Bais Ya'akov Schools

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

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In the teacher training programs much emphasis was put on modern pedagogy. Although, as part of Agudat Israel, the movement took a non-Zionist stance, there were even hakhsharot--preparatory training centers for young women who wanted to settle in Palestine. In some of the larger cities the schooling extended through high school, offering business and vocational training.

Curricular Development

In Eastern Europe the language of instruction in the movement was Yiddish, with some exposure to Polish and German language and literature. The curriculum in Jewish studies included Bible and traditional commentaries, Jewish philosophy, moral and homiletical literature and those laws incumbent on women, but it stopped short of Mishnah (except for Pirkei Avot) and Talmud.

Secular subjects were taught through the prism of religious faith. Much emphasis was placed on hiring women teachers who had a strong educational background and who could serve as role models for their pupils. The ultimate role model was Sarah Schenirer herself. A sophisticated system of stories, symbols, songs, slogans, rituals, and so on, was used to bolster Bais Ya'akov as a social movement and give legitimacy to the innovation it represented.

In addition, under the influence of Agudat Israel, which brought in both male and female administrators with modern training from Western Europe, including Dr. Judith Grunfeld (née Rosenbaum, 1902-1998), the Bais Ya'akov movement combined modern forms of instruction with traditional content. New buildings were state-of-the-art and pedagogical methods were contemporary, but the content remained strictly traditional.

Bais Ya'akov teachers taught girls not only the specific prayers and duties which Jewish women were expected to know but presented secular subjects as if they, too, were part of Judaism. Literature was a venue for teaching the values of Jewish living, the wonder of God's creation was the underlying theme for science classes and the study of German was deemed necessary for studying Hirsch's biblical commentary in its original language.

By the early 1930s, with the establishment of the country's first Bais Yaakov in 1934, the movement spread to Mandatory Palestine. There, the language of instruction was Hebrew, rather than Yiddish, for two instrumental, rather than ideological, reasons: in order to better prepare the girls to enter the labor market and in order to be able to absorb pupils from Sephardi and Oriental backgrounds.

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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."