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Sarah Schenirer’s revolution in Jewish education

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It seems important to acknowledge at the outset the unusual circumstances of my involvement with my subject matter: I attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park for elementary school; a Bais Yaakov high school in Brooklyn and then one in Queens; Michlalah Jerusalem College for Women (a slightly more ‘modern’ seminary or institute of higher learning for young women); and, finally, another Bais Yaakov seminary in Brooklyn. All of these schools, arguably including Michlalah, are more or less direct descendants of the school system that Sarah Schenirer founded in interwar Poland. The one in Boro Park, along with its high school counterpart two blocks away, were actually among the first Bais Yaakov schools to be established in the United States.

Nevertheless, this story is no natural outgrowth of my personal history: shortly after my last stint in the seminary in Brooklyn, I left the Orthodox world, and – at least in my academic research  – have rarely looked back. Rather, it is the product of an unplanned encounter that took place, entirely appropriately, in Kraków, the city in which Sarah Schenirer resided for nearly her entire life.

• • •

In the summer of 2010, I brought a group of students from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I was teaching, on a study trip to Poland. We launched our trip with a week at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. As anyone who has attended the festival knows, it is among the most interesting and vibrant Jewish cultural phenomena in the world today, and there was more than enough going on to occupy my time and thoughts.

But what stayed with me from that week was the memory of a group of four or five young women I ran into in the courtyard of the famous Remuh Synagogue in the Kazimierz quarter of Krakow. It was clear to me the instant I set eyes on them that they were Bais Yaakov girls: the cut of their long skirts, their hairstyles and blouses, their gait and postures, their voices, even their faces. In that same moment of recognition, it also occurred to me that they must have been travelling back to New York or another Orthodox centre in North America after having spent a post-high-school year at a seminary in Israel, in exactly the way I had travelled with two schoolmates after my year at Michlalah.

And yet there was also something different about them. My friends and I stayed with Orthodox family connections everywhere we went in Europe; later, I joked that I hadn’t so much been to Europe as to Boro Park in Zurich, Boro Park in Paris, and then Boro Park in London. These girls were on a rather different itinerary. I was acutely aware, as I always am when I see Orthodox Jews in airports or other public spaces, that I registered to them as a stranger, and outsider to their world.

There was a kind of invisible protective shield around this group that repelled easy conversation. Nevertheless, I summoned my nerve and asked them if they were in town for the festival. One of the girls answered that they were actually there to visit the grave of a woman named Sarah Schenirer. “Oh, right! The founder of Bais Yaakov,” I said, to their evident surprise.

Thinking about the encounter later in my hotel room, it occurred to me that these girls were not American Jewish tourists in Krakow, but rather, that they were on a pilgrimage. They were on a younger and female variation of a phenomenon that has grown in the last decade or two, the hasidic pilgrimages to the gravesites or ruined synagogues of past hasidic leaders. These pilgrimages, as well as the journeys of descendants of Polish Jews to the places in which their ancestors lived, are by now well-known phenomena.

But if the young women I had met were part of a larger pattern of visits to Schenirer’s grave (as I soon found out they were), they were taking part in yet another kind of trip to Poland, one probably invisible to people who lacked my ingrained ability to spot a Bais Yaakov girl a mile off. These were Orthodox young women travelling to pay homage to a woman related to them not through blood or hasidic affiliation, but rather through the symbolic connections forged within an educational movement for girls. Among the other cultural practices of Bais Yaakov, the behavioural markers that made its students so recognizable, a new practice seemed to have arisen since the time I had belonged to this group. It was a variation on the European journeys young women of my own generation had taken to Orthodox Jewish communities in Paris, London, or Zurich, and an echo of or even return to the very origins of the movement.

Something else occurred to me. I had been in Krakow for three or four days without remembering that Bais Yaakov was founded in the city, or learning that Schenirer was buried here, or that (as I later found out) the building that housed the Bais Yaakov teachers’ seminary – the crown jewel of the system – was still standing. But perhaps this wasn’t so surprising. While of course the name Sarah Schenirer was engraved in my memory, as it is for every Bais Yaakov girl past or present, the Krakow connection had not stuck, because I had the vague impression that Schenirer had lived in a small town, not in the large city that Krakow clearly was and had long been.

This photo, taken in 1939 in the small city of Slonim, is one of the few images we have of the interior of a smaller Bais Yaakov school. (From the photo archive of Devorah (Epelgrad) Cohn. All rights reserved. Courtesy Naftali Cohn)

This impression no doubt came from the Bais Yaakov anthem that narrated her story, and whose mournful tune I loved as a child. As the first lines of the song already signal, the story of Sarah Schenirer as it is told and retold to generations of Bais Yaakov students constitutes a powerful myth of origin.

In a little town in Poland not so many years ago

Sat a seamstress very sad

Sewing clothes for the body

While the soul remained unclad.

Bais Yaakov started there in Poland

In a tiny little store,

But with Sarah as its leader

Its success began to soar.

Sarah, mother of Bais Yaakov

Is today with us no more,

But her spirit will continue

to live on forevermore.

• • •

What was it that I had instantly seen in the group of young women? What is a Bais Yaakov girl, as a historical phenomenon, as a “new kind of woman?” How were the first Jewish girls who attended the institution Schenirer had founded related to the group of girls I had run into that afternoon? Who was Sarah Schenirer, and how had she helped create this new way of being a Jew, this new type of young woman, who in turn remembered (and misremembered) her?

