The ‘Little Miss Chasid’ who revolutionised women’s education

Sarah Schenirer, founder of the Beis Yaakov movement, showed that change was possible within Charedi society


In the government’s academic progress tables last summer, three state-aided Strictly Orthodox schools were in the top 15 in the country. The existence of Charedi girls’ schools providing a strong Jewish education alongside secular classes is something taken for granted nowadays. But their evident success owes much to the example of one of the most inspirational figures in Jewish education, Sarah Schenirer, who founded the Bais Yaakov network in Poland a little over a century ago.

She was “a brave and determined pioneer who stood up to elements within her own community, and maybe even be seen as having saved Orthodoxy by making a place in it for girls and boys,” wrote Naomi Seidman in Sarah Schnenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement, the paperback edition of which came out last year. A professor in Toronto, the author is herself a graduate of a Bais Yaakov school.

In Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, Orthodox girls largely attended a private cheder as infants or were tutored at home. Schenirer may not have been the first to open schools for them but she was in conservative Krakow.

She welcomed her first cohort of 25 girls in 1917, which had grown more than tenfold to 280 two years later, by which time the school had been embraced by the Strictly Orthodox Agudath Israel movement. At her death from cancer at the age of 51 in 1935, the Bais Yaakov umbrella covered 225 schools with 36,000 pupils across Poland. Many, especially in rural areas, were supplementary schools, offering Jewish studies before or after secular school: but in the cities whole day schools took root.

Not only that but she also established seminaries to provide teachers, the first of which opened in her two-room apartment, and also ran summer courses in the country to train teachers. Bais Yaakov was “almost but not quite a yeshiva system for girls,” Seidman says (though, as remains the case within Charedi circles today, women did not study Talmud).

Such was her reputation that some Chasidic rebbes reportedly stood up for her when she entered the room — a mark of respect for scholars. Her Collected Writings, which were first printed in Yiddish in 1933 - and which Seidman includes, translated, in her book - were considered, a sefer, a religious book. At her funeral, one contemporary observed, she was honoured “in a way that is usually reserved only for distinguished Chasidic rebbes and great rabbis”.

Some in the Charedi world may have tried to play down the innovative nature of her enterprise but Seidman is in no doubt that it proved to be a revolution within tradition. Bais Yaakov was “a place where girls and women could try on roles previously reserved for boys and men”, she said. She did not challenge the traditional Jewish role of a woman as a homemaker but she helped to give girls intellectual and spiritual aspirations and, for example by taking them out of the home to attend summer schools, a certain independence. She enjoyed travel and hiking, feeling “God’s presence most powerfully in the Polish mountains and forests,” the book says.

Her piety was apparent from an early age, earning her the nickname “Little Miss Chasid”. But she fretted that many girls in her generation were being lost to Yiddishkeit owing to lack of education. On the eve of her short-lived and unhappy first marriage in 1910, she confided to her diary that her ideal was “only to work for my sisters”.

While late in life she remarried, she built up Bais Yaakov when she was single and was unusual in being known by her maiden name. “Only an unattached woman might have the freedom to devote herself to the work she hoped to accomplish,” Seidman says.

Throughout her life her concern was to give women the knowledge of their Jewish heritage that would enable them to remain true to it. In one homily in her Collected Writings, she lamented that her contemporaries worried about their children having material riches but neglected “to worry about making their connection to the Torah equally rich”.

In 1903 a rabbinical conference actually took place in Krakow to address concerns that many young Jewish women were leaving the faith — but nothing concrete resulted from it. It was in 1914 in Vienna — where her family had temporarily relocated after the outbreak of the First World War — that a sermon on Shabbat Chanukah about the apocryphal heroine Judith inspired her to act. The Belzer Rebbe gave her educational plan his blessing.

Charedi society might appear resistant to change, defined by the famous motto of the Chatam Sofer that “the new is forbidden” — a reaction to innovations being introduced by the Reform movement. But the remarkable story of Sarah Schnerier shows that evolution is possible (although in one ultra-conservative area that frowned upon her initiative the schools were referred to as “Beis Esau”).

Seidman’s portrait of Jewish life in pre-War Europe reveals some striking detail. In rural Poland, the plays performed by Bais Yaakov girls were eagerly awaited in country towns — but they were for women only. Curious boys, however, sometimes dressed in girls’ clothes to sneak into the performance. On one occasion, when the show, the Binding of the Isaac, required girls to take on males roles, it ended up with “the cross-dressed boys in the audience…watching cross-dressed girls on stage”.

When Agudath Israel objected to women being given the vote for Jewish council elections in the 1920s, one rabbi argued that it was unnecessary — husbands and wives needed only a single vote to express their view because Orthodox households were so harmonious.

In the Bais Yaakov journal, girls confided that they preferred to talk to friends because “parents today don’t understand their children”. Plus ca change

Sarah Schnerier and the Bais Yaakov Movement - A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization is available at £16.99

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