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Yoni Mehlman Bais Yaakov and the Preservation of Tradition Edward Carr in his revolutionary work What is History

argues that what the historian decides to study, the questions he/she asks, is based on his/her own historical context. His evaluation of those facts is necessarily tied up and linked to his world. Facts are viewed only through the eyes of the present.1 Many historians of Jewish history study the extent to which surrounding cultures have influenced Jewish communities. The degree of influence is debated all the way from the time of the First Temple to the present. The way the question is assessed is based on the historians evaluation of what qualifies as significant influence and what does not. It is therefore not surprising that this is the central question scholars ask when analyzing the European Bais Yaakov school system of 1920s Poland. The movement can be viewed as a case study of the broader question of secular influence on the Hassidic and Lithuanian Yeshiva world. Jewish education for women was a new phenomenon. Traditionally, women did not attend schools to learn Torah. The obligation to learn religious texts was upon men alone.2 While R. Samson Hirsch had attempted to institutionalize schooling for Jewish girls, never before was there such a school system in the traditional communities of Poland and Russia. 3 This revolutionary change introduced by a humble Sarah Schenirer begs the question: was the movement traditional, modern, or a synthesis of the two? In more extreme terms, should the movement be viewed as an infiltration of values foreign to traditional Jewish beliefs amidst a society which resisted all forces of change? While some have argued that Bais Yaakov introduced feminist thought to the Hassidic community, a close analysis of the goals,
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Edward H. Carr, What Is History? (New York: Knopf, 1962), 28. Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29b. 3 Agnieszka Oleszak, "The Beit Ya'akov School in Krakow as an Encounter between East and West," Polin 23 (2011): 279.

implementation, and actualization of the movement leads to a different conclusion: it was deeply traditional with a Neo-Orthodox hue. We must first define traditional. There is no objective definition; it depends on the historian. Today, the term Ultra-Orthodox or Hareidi may be more familiar. Of course, the term Orthodox is a misapplication of German denominational terms to Eastern Jewry. Therefore, equating traditional and orthodox, in addition to being insufficiently specific, is a historical misnomer. What then does it mean for something to be traditional in the Hassidic Jewish community of twentieth century Poland? We can identify two major elements. One, strict observance of Halakha and religious custom. Two, resistance to ideological and cultural elements of secular society. For example, a change in synagogue decorum to match standards of modern architecture would be viewed as a progressive act (and matters like these can be seen as the divide between the Neo and Ultra-Orthodox). While religious observance is likely the primary factor, one should not under-estimate the legal-neutral elements of traditionalism. In varying extremes, a fear of incorporating any elements of gentile society lest it lead to assimilation was and is a defining characteristic of Hassidic communities. The spread of womens Judaic studies must be weighed against these criteria of traditionalism. The first Bais Yaakov school was opened as an attempt to halt the assimilation of Hassidic female youth and in this regard can be considered as having traditional goals. In early twentieth century Poland, the average Jewish family experienced economic hardship. Women had to receive an education and work to assist in supporting the family. This led to two changes. First, since there were no Jewish schools for girls, they attended public and sometimes Catholic schools. Second, after the industrial revolution, women worked outside the home.4 These

Caroline Scharfer, "Sarah Schenirer, Founder of the Beit Ya'akov Movement," Polin 23 (2011): 270.

changes were the cause of high (relatively speaking) assimilation rates of Hassidic women. Schenirer witnessed the assimilation of her fellow Jewish women and dramatically remarked, I was shocked to see with my own eyes one of the officers [of the Ruth convention] lighting candles on Sabbath I never imagined they would have publically violated the Sabbath. 5 Her response was simple: There it first occurred to me: If only these girls were in the right environment, things would be different.5 In this spirit she decided to open the first Bais Yaakov school with 25 students in 1917 Cracow.6 Before opening the school she wanted to receive rabbinic support. She went with her brother to the famed Belzer rebbe, R. Issachar Dov Rokeach, who notably opposed Aggudat Yisrael because it was too modern. He recognized the need for the school and gave her his blessing. Only then did Schenirer feel comfortable starting the school. Interestingly, however, the Belzer rebbe did not permit his own Hassidim to attend.7 It was an innovation, although one he recognized as necessary for the future of Hassidic Jewry. Schenirer reflected on the early success of her class; They learned that man does not live by bread alone and everything comes from Gods mouth. They came to know that only by serving God sincerely could they live truly happy lives.8 With this religious spirit Bais Yaakov was born. Not only were Schenirers goals deeply traditional, but, more importantly, the teachers and administrators ran the school with these goals in mind. At the start of the movement, the teachers were graduating students of Schenirers class. She would train girls as young as fifteen

Sarah Schenirer, "Mother of the Beth Jacob Schools," in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, ed. Lucy S. Dawidowitz (Canada: Holt, Rinehart, 1967), 207. 6 Interestingly, while this information is based on Sarah Schenirers reflections, other sources indicate that the school originally opened in 1918 with only 7 students. 7 Deborah Weissman, "Bais Ya'akov as an Innovation in Jewish Women's Education," in Studies in Jewish Education, ed. Walter Ackerman, vol. VII (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995), 282-283. 8 Sarah Schenirer, 209.

