A Great Spiritual Shepherdess: Part One

This two-part letter contains some fascinating and little-known information about a great spiritual shepherdess. The letter is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Udel bas Yosef (Adeline Oboler). Her yahrtzeit this year is on the 24th of Adar 1, which begins on Sunday evening, February 27th. 
Dear Friends,
I will begin to discuss the outreach of Sarah Schenirer, a Chassidic woman who became a great spiritual shepherdess of young Jewish women. After World War 1, she began a movement of spiritual renewal among the young Jewish women of Poland, and it later spread to other countries.
There was a strong need for this spiritual renewal, as the idolization of secular western culture that began among the Jews of Germany was spreading to Poland, and after World War 1, thousands of young Jewish men and women in Poland were abandoning their roots. In the era before World War I, however, most of Poland’s Jewish men and women were Torah-committed; moreover, Poland was a great center of Chassidic life. During this pre-war period, there were no Torah schools in Poland for girls; nevertheless, the strong spiritual environment of the Jewish home and community, as well as the “home-schooling” that many girls received, helped to give them a strong sense of Jewish identity and pride. The social environment began to radically change during the traumatic social and political upheavals of World War I, when many Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia were forced to wander from place to place; moreover, most Jewish youth did not receive a Torah education during this period of turmoil and wandering. It was a period of social upheaval, and after the war, many young Jewish men and women from Torah-committed homes were attracted to certain secular ideologies and movements of that era, such as socialism, communism, and a form of Jewish nationalism which sought to replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. Each of these movements promised to develop a secular utopia which would also eliminate ant-Semitism.
Sarah Schenirer noticed that young Jewish women were even more susceptible to the appeals of these secular movements than young Jewish men. This was because Torah elementary schools and yeshivos for boys and young men were reestablished after World War 1, while the girls and young women were not receiving any form of Torah education.
Sarah Schenirer discovered that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century sage who lived in Frankfort, Germany, had developed schools which provided Jewish girls with a Torah education, and she was inspired to do something similar in Poland. She decided to give up her work as a seamstress who wove clothes, in order to devote herself to establishing Torah schools for girls. Although she initially faced some opposition, she won the support of most of the leading Torah sages of her era, including the Chofetz Chaim. For example, Sarah’s family were followers of the Belzer Rebbe, a leading sage, and at the suggestion of her brother, she consulted with the Belzer Rabbe about her plans to educate Jewish girls. The Rebbe told her, “Blessing and Success!” She therefore established the first Torah school for Jewish girls in Poland.
The international Chareidi organization, Agudath Israel, which was founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages, began to fund the school, and Agudath Israel provided her with a skilled administrator, Dr. Leo (Shmuel) Deutschlander, who was from the community developed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Additional schools were started, and with the help of Agudath Israel, Sarah later established a teacher’s seminary. 
Her first school, which eventually became a movement of schools, was called “Bais Yaakov” – the House of Jacob – an ancient term for the women of Israel. For example, just before the Torah was given to Israel at Mount Sinai, Hashem proclaimed to Moshe: 
”So shall you say to the House of Jacob, and tell to the Children 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”; thus, the Midrash Rabbah  explains that Moshe was told to first address the women. According to the opening explanation in the Midrash Rabbah, the women of Israel merited to hear the Divine Teaching first, since they tend to “swiftly fulfill the mitzvos” (Exodus Rabbah 28:2). 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 Yaakov 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. One student recorded in her memoirs how Sarah handled the occasional adversaries that sought to block the opening of a Bais Yaakov 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 Yaakov. 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 Yaakov and helped me substantially in establishing the school.” (From the book “Builders” by Hanoch Teller)
In one of her talks to the students at the new Bais Yaakov seminary for teachers, she spoke the following words:
“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 thousands of young Jewish women, and the majority were from Chassidic homes. She walked in the path of the Baal Shem Tov, a leading 18th century sage who founded the Chassidic movement. He sought to renew Judaism from within by helping his brethren rediscover the joy within the Torah’s path of mitzvos, as it is written, “The mandates of Hashem are upright, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:9). In this spirit, Sarah Schenirer sought to renew Judaism from within among the new generation of Jewish women by helping them rediscover true Jewish joy. For example, Sarah realized that many Chassidic girls of that period felt that Shabbos and the Festivals 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 to organize spirited gatherings of girls and young women on Shabbos and the Festivals, where they fulfilled the following call:
“Serve Hashem with joy, come before Him with joyous song.” (Psalm 100:2).

