- A Revolution in the Name of TraditionOrthodoxy and Torah Study for Girls
When Sarah Schenirer, founder of the Bais Yaakov school system, died in 1935 at the age of 51, eulogists spoke of her enormous accomplishments in revitalizing Orthodox Jewish life through the education of young girls and women. Since 1917, when Schenirer accepted the first twenty-five students into her school, the movement she founded had become well established, with perhaps 200 schools and 38,000 students throughout Poland and beyond.1 These students were enrolled in a wide range of programmes: a few of the institutions were full-time elementary or high schools in which Jewish as well as secular subjects were taught; the vast majority, however, were afternoon religious schools which supplemented public schools and at least in theory allowed students to avoid the religious instruction provided by those schools. The school system also included a number of vocational-training programmes, in which students could study Jewish subjects alongside dressmaking, secretarial skills, bookkeeping, or even nursing (the vocational school in Łódź established by Eliezer Gershon Friedenson was named Ohel Sarah, in Schenirer's honour). The crown jewels of the system were the teacher-training seminaries in Kraków, Vienna, and Czernovitz.2 In 1926, along with Friedenson, [End Page 321] who served as editor of the Beys-Yankev Zhurnal, Schenirer also founded Bnos Agudas Yisro'el, a youth movement for Bais Yaakov graduates and other Orthodox girls, and helped establish the women's organization of the Orthodox political organization Agudat Israel.3 Schenirer thus invented what supporters have described as the single most important development of twentieth-century Orthodoxy: the Bais Yaakov student, whose knowledge of and passion for Torah reinvigorated Orthodoxy as a whole at a moment of great danger to Orthodox continuity.4 While the radical spirit of its origins had already diminished by the 1930s, the Bais Yaakov movement saw a rebirth after the Holocaust and continues to flourish, with a loose network of schools throughout the Jewish world, now no longer guided by a central organization but continuing to keep alive the memory and myths of its origins.
The fascinating story of the founding of the Bais Yaakov movement in interwar Poland has yet to receive sustained scholarly attention in the form of an academic monograph. As with other complex or controversial issues within Orthodoxy, the beginnings of Orthodox girls' education among east European Jews (German neo-Orthodoxy began to educate girls formally in the Hirsch school system in the 1850s) are primarily remembered through hagiography, especially surrounding the figure of Schenirer as founding 'mother' of the movement. Bais Yaakov girls everywhere know the story of the pious seamstress who saw the need to teach girls Torah lest they be swept away from Orthodoxy by the lures of modern life. Orthodox texts often present these beginnings as a creation ex nihilo, in which a simple woman had the unprecedented idea of bringing the 'garments of Torah' to the 'naked' souls of Orthodox girls.5 Yet Schenirer's modesty and simplicity hardly explain the distinctive features of the movement or its astonishingly rapid success. Bais Yaakov succeeded despite a formidable set of obstacles, including a 1903 rabbinic decision that rejected organized religious education for girls; active opposition from traditionalist elements in the Orthodox world; changing and unevenly applied legislation and rulings by the Polish government concerning religious schools; and, as Schenirer lamented, lack of interest in or hostility to religion among the Jewish girls of her time.6 As I will argue, the achievements of Bais [End Page 322] Yaakov should be traced not to a rejection of these challenges, but rather to their dialectical incorporation: in revolutionizing Orthodoxy in the name of tradition, the movement brought together innovative and conservative impulses in an unprecedented and distinctive set of rhetorical and cultural practices.
When Schenirer assembled twenty-five girls in her seamstress's studio in the autumn of 1917 the Orthodox Jewish world lacked not only an established school system, curriculum, or philosophy of girls' education but, perhaps more importantly, a coherent rhetoric that could establish the legitimacy of girls' study of Torah and Judaism or place value on...