and then send them to communities throughout Poland to set up a school.9 Therefore, in the first few years of the movement Schenirers influence was strongly felt; she passed her goals down to her students who then moved on to create new schools. In 1919, the Agudah incorporated Bais Yaakov as their official school for female Jewish education. In 1923, Dr. Leo Deutschlander was given the responsibility of organizing and expanding the movement.10 With funding from the Keren Torah fund, Bais Yaakov went from a mere 7 schools in 1923 to 265 schools by 1933.11 Indeed, Schenirer expressed concern over expansion, worried that the schools wouldnt meet her standards. Nonetheless, even with its expansion, the ideologies of the schools reflected Schenirers idealistic spirit. Their views were expressed in the Bais Yaakov Journal. Many articles openly criticized feminism.12 The leaders of Bais Yaakov sensed the need to explicitly separate their actions from those of the feminists. Simultaneously, they wrote a great amount of positive content on the ideal role of the Jewish woman. While the pioneering scholar for the study of the Bais Yaakov movement Deborah Weissman claims that they didnt offer a clear unified ideology, the views expressed primarily emphasized what would be considered a traditional role. Nonetheless, some view the lack of a unified ideology as part shifting values and part legitimization.13 While one can only speculate, it seems that the lack of a unified ideology may actually reflect the multitude of debate characteristic of traditional Jewish thought. Further, even if the articles reflect an effort of legitimation, the need to legitimate itself demonstrates that the actions of the leaders of the movement were not intended to be tradition breaking. Indeed, Weissman herself admits that the Bais Yaakov movement always stressed the traditional values

Deborah Weissman, Bais Ya'akov, A Women's Educational Movement in the Polish Jewish Community: A Case Study in Tradition and Modernity, diss., New York University, 1977, 55. 10 Ibid. 57-59 11 Pearl Benisch, Carry Me in Your Heart: The Life and Legacy of Sarah Schenirer: Founder and Visionary of the Bais Yaakov Movement (New York: Feldheim, 2003), 99. 12 Deborah Weissman, Bais Yaakov, 83. 13 Ibid. 90

of family and of modesty in dress, thought, behavior, and speech.14 In a teachers training course in 1927, Jacob Rosenheim emphasized, A humble obedience towards the tradition of our Fathers is also nowadays our highest wisdom and deviation from Jewish tradition, from Jewish tseniut [modesty], and most of all any violation of borders and limits will inflict heavy losses.14 This statement cannot be seen as apologetics. It was instruction given to teachers and thus strongly demonstrates the intense effort the Bais Yaakov leaders put into maintaining traditional values. An honest recognition of the dangers of the movement can account for the surplus of literature defending traditional Jewish norms. The emphasis on the traditional role of women can be seen most clearly reflected by the curriculum, entrance requirements, and code of conduct. Some example rules include washing hands (ritually) and praying in the morning, washing hands and blessings before and after meals, abiding by the Halakhic prohibition of combing hair on the Sabbath, and modest dress. The girls were taught Jewish laws which related particularly to women, bible, and important concepts of Jewish belief and practice. All of these areas of Jewish study were codified as permissible by the classic Halakhic work, the Shulhan Arukh. Therefore, while the institutionalization of womens Torah learning itself was revolutionary, the leaders of the movement were very careful to remain within the bounds of traditional Halakhic attitudes. One could point to the literature, history, and science included in the curriculum as signifying the influence of secular values. However, even here the subjects studied were carefully chosen to heighten Jewish values and to generate an appreciation for Gods creations.15 The integration of secular subjects was necessary to receive recognition of the schools by the government. Yiddish was also taught to foster a greater sense of


Agnieszka Oleszak, "The Beit Ya'akov School in Krakow as an Encounter between East and West," Polin 23 (2011): 284. 15 Deborah Weissman, Bais Yaakov, 69.

separate Jewish culture but not as an ideal like the Yiddishists.16 The entire thrust of the movement was overwhelmingly traditional. This assertion is further attested to by the continued support of the Rabbinic elite, including many notable figures such as R. Yisroel Meir Kagen (the Hafetz Haim), R. Elchanan Wasserman, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the Gerer Rebbe, and R. Meir Schapiro. If any form of intentionally modern influence can be discerned, it is not through the infiltration of secular values but of Neo-Orthodox values. Agnieszka Oleszak was the first to point out how Sarah Schenirers contribution to the movement was often ignored in early Bais Yaakov writings. He argues that the Neo-Orthodox who led the movement after its association with the Agudah, did this intentionally to downplay the role of Eastern European Jews, whom they viewed with some negativity, and emphasize the Western Jewish involvement in the movement.17 While Oleszak may overstate his point, the influence of Neo-Orthodox thought can be clearly discerned in the movement. Schenirer writes that it was Rabbi Dr. Fleish of Vienna, an archetypal Neo-Orthodox rabbi, who through his inspiring sermons about Jewish women motivated her to fight against assimilation.18 Schenirer was greatly influenced by R. Hirschs thought and the curriculum included learning bible with his commentary. To be accepted into the teachers seminary, one had to own a copy of Hirschs Nineteen Letters.19 Being associated with the Agudah, many of the administrators were Neo-Orthodox doctors and rabbis who modernized the structure of the school. As opposed to the heder model, Bais Yaakov had grade levels, hygiene standards, secular studies, laboratories, textbooks, and a class schedule. 20 While most of these elements would seem to be positive changes and certainly would not violate any Jewish
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Ibid. 75. Agnieszka Oleszak, 286-287. 18 Sarah Schenirer, 208. 19 Deborah Weissman, Bais Yaakov, 62,70. 20 Ibid. 69.

