The Renewal Role of Sarah Schenirer

This letter is dedicated to the memory of my sister, Devorah Oboler (Alta Chaya, Yocheved Devorah bas Shlomo Hakohen).
Dear Friends,
In the 1920's and 30's, there was a great Jewish educator by the name of Sarah Schenirer who began a movement of Jewish renewal among the young Jewish women of Poland - a movement which later spread to other countries. The idolization of western culture among European Jews that began in Germany was spreading to Poland, and thousands of young Jewish women were abandoning their roots. A lack of proper Jewish education was the main cause. Before World War I, when Polish Jewish society was more insular, the strong spiritual environment of the home and the community, as well as the "home-schooling" that many girls received, helped give them a strong sense of Jewish identity and pride. But after the traumatic social and political upheavals of World War I, the environment of many Jewish homes and communities was affected by the new secular ideas and movements of that era. The girls were even more affected than the boys, since the boys had the opportunity to study in Torah elementary schools and yeshivos, while the girls had no formal educational structure. Sarah Schenirer discovered that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had developed an educational structure for Jewish girls in Germany, and she was inspired to do something similar in Poland. Her goal was to start a network of Torah schools for Jewish girls, and although she initially faced some opposition, she won the support of most of the leading Torah sages of her era, including the Chofetz Chaim. The international Torah organization "Agudath Israel" began to fund her first school, and it provided her with a skilled administrator, Dr. Leo (Shmuel) Deutschlander, who was from the community developed by Rabbi Hirsch.
Her first school, which eventually became a movement of schools, was called "Bais Yaacov" - the House of Jacob - an ancient biblical term for the women of Israel. Just before the Torah was given to Israel at Mount Sinai, the Compassionate One proclaimed to Moses:
"So shall you say to the House of Jacob, and tell to the Sons of Israel" (Exodus 19:3).
The classical biblical commentator, Rashi, cites the tradition that the "House of Jacob" refers to the women. The verse first mentions the "House of Jacob" before mentioning "the sons of Israel"; thus, the Midrash Rabbah explains that Moses was told to first address the women. According to one explanation in the Midrash, the women of Israel merited to hear the Divine Teaching first, since they desire to fulfill the mitzvos with zeal and enthusiasm. Sarah Schenirer sought to rekindle that zeal and enthusiasm among a new generation of Jewish women.
After the initial school opened, there was a demand for similar schools in other places. There was a lack of female teachers, however, so Sarah trained a cadre of her oldest students - a group of 14 year old girls! These idealistic girls were sent to Jewish communities all over Poland, and they were the initial pioneers that helped to develop the Bais Yaacov movement. Once a girl had been sufficiently groomed for her new position, Sarah would escort her to a distant town where a new school was to be established. Sarah would first address the women of the community at a public meeting, and then introduced her student. Some mothers, however, still felt that "home-schooling" was the best method of educating the girls of that generation; thus, Sarah often encountered opposition. One student recorded in her memoirs how Sarah handled the occasional adversaries that sought to block the opening of a Bais Yaacov school:
"She went with me to S. to open a school. We arrived there in the middle of the night. The next day she called a meeting of mothers and girls, and she spoke to them. A few disturbed the meeting, opposing the idea of a Bais Yaacov. She did not rest until they accepted her invitation for a private meeting which lasted the entire night. They became the best friends of Bais Yaacov and helped me substantially in establishing the school. I then realized that she has been reluctant to leave me alone with the opposition in town, until she had converted every last one them to my side." (From the book "Builders" by Hanoch Teller)
The Bais Yaakov movement expanded, and with the help of Agudath Israel, she was able to establish a teacher's seminary. In one of her talks to the students at the new seminary, she spoke the following words which gave them the courage to become activists for the spiritual renewal of our people:
"My dear daughters, you have come here to join in a sublime, spiritual quest. I know that you are young and have not had much experience in life. Nonetheless, I must call out to you, 'Whoever is for Hashem, follow me.' None of you should think even for a minute, 'Who am I that I can stand against the current that is washing away Judaism?' Such baseless thoughts are the scheme of the bad inclination. You may all take an example from me, a simple Jewish woman who used to be a seamstress. One day I decided to switch from physical to spiritual clothing." (Ibid)
Sarah Schenirer became a spiritual leader and guide to tens of thousands of young Jewish women, and the majority were from Chassidic homes. In a sense, she served as a "Chassidic rebbe" to the young Jewish women of her era, and she walked in the path of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. He sought to renew Judaism by helping his brethren rediscover the joy within the Torah's path of mitzvos, as it is written, "The mandates of the Compassionate One are upright, rejoicing the heart" (Psalm 19:9). So too, Sarah Schenirer sought to renew Judaism among the new generation of Jewish women by helping them rediscover Jewish joy.
