Bais Ya'akov Schools

This movement of Orthodox Jewish day schools provides a chance for girls to get an education.

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Upon her return to Poland she began to organize lectures and a lending library for women. Realizing that, in order to be effective, educational activity would have to begin at a much earlier age, Schenirer opened a kindergarten with twenty-five pupils. She received the blessing of the Belzer Rebbe (Issacher Dov of Belz, 1845-1927) for her endeavor, although he added that daughters of Belzer Hasidim would be forbidden to attend.

The movement grew, its major power base being the Gur branch of Hasidism. The head of the yeshiva in Radun, Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Kohen (1838-1933), better known by the title of one of his major works, the Hafez Hayyim, gave rabbinic approval to the deviation from tradition represented by the establishment of girls' schools within the Orthodox community. He saw this as a way of strengthening the traditional observance of girls in the face of changing social conditions. By 1921 the movement was adopted by Agudat Israel in Poland as its educational arm for girls and women.

How the Movement Spread

The rapid growth of Bais Ya'akov, spreading throughout Europe, North America and Palestine, can be attributed to the dedication of its teachers, the financial and moral encouragement it received from various sectors of the Jewish population, and the fact that it met what was felt as a real need of the community. By the end of the 1930s, on the eve of World War II, there were some two hundred and fifty schools in the network, with over forty thousand pupils.

The name of the movement, "House of Jacob," is a Midrashic reference to the women of Israel, taken from the Biblical verse referring to the moment of revelation at Sinai, "thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel" (Ex. 19:3). To this, the medieval Biblical commentator Rashi adds: "house of Jacob--these are the women" Some of the opponents of the movement, fearing it to be too threatening a departure from tradition, disparagingly called it "House of Esau."

The movement grew to include many types of institutions: supplementary (afternoon and weekend) religious schools for girls who attended non-Jewish schools during the day; all-day schools where the pupils were taught both Jewish and secular subjects; teacher training seminaries, the first of which was established in Cracow in 1924; a publishing house for textbooks, other educational materials and a monthly journal in Yiddish; summer camps, youth clubs ("Batya" for girls and "Bnos Agudat Israel" for teenagers) and international conferences for Jewish women (the first Bais Ya'akov conference was held in Warsaw in 1924).

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Deborah Weissman

Deborah Weissman is a specialist in Jewish education. She wrote her M.A. thesis in sociology on the history of the Bais Yaakov movement in Poland between the two world wars. Her Ph.D. in Jewish Education, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is on the social history of Jewish women's education.

Lauren B. Granite received her Ph.D. in sociology and the anthropology of religion from Drew University. Granite has been a visiting fellow at the University of Maryland?s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies and an adjunct professor at the American University and at Drew. Her dissertation was "Tradition as a Modality of Religious Change: Talmud Study in the Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women."