In reflecting that “the little town” in which this sad seamstress had sat was actually the bustling metropolis of Krakow, the notion took hold that there was more to the story of Schenirer than I had understood. Leaving Bais Yaakov behind, I had somehow managed to forget that the image of a pious, obedient, and sheltered Orthodox Jewish girl was highly stereotypical. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, academic dean of Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary/Maalot Baltimore, an Orthodox Jewish college for women, has convincingly deconstructed that stereotype, demonstrating the creative energies and youthful enthusiasm that continue to shape the Bais Yaakov experience.

My own parents had diligently arranged for me to attend school in Jerusalem at 16 (after I graduated early from high school), and then provided the addresses of friends and relatives in Europe for the adventure that followed. These travels had in fact begun earlier  – in 10th grade I was part of a group of Bais Yaakov girls who travelled from New York to Baltimore as delegates to the annual Bais Yaakov Convention. Among the impressions that remain of that experience was the excitement of recognizing the continental reach of Bais Yaakov. We sang songs about akhdus (unity) at the top of our lungs, danced for hours, heard speeches, saw performances, and swapped stories with those fascinating and exotic creatures  – “out-of-town’”Bais Yaakov girls. Along with the insularity of Bais Yaakov, the stringencies of “Torah-true” Judaism, I was also given ample opportunities to travel, perform, and sing, supported by networks of connections and deep roots in a fervently remembered shared past. All of these elements were part of the culture of Orthodox Jewish girlhood that shaped me, and that I recognized in those young women in Krakow.

The young Bais Yaakov women of the interwar years were accorded even more extraordinary freedoms, travelling (as my mother did) to attend seminaries at a younger age than their later North American counterparts, and sent off to found schools on their own, away from their families. This was not an incidental part of the system which, far from imprisoning young girls in a conservative environment, granted them liberties in a community that, before the rise of Bais Yaakov, had been more inclined to restrict young women’s movements to protect them from the alien currents of the day.

Some have argued that Bais Yaakov became increasingly conservative in its post-Holocaust rebirth. But the revolutionary character of the movement has always been inseparable from its conservative and traditional elements. Conversely, this revolutionary aspect has never been entirely forgotten, even if some of the charismatic boldness that characterized its beginnings has since given way to what sociologist Max Weber calls the “routinization” of charisma, or has faded from memory. The notion of Bais Yaakov as a revolution is remembered less in the mournful anthem about Schenirer the seamstress than in a story that circulated in the Bais Yaakov of my day (and earlier):

When Sarah Schenirer would walk around the towns of Poland in her tireless efforts to found Bais Yaakov schools, Jewish boys would throw stones at her. She would bend down, pick up the stones, and say to her assailants, “From these stones will I build my schools.”

Bais Yaakov Seminary students on a cart ride to Lake Morskie Oko, Poland, Aug. 23, 1934. (From the photo archive of Devorah (Epelgrad) Cohn. All rights reserved. Courtesy Naftali Cohn)

At first this story puzzled me. Who were these boys? Why would anyone object to such a saintly mission, such a clearly legitimate and holy project? Only gradually did I come to understand that Bais Yaakov had been controversial among Orthodox Jews at the outset (and of course, was also denigrated by many Zionists and secularists). Even after it had become a fait accompli, discussions about its legitimacy continued, and continue to the present day. The Schenirer that we spoke of as a pious and modest woman was seen by some in the Orthodox community as a dangerous innovator, and had thus faced opposition (stones), which she turned into support (schools). She was a pioneer, a brave and determined woman who stood up to elements within her own community and rescued Orthodoxy by making a place in it for girls and women.

That this story was a little cryptic in its presentation is no surprise: while the Bais Yaakov discourse grants full honours to Schenirer, it strives to do so while also normalizing her mission within the world of Orthodox values. It is by now almost unthinkable that such a valuable institution might have been subject to religious criticism. Bais Yaakov teachers thus aim to tell the story of the origins of the school system without undue reference to Schenirer’s opponents within the Orthodox community or to the leaders who failed to see the necessity of her mission before she – a “simple” woman – did. While Bais Yaakov regularly frames Schenirer as a pioneer and innovator, the notion of her as a radical or rebel is more foreign to the culture of the school (though her diary stands as evidence that she saw herself as something of a rebel, at least in her girlhood). For all the obliqueness with which this aspect of her story is told, her spirit and courage come through, and it is this strand of Bais Yaakov discourse, which champions a woman’s independence and initiative, that connects the stories about Sarah Schenirer with the Canadian, American, European, and Israeli adolescents who travel, often unchaperoned, to the memorial erected at her presumed gravesite.

 

Adapted from Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement, published by The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman professor in the arts in the department for the study of religion and the centre for diaspora and transnational studies at the University of Toronto.


The photographs illustrating this article are all drawn from the archive of Devorah (Epelgrad) Cohn, and serve as a record of her life as a Bais Yaakov seminary student and then as a teacher in the movement. In the photo on the cover, she is in a white shirt in the first row. On page 5, she is the teacher, in the middle of the back row. Page 8 depicts Devorah’s Grade 6 classroom. On page 9, Devorah is fourth from the right.  She carried precious photos with her during her escape, January 1940-June 1941, from Slonim through Vilna and Japan on her way to Boston. These images represent a small fraction of an extraordinary collection of photos, many carefully annotated, that came to Naomi Seidman’s attention after her book was already in press, through Devorah (Epelgrad) Cohn’s grandson Naftali Cohn, Professor of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University in Montreal.


No doubt other family archives hold similar treasures that await publication. These and other photos are available through the website www.thebaisyaakovproject.com.

Naomi Seidman recently won a National Jewish Book Award for her book Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement.

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