Serving Hashem with joy was a principle that guided Sarah’s efforts, and her students recall that she was a happy person who also had a good sense of humor. In addition, she shared with her students her tremendous love for the beauty and wonder of Hashem’s creation. 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 Torah educators from Germany, such as Dr. Leo Deutschlander and Dr. Judith Grunfeld, who were from the community developed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. 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 the writings of Rabbi Hirsch; in fact, during the school year, Sarah gave a course on Rabbi Hirsch’s “Nineteen Letters” – a work which discusses the universal role of our people, the universal vision of the Torah, and how the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to fulfill this vision. Through Rabbi Hirsch’s writings and their other studies, the students began to appreciate how Torah teachings can transform and elevate the entire world. As a result, they no longer felt a strong attraction to the secular ideologies of their day.
Their joy and pride in being Jewish was reinforced by their growing awareness that our people have a Divine mission to become an ethical and spiritual model for all the peoples of the earth through fulfilling the Torah – the Divine Teaching. They therefore began to dedicate their lives to renewing the spiritual strengths of our people. Even during the tragic years of the Holocaust, they tried to remind our people of our spiritual strengths. For example, Holocaust survivor Joseph Friedenson relates his own memories of how the students of Sarah Schenirer sought to spiritually strengthen their brethren in the ghettoes and death camps. He writes:
“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 (the location of the Auschwitz concentation camp), 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 following story of one Chanukah which was
commemorated in the Auschwitz women’s camp: The Bais Yaakov 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.
In Part 2 of this letter, we will discuss how Sarah Schenirer encouraged her students to move to Zion, and how she developed special programs which prepared them – both physically and spiritually – for living in Zion.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Comments:
1. As mentioned above, many of Sarah Schenirer’s older students had initially idolized western culture before they began to study Torah. For the following reasons, this idolization of western culture was not usually found among the Bais Yaakov students in the post-Holocaust period: Many of them were Holocaust survivors; moreover, they were aware that pre-war Germany was a major center of western culture and that many Jews in Europe viewed Germany as their cultural model. They knew that most of the intellectuals and artists of Germany actively supported the brutal persecution of the Jewish people. In addition, they were aware that most of the western countries that viewed themselves as “enlightened” had closed their doors to Jewish refugees who were trying to escape the Holocaust. A sad and well-known example of this cold indifference to Jewish suffering took place just before World War II, when the United States government would not allow a boat full of Jewish refugees to land; thus, the boat was forced to return to Europe, and many of the Jewish men, women, and children on the boat perished in the Holocaust.
About seventy years after the rise of Nazi Germany, Dr. Judith Grunfeld, who also had a university education, offered the following reason why Bais Yaakov students in the post-Holocaust period did not idolize western culture:
“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… they did not succeed in preventing, and indeed could be said to be frequently instrumental in stirring up the raging, terrible fire of man’s inhumanity to man.” (“Rebbitzen Grunfeld” by Miriam Dansky, p. 72)
2. A biography of Sarah Schenirer appears in the book “Builders” by Hanoch Teller. Books by Hanoch Teller, including his biography of Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg, “A Matter of Principal,” are distributed by Feldheim:

3. Feldheim published a biography of Sarah Schenirer which was written by one of her students, Pearl Benisch. The book is titled, “Carry Me in your Heart” – the Life and Legacy of Sarah Schenirer. It contains fascinating stories about the Bais Yaakov movement and the following related youth movement which was founded by Sarah: Bnos Agudath Israel. 
Sarah would not allow her students to hang her picture in the schools, and she told them, “Carry it in your heart.” These words of the beloved teacher inspired the title of the book: Carry Me in Your Heart.
3. The following is a related work: “Rebbitzen Grunfeld” – The life of Judith Grunfeld, courageous pioneer of the Bais Yaakov movement and Jewish rebirth, by Miriam Dansky (ArtScroll). 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 who would help Sarah’s vision become a reality. For further information on this biography, visit:
http://artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GRUH   .
4. 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.


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