Sarah Schenirer

The founder of the Bais Ya'akov educational movement brought a revolution in the status of women in Orthodox Judaism.

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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

Samson Raphael HirschThe 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.

In 1917 Schenirer first set up a kindergarten with twenty-five pupils. The movement grew quickly and soon became the women's educational arm of Agudat Israel.

Leading the Movement

Sarah Schenirer, a seamstress who lacked formal qualifications in either the Judaic or general academic-pedagogic realm, thus became the head of a worldwide movement with tens of thousands of pupils in hundreds of institutions. Apparently she was a charismatic figure about whom legends began to spread.

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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.