Western European movement known as Neo-Orthodoxy, whose founder, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), had started schools for girls in Germany in the nineteenth century.