The establishment of formal Torah education for women across the Orthodox spectrum certainly
qualifies as one of the most significant changes in Jewish education in recent memory. Today,
the notion that Orthodox girls and young women receive a school-based Torah education is completely
commonplace. Less than one hundred years ago, it was virtually nonexistent. Much of this is related to
the creation and growth of the Beit Ya'akov school system in Poland in the years between the two World Wars.
Beit Ya'akov's influence is most obvious in today's Haredi sector, which identifies itself as heirs to that legacy, but
the movement's impact on the Modern Orthodox sector is no less profound. Despite the importance of Beit Ya’akov in
the history of Orthodoxy and Jewish education, there is much that we do not know about its founding, growth, and
Traditionally, Jewish girls did not gain formal Jewish education (though in Eastern Europe there were at least
occasionally girls’ hadarim or girls who attended boy’s haderim, before separate sex education had become
such a defining point for Haredi Orthodoxy [Stampfer, 1992; Greenbaum, 1999]). The idea of Jewish schooling
for young Jewish girls had been suggested by various maskilim through the modern period, and had been
implemented both in non-Orthodox circles and in Germany’s neo-Orthodox community (Breuer, 115-118).
But in more traditionalist and East European Orthodox circles, such an option was not seriously considered in the 19th
In the early 20th century, and increasing into the interwar years, a crisis began brewing among the female
Orthodox population in Poland. Generally, Orthodox males could receive extensive Torah education but limited
general education. As Poland modernized and its Jewish community became less traditional, females, even those
from the most religious families, had various outlets for general education, but little for Torah education. Homes and
families could no longer be counted on to socialize young women effectively into mitzvah observance and Orthodox
identity. Many secularly educated Jewish girls and young women, even from observant families, gradually came to
perceive religion, and their male counterparts, as backward, ignorant, and medieval. This created increased
secularization among young women and a crisis of appropriate marriage partners for young Orthodox men
(Stampfer; Hyman, Chap. 2).
The notion, sometimes echoed in popular sentiment, that Sara Schneirer, founder of Beit Yaakov, was the first to think
of religious schooling for girls is mistaken. German neo-Orthodox communities provided schooling for girls, as noted.
Furthermore, the suggestion had already been raised in Eastern Europe by several voices in the Orthodox press, but
the plan was not implemented due to the vigorous opposition of more traditionalist elements (Manekin). Still, several
schools were established for girls prior to Schneirer's interventions, the Havatzelet Gymnasium in Warsaw being the
largest and most well known, serving quite a large number of observant young women from Warsaw’s wealthier
What Schneirer did do was to turn these initiatives into a mass movement in Poland. Schneirer was a seamstress
from Cracow, the daughter of Belzer Hassidim, who, as a young girl, was upset by those of her friends who seemed
increasingly distant from traditional Judaism and observance. During World War I, her family had fled to Vienna,
where she was introduced to, and became increasingly enamored of, the Neo-Orthodoxy of Central European Jewry.
According to her own accounting, this was a major turning point in her life. (Schneirer, 23-24). After the war, she
returned to Cracow hoping to do something to educate young Jewish girls about their heritage.
When she failed to garner an audience among older girls, she decided to focus her energies on a younger,
more impressionable age. In 1918 she opened her first school of twenty-five young girls, mostly daughters of
families of Gerrer hassidim. The school itself grew rapidly, and Schneirer began traveling to outlying towns to set
up branches. By 1938, eve of the destruction of Polish Jewry and three years after Schneirer's untimely passing,
there were over 35,000 students studying in Beit Ya’akov schools throughout Poland (Zolty, p. 280), and the network
included youth groups (Batya and Benot) and summer camps as well.
She had an advantage over the Eastern European writers whose earlier suggestions of schools for girls had
emerged stillborn. As a lone, female individual, initially without ties to the rabbinic establishment, she was able
to begin more or less independently, and thereby avoided much of the political opposition that had plagued the
rabbis who had made similar suggestions. Early on, she started out on her own, with little fanfare and attention.
Realizing that she was unlikely to succeed without some measure of rabbinic backing, and under the guidance of
her brother, a Belzer hassid, she turned very early on to the Belzer Rebbe for support, and his words "berakhah
vehatzlahah" (blessings and success) were encouraging and helped her to gain support. However, as Manekin notes,
in Schneirer's own description of the meeting, she earned the rabbi's blessing by explaining that she wanted to "lead
Jewish girls in the path of Judaism," without specifying that she planned to open a school and teach Torah. Agudat
Yisrael became an official supporter of Beit Ya'akov shortly after Schneirer opened the first school, but it was only after
Agudat Yisrael's conventions in 1923 and 1929 that the Agudah began expending significant energies and monies on
Beit Ya'akov. The rabbinic support of the Hafetz Hayyim and others came primarily after schools were already
founded and growing (Zolty 284-285) - click here
for the Hafetz Hayyim's letters of support. This rabbinic support did
not create the movement; it supported it after the fact and helped it grow. Indeed, the rabbinic support may have
been most important not in creating Beit Ya'akov, but in serving as a ready response to the ever-present opposition
among Polish Orthodoxy. (The Hafetz Hayyim's first published comment on women's education appeared in his
Likkutei Halakhot, but that comment was a general one, focused on girls' and women's education in general, without
specific mention of the Beit Ya'akov schools that had yet to be founded. After the founding of the system, he regularly
published letters in support for the system in the school's Yiddish-language journal, Beis Yakov. The text of his
comments in Likkutei Halakhot and one of his letters appear in the appendix.)
