What Do We Know About
The Establishment of Beit Ya’akov?
Dr. Yoel Finkelman

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 development.

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 century.

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 families.

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 modernization?

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 http://yad-vashem.org.il/download/education/conf/Kranzler.pdf

Menken, Rachel, “’Mashehu Hadash Legamrei’: Hitpathuto Shel Ra’ayon HaHinukh HaDati LeBanot Ba’Et HaHadashah,” Masekhet 2 (2004), 63-85. (Available at www.matan.org.il/Data/UploadedFiles/Free/Rachel_Manekin_29.pdf)

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.

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