Sarah realized that many parents in her day were presenting Judaism to girls in a negative way. The parents emphasized all the restrictions without providing the girls with the positive and joyous experiences of Jewish life. Everything was "do this" and "don't do that" with no attempt to give them a deeper understanding and appreciation of what they were observing. For most Chassidic girls of the new generation, Shabbos and the holidays were actually boring, for when their fathers and their brothers attended the spirited gatherings of the Chassidic Rebbes, the girls stayed at home with little to do. Sarah therefore began a school for girls which would renew the joy of Jewish living, as it is written, "Serve Hashem with joy" (Psalm 100:2).
Serving Hashem with joy was a principle that guided her efforts. For example, during the summers, she would bring teenage girls from the ghetto slums of the Polish cities to an uplifting rustic camp site in the wooded Polish mountains. There was a joyous Chassidic spirit at these summer retreats which included much singing and dancing, as well as an emphasis on heartfelt prayer. She was joined by educators from Germany who were followers of the universal Torah approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, such as Dr. Leo Deutschlander and Dr. Judith Grunfeld. There, under an open sky, the students would study the Psalms in depth, and the words of King David became alive as they meditated on the wonders and beauty of Hashem's creation. They would also study Rabbi Hirsch's writings which explore the universal vision of the Torah; in fact, Sarah also gave a course on Rabbi Hirsch’s “Nineteen Letters” during the year. Through Rabbi Hirsch's writings, the students began to appreciate how Torah teachings can transform and elevate the entire world, and they no longer felt a strong attraction to the secular movements of their day which were seeking to transform the world. Their joy in being Jewish was reinforced by a new pride in the universal role of the Jewish people - a people that are destined to become an ethical and spiritual model for all the peoples of the earth. They therefore began to dedicate their lives to renewing the inner strengths of our people. The Bais Yaacov movement began to spread, and its students brought life and hope to our people. Even during the tragic years of the Holocaust, they continued in this role.
Holocaust survivor Joseph Friedenson relates his own memories of how the students of Sarah Schenirer gave life and hope to others in the ghettoes and death camps:
"In the ghettoes of Lodz and Warsaw they secretly maintained schools and kitchens for children and youth groups. I saw how they starved, yet carried food to Jews who were ill...In Birkenau, they were the only ones who remembered when it was Shabbos and Yom Tov, when others forgot the sequence of days. Several candles were somehow lit every Friday evening and they whispered a prayer. Some no longer had for whom to pray. They no longer had their husbands or parents, and they wept in prayer for their tortured people." (Ibid)
Joseph Friedenson also tells the story of one Chanukah which was
commemorated in the Auschwitz women's camp. The Beis Yaacov students managed to get a few candles, and soon hundreds of Jewish women, in defiance of their oppressors, gathered to sing the traditional Chanukah hymn, Maoz Tzur - a song of our nation's faith and hope in the midst of persecution and exile.
The Bais Yaacov movement was reborn after the Holocaust, and my sister, Devorah, attended the Bais Yaacov High School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which was founded by a disciple of Sarah Schenirer, Rebbitzen Vichna Kaplan. Sarah Schneirer did not have any children, but she had thousands of spiritual children, and Devorah became one of her many spiritual grandchildren. Although Devorah came from a public school and began her Torah studies somewhat late, she was lovingly embraced by Rebbitzen Kaplan and the staff of Bais Yaacov, and through their love and dedication, Devorah experienced the vibrant and holy spirit of Sarah Schneirer.