The rapid growth of the school system created an acute crisis of lack of qualified teachers. The year1931 witnessed
the opening in Cracow of the movement’s teachers seminary (Kranzler). This seminary was significantly modernized
and professionalized by the presence of several Western European educated Jews, both with Ph.D.’s: Dr. Leo Deutschlander
and Dr. Judith Greunbaum. It is important to realize that despite the conservative and traditionalist reputation of contemporary
Beit Ya’akov, at the time it was a critical institution in bringing the more modernized neo-Orthodoxy of Western European Jewry
to Polish Orthodoxy. The seminary included general education, psychology, Polish and German, and modern pedagogical science
in the curriculum, though there was an attempt to choose only those secular influences that would support Orthodoxy (Weissman).
Further, the seminary was religiously guided by the ideology and works of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. Indeed, this modernity was
part of the appeal to young, intelligent Polish women (Sternbuch).
The success of the Beit Ya’akov school system can be traced to several factors. First, from memoirs and letters it seems that
the personality and charisma of Schneirer was a profound influence on all who came in contact with her. She inspired youth and
adults alike to be dedicated to the cause of Torah Judaism and to building Beit Ya’akov schools. Second, the idea of formal Jewish
educational for girls and women was an idea whose time had come. There really was no way to maintain observance among inter-war
Polish girls without education and schools. The product appeared on the market when there was tremendous demand. Third, the
decision of Agudat Yisrael to sponsor the school system provided economic, political, and institutional backbone that allowed the
schools to expand successfully. Fourth, this was a time when virtually all the competing ideological and religious groups among Polish
Jewry were developing their own new and innovative school systems (Bacon). Orthodox girls could hardly be left out of the trend.
With this rapid spread of Beit Ya’akov, it should be noted that most of its schools – like most of the ideologically focused Jewish
educational initiative in interwar Poland – centered on afternoon studies and after-school educational activities. Some 80% of Polish
Jewish children in the interwar years attended government-funded public schools, either those designed for Jews or those designed
for the general population (Bacon). Their ideologically driven education came later in the day.
There is considerable debate about how to characterize Schneirer and her followers. Was Schneirer a proto-feminist, angry at the
ignorance and meaningless Jewish practice, foisted on women by a male-centered Hassidut, as recalled by Schneirer’s colleague
Dr. Judith Grunfeld. “Every day sees new crowds of… men eager to secure a place on the train, eager to spend the holiest day of the
year in the atmosphere of their rebbe…. And we stay at home, the wives, the daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty yom tov.
It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual content that is concentrated within a
Jewish festival” (Quoted in Zolty, 271-272). Or was she a traditionalist, acquiescing to formal education as a stopgap measure to break
the tide of assimilation? "The busy dressmaker saw disaster facing Jewish women, but lacking a formal education, lacking experience
in teaching and public speaking, she saw no way that she could help stem the tide of assimilation," until she developed the idea of the
school (Quoted in Bechofer, p. 61). Was she an advocate of modernizing East European Orthodoxy, importing general education and a
German-style neo-Orthodoxy into Hassidic Poland, or was she a conservative force, doing what she could to minimize change and
We do not know the answers to these questions. However, as Shani Bechhoffer has shown, in the absence of actual knowledge
about Schneirer, her story and that of Beit Yaakov becomes a kind of mirror image of the people writing about her. Authors weave
the elements of her story into a narrative that supports their own particular worldview. For those of a more liberal feminist bent, she
became a liberal proto-feminist, and for those of a more conservative bent, she became a women of quiet piety. Perhaps, given how little we
currently know about the woman and her movement, that is the best we can hope for.
Click here for the Hafetz Hayyim's letters of support.
Bacon, Gershon (2001), "National Revival, Ongoing Acculturation: Some Reflections on Jewish Education in Interwar Poland,"
Yearbook of the Simon Dubnow Institute 1(2001), 71-92.
Bechhofer, Shoshanah M. "Ongoing Constitution of Identity and Educational Mission of Bais Yaakov Schools: The Structuration of an Organizational Field as the Unfolding of Discursive Logics," Ph.D. Dissertation, Northwestern University, 2004.
Breuer, Mordechai, ‘Edah VeDiyuknah: Ortodoksiah Yehudit BeReikh HaGermani, 1871-1918 (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1990).
Greenbaum, Avraham (1999), "'Heder HaBanot' UBanot BaHeder HaBanim BeMizrah Eropah Lifnei Milhemet HaOlam HaRishonah"
in Hinukh VeHistoriah, Ed. Rivkah Feldhay and Immanuel Etkes (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center), 297-303
Hyman, Paula, (1995), Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (Seattle: University of Washington, 1995).
Kranzler, David (1999), "An Orthodox Revolution: The Creation and Development of the Beth Jacob Seminary for Girls," lecture delivered at Yad Vashem, October 11, 1999, available at
Menken, Rachel, “’Mashehu Hadash Legamrei’: Hitpathuto Shel Ra’ayon HaHinukh HaDati LeBanot Ba’Et HaHadashah,” Masekhet 2 (2004), 63-85. (Available at
Schneirer, Sara (1955), Em BeYisrael: Kitvei Sara Schneirer (Tel Aviv: Netzah, 1955).
Stampfer, Shaul, “Gender Differentiation and Education of the Jewish Woman in Nineteenth Century Eastern Europe,” Polin 7 (1992), 63-87.
Sternbuch, Gutta (2005), Gutta: Memoirs of a Vanished World (Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim).
Zolty, Shoshana Pantel (1993), ‘And all Your Children Shall be Learned’: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1993).
Weissman, Deborah (1995), "Bais Ya'akov as an Innovation in Jewish Women's Education: A Contribution to the Study of Education and Social Change,"
Studies in Jewish Education 7, 278-299.