laws, the very similarity to secular schools would tend to make the traditional Hassidic community opposed. Yet, its not entirely clear how significant a break from tradition this was. Being within Halakha and without any pre-existing paradigm of female educational institutions may explain the acceptance of these secular structures. To be sure, this can be viewed as part of a much broader phenomenon catalyzed by the Agudah which narrowed the gap between Western and Eastern European Jewry. Until now we have considered the way the movement was run, its intentions and goals. We must now consider its effects. Was there an unintentional or subconscious progression toward the modernization of the female Hassidic community? Weissman argues that the movement raised the feminist consciousness of its students.21 However unlikely it is that this was intended, it is quite reasonable to expect that quality education for girls will encourage greater freedom of thought, promote a sense of self-dependence, and stimulate reflective thought about societal roles. Weissman points to responses students gave to a questionnaire conducted by the Bais Yaakov journal as evidence for this claim. Some girls responded that they would like an occupation, prefer financial independence, or that a wife should not only be a housewife.22 One response even mentioned the emancipation of women. While these answers should certainly be viewed as a modern way of thinking about gender roles, there are two concerns in drawing conclusions from this data. First, the questionnaire provides no statistics as to the frequency of certain answers. Therefore, there is no way of knowing how common these attitudes were. Second, there is no way of knowing if these views reflect values absorbed from their education or values absorbed despite their education. One can just as easily interpret this data as the partial

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Deborah Weissman, "Bais Ya'akov as an Innovation in Jewish Women's Education," 146. Deborah Weissman, Bais Yaakov, 94

failure of the movement to keep girls traditional rather than the movement itself raising feminist consciousness. It seems that without any definitive evidence Weissman drew this conclusion. It is hard to offer any direct evidence for the effect of the movement. It unfortunately came to an abrupt end during the Holocaust and so the impact of the movement was never able to fully actualize. Nonetheless, there are a number of secondary sources which imply that the movement achieved its goal of keeping girls religious and traditional. In writing, Schenirer has been idealized as the model of the traditional pious woman. The best example is Pearl Benischs Carry Me in Your Heart, a comprehensive biography of Schenirers life and contributions to the Bais Yaakov movement. Regardless of the accuracy of the book, it reflects an effort by her students to idealize her as the traditional Jewish woman (Benisch was a pupil of Schenirer), indicating that many of her students were indeed instilled with traditional values.23 Her first student, Hindy Birenbaum (who currently resides in Bnei Brak) recounted that Schenirer spoke to us with such warmth that only a mother can equal.24 Furthermore, a number of stories are told about the piety of the Bais Yaakov students and teachers during the Holocaust. One particularly famous story involves ninety-three girls committing suicide the night before German officers planned to rape them.25 Joseph Friedenson, a holocaust survivor, described the piety of the Bais Yaakov girls in the camps: they would light Sabbath candles, they wouldnt fight for bread, they didnt use vulgar language, etc.26 The reliability of the accounts is less important than the simple fact that this is how Bais Yaakov students are remembered. It seems unlikely that a radical break from tradition would be remembered in such pious terms. The mere growth of the

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The book includes a number of accounts from her students reflecting the students own tr aditional beliefs. Pearl Benisch, 34. 25 Judith T. Baumel and Jacob J. Schacter, "The Ninety-three Bais Yaakov Girls: History or Typology," in Reverence, Righteousness, and Rahamanut, ed. Jacob J. Schacter (London: Jason Aronson, 1992), 93-4. 26 Joseph Friedenson and Chaim Shapiro, "Sarah Schenirer: The Mother of Generations," The Jewish Observer,

movement attests to its success in keeping girls relgious. Rabbinic support did not decrease but grew with the movement. As late as 1933, the Hafetz Haim, the leading Rabbinic figure at the time, emphasized the importance of the movement: Anyone who has fear of God in his heart, it is a moral imperative (mitzvah) to have his daughter learn in this school We must attempt to increase schools like these.27 It seems unlikely that this would have been his response if the schools were producing a modern feminist breed of Hassidic women. There is no doubt that the idea of Jewish schooling for women was both innovative and revolutionary. There is no denying that the idea itself broke from tradition. This is only somewhat abated by the Halakhic approval it received. Certainly, though, there was no conscious effort to alter the role of women within Hassidic Jewish society. The extent of modernization was in the structure of the schools and the Neo-Orthodox values taught. The movement was only able to succeed because of its adherence to traditional values. Therefore, the Bais Yaakov movement would better be framed as a case study of innovation within tradition.


A copy of the letter is in Pearl Benisch, 117.