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 Palestine and later in the State of Israel, therefore, the appropriate name would be Bais Ya'akov. Centers were established in Tiberias and Jerusalem and later in other cities. In 1937 the first school was set up on American soil of what generally came to be known as the Beth Jacob schools, which today also exist in Britain and Western Europe, South Africa, Australia and South America.

Shifting Leadership

After Schenirer stepped down as titular head of the movement in 1933 she was succeeded by a German Neo-Orthodox academic educator, Dr. Leo Deutschländer (1888-1935). In the 1940s the world head of the movement was Po'alei Agudat Israel ideologue Rabbi Yehudah Leib Orlean, who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The leadership shift from a woman to men and from Western to Eastern Europe is significant in terms of the ideological direction the growing movement took. While its growth clearly was arrested during the Holocaust, there are impressive stories--both historical and apocryphal--of the heroic behavior of students and teachers in the face of Nazi persecution.

Bais Ya'akov Schools in America

In the United States, Bais Ya'akov or Beth Jacob schools were developed by Orthodox Jews who had immigrated during and after World War II. Supported by Agudat Israel, the first American Bais Ya'akov school was an elementary day school established in 1937 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn; there also were after-school Bais Ya'akov programs for girls who attended public schools.

Following the European model of training its own teachers, Bais Ya'akov established a seminary in 1945, a parochial high school in 1948, and another high school in Borough Park in 1958. Schools spread from Brooklyn to Washington Heights and the Lower East Side, with a curriculum of Bible, Jewish history and Jewish laws and customs. By the early 1960s there were eighteen Bais Ya'akov elementary and secondary schools, all but two in New York.

Goals & Ideals

School GirlHad the natural life cycle of the movement not been truncated by the horrors of the Holocaust, the somewhat proto-feminist trends present in the 1920s and 1930s might have developed in interesting ways. The educational ideal of the Bais Ya'akov girl was an Orthodox Jewish woman, married and the mother of children, who nevertheless developed a career outside the home and continued being involved in Torah study and the fulfillment of mitzvot, commandments, and good deeds.

The economic necessity of work outside the home seemed to give way to a more positive view of work as something to be affirmed in and of itself. The kinds of occupations for which the girls were trained-- including teaching, secretarial work, bookkeeping and, later, even medical and legal secretaries--were held up as models. Academic degrees were generally frowned upon, even in the U.S.

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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."