There was a major difference, however, between the Bais Yaacov of Williamsburg and the Bais Yaacov of Poland in pre-war Europe. The Bais Yaacov movement in Poland emphasized the universal Torah teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while the Bais Yaacov of Williamsburg did not give Rabbi Hirsch's teachings the same emphasis. Why were Rabbi Hirsch's teachings regarding the Torah's universal vision no longer the main focus? Most of the teachers and students at the American Bais Yaakov were Holocaust survivors who felt a need to turn inward after experiencing the hatred of the Gentiles around them and the horrors of the Holocaust. They knew that most of the "humanistic" intellectuals and artists of Germany actively supported the brutal persecution of the Jewish people. They also knew that most of the "enlightened" countries closed their doors to Jews who were trying to escape the Holocaust. In addition, they knew that most of the Christian religious leaders of Europe did not protest the organized murder of millions of Jewish men, women, and children; moreover, many Christians in the countries occupied by the Germans actively assisted the Germans in rounding up the Jews for the death camps. In fact, a number of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who returned to Poland after the war were murdered in Polish pogroms! It is understandable that these survivors felt the need to first heal themselves before worrying about the world which had abandoned their suffering people.
In addition, these survivors did not have the strong attraction to secular western culture which an earlier generation of Bais Yaakov students had once experienced, and their feelings are expressed in the following memoir of Dr. Judith Grunfeld:
"Almost seventy years have passed since, and we have today most unfortunately an easy enough means of demonstrating that all cultures which we then venerated have revealed themselves to be nothing but a flimsy veneer covering over diabolical inhumanity. European humanitarian ideas so prevalent then, so much on the tip of everyone's tongue, preached by leading university representatives, have been proven utterly hollow. For they did not succeed in preventing, and indeed could be said to be frequently instrumental in strirring up the raging, terrible fire of man's inhumanity to man." ("Rebbitzen Grunfeld" by Miriam Dansky, p. 72)
Nevertheless, our sages teach that Torah - the Divine wisdom - is the blueprint of creation, and that the Creator looked into the Torah when He created the world (Genesis Rabbah 1:1). If our Creator looked into the Torah and created the world, then when we look into the Torah we can rediscover this world. In addition, the Torah reveals that we have the potential to become holy vessels with the spiritual power to transform and elevate the world; thus, no matter how much we turn inward, the study of Torah reminds us that we must eventually turn outward. This may be one of the reasons why a growing number of Torah-committed Jews in our generation are rediscovering the writings of Rabbi Hirsch, as a major theme of his teachings is the universal goal of the Torah path.
The Bais Yaacov High School of Baltimore, under the leadership of its principal, Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg, gave renewed emphasis to the universal vision of the Torah. Rabbi Steinberg himself was a Holocaust survivor, and in one of his talks to his students about respect for other peoples, he reminded them of the Compassionate One's promise to Abraham that "through you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). The following is an excerpt from his talk:
"All the families of the earth," he declared. 'Who cares about all the families of the earth?' you ask. Nevertheless, that's what the Torah says...The people of Israel will be a blessing for all the families of the earth. That means the Albanians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Indonesians, the African Americans - all the families of the earth. That's what it says in my Torah! " (A Matter of Principal - a biography of Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg by Hanoch Teller).
Before we can become a blessing to others, however, we first need to turn inward in order to develop our unique strengths. As Sarah Schneirer realized, we first have to renew ourselves before we can renew the world. As the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed to our people:
"O House of Jacob: Come, let us walk by the light of Hashem! " (Isaiah 2:5)
Have a “Renewing” Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Comments:
1. I wish to recommend: "Rebbitzen Grunfeld" - The life of Judith Grunfeld, couragerous pioneer of the Bais Yaakov movement and Jewish rebirth, by Miriam Dansky (ArtScroll). With understanding, creativity, and literary elegance, the author has written a moving biography. It tells the story of an unusual partnership between Sarah Schenirer, the inspirational Chassidic seamstress who successfully fought for her vision of a school system for Jewish girls, and Judith Grunfeld, a university-educated woman from Germany who would help mold Sarah's vision into a reality. Rebbitzen Grunfeld is also known for her educational work during World War II when she managed a Jewish day school that was being sheltered in a Christian village in England called "Shefford." A number of fascinating stories about the school's experiences in Shefford appear in this biography. For further information on "Rebbitzen Grunfeld," visit:   .
2. A moving and inspiring biography of Sarah Schenirer appears in the book "Builders" by Hanoch Teller. This book contains biographies of three paramount figures who were pioneers of the Torah renaissance in the 20th century: Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, and Sarah Schenirer. Books by Hanoch Teller, including his biography of Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg, "A Matter of Principal," are distributed by Feldheim:  .

Hazon - Our Universal Vision