Women praying at the Western Wall
Women praying at the Western Wall Photo by Alix Leventon
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It begins with a seamstress in Krakow at the turn of the century.

And so the legend goes:

A young woman, her mind as nimble with Hebrew texts as her fingers with the needle. The Jewish wives and daughters who enter her shop for fitting turn to her for advice, chatter about fashions, silhouettes, their never-adequatefigures; the seamstress kneels quietly, stretching her measuring tape, pinning a fold, securing a hem.

Later, she will turn to her diary and write: “People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are they so particular when they address themselves to the seeds of the soul?”

A young Sarah Schenirer, daughter of a prominent Belzer and Sanz Hasidic family, had attended public school in Poland, while studying Hebrew texts on the Sabbath, relying on Yiddish translations of biblical commentaries that her father had given her.

Hers was an education that was not uncommon for other Jewish young women of the time: The state of Jewish education in the Polish Jewish community was experiencing a drastic divide between the genders, with young boys sent to study in cheyders and then yeshivas, while girls - previously home with their mothers - began attending Polish state schools, eventually turning away from religion and instead towards the "-ism"s of the time: Communism, feminism, secularism. Schenirer wrote of the dissonance in the community, as "Carolin":

“And as we pass through the days before the High Holy Days...fathers and sons travel, and thus they are drawn to Ger, to Belz, to Alexander, to Bobov, to all those places that had been made citadels of conceited religious life, dominated by the figure of the rebbe’s personality.

“And we stay at home, the wives, daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty festival. It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual meaning that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women’s galleries. There is much crying by elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogues, the young girls stay chattering; they walk away from the synagogue where their mothers pour out their vague and heavy feelings. They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further from the synagogue they go, further away, to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy.”

Working as a dressmaker, Schenirer stayed up late at night after work to study “the weekly portion and the prophets”: “I enjoyed it tremendously,” she wrote, “as it enriched my understanding of the Jewish heritage and its beauty and depth of thought. But I also took a great interest in secular knowledge: education, history, literature. I especially admired the classical works of Polish and German writers. I loved reading them.”

Schenirer occasionally attended lectures at local universities, where many young Jews gathered; but after joining a meeting of the Jewish youth organization called Ruth, and seeing its young members lighting candles on the Sabbath, Schenirer was upset to see the girls’ ignorance of the traditions. She decided to devote herself to girls’ education after attending a Sabbath lecture of Rabbi Dr. Flesch, in Vienna, during World War I. Inspired by the rabbi’s Hanukah-themed sermon about the Apocryphal heroine Judith, and the power of Jewish women to continue her legacy, Schenirer began attending Flesch’s lectures regularly, studying Torah through the lens of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the neo-Orthodox rabbi of Frankfurt.

At the end of the war, Schenirer returned to Krakow with her family, armed with both a German Jewish education and a Hasidic fervor for setting up a new movement: a school for young Jewish girls. Her brother, a prominent member of the Belzer Hasidic community, tried to discourage her, insisting that her chances were slim, but finally agreed to take her to meet with the Belzer Rebbe  in Marienbad, today in the Czech Republic. Upon hearing Schenirer’s idea of a school, the old rabbi offered her two words: “Mazel ubrocha”. And thus, with the blessing of the Belzer Rebbe and eventually others - including, perhaps most famously, that of the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin - Schenirer set out to found her school.

She first began with young women, but saw that her efforts were fruitless: They were too mature, too distant and uninterested in studying traditional religious observance. So she turned to the younger set, and in 1918, she gathered seven young pupils in a rented room in Krakow.

The lessons in that cramped room - featuring a Lithuanian-style of studying Hebrew texts coupled with a Hasidic emphasis on character development - were wildly successful. Within five years, Schenirer’s seven students had grown to seven entire schools, numbering 1,040 students.

And a mere 10 years later, in 1933, there were 265 schools in Poland alone - for almost 38,000 students. Schenirer’s idea had taken Jewish Europe by storm and evolved into the Bais Yaakov movement, named after a biblical verse referring to Israelite women. Schenirer’s teachers were graduates of her own schools, trained by a teachers’ seminary that Schenirer founded in 1923, and taught by Agudath Israel’s Dr. Leo Deutschlander.

By the eve of World War II, Bais Yaakov had grown into a diverse movement of its own with a large administrative board (in which Schenirer chose to not be involved); some schools offered Polish and German literature, pedagogy and psychology in addition to Jewish courses, while others taught agriculture to young religious Zionist women who planned to move to Palestine. Throughout Eastern Europe, youth groups, summer seminars and camps had cropped up, with Schenirer’s presence, her charisma and conviction remaining at the center of the movement long after her death in 1935. She married late in life and died childless, though the thousands of women who had studied in her schools would later speak of themselves as her children, the adopted daughters of Frau Schenirer.

Since then, Schenirer has developed into a mythical icon, the stuff of legends for thousands of Orthodox girls’ schools worldwide, a modern matriarch Sarah in a near-biblical story in which the rabbis, like Abraham, “listened to her voice.” Her work has been credited as instrumental in ensuring Orthodoxy’s survival; it is said that the great Rav Meir Shapira of Lublin once told a Bais Yaakov teacher, "If not for your work in educating Jewish daughters, I would have to close my yeshiva.”

Of course, a century later in Orthodox girls’ schools, no one taught us about Schenirer’s secular studies. Nor did anyone tell us about the testimonies that those who knew her have given since, stories which would fit all too awkwardly into a hagiography: that she had been married previously at an early age but soon afterwards got divorced (some say her husband was not religious enough for her, others claim it was childlessness which drove them apart), that she studied the Mishna in the original Hebrew without Yiddish translation, that her lectures were attended both by men and women.

After Schenirer’s death, religious leaders went to great lengths to describe Schenirer as a "modest, pious woman." As Shoshanah Bechhofer writes in her 2005 dissertation on the subject, a “movement that represents change [in] a religious community that reveres tradition” must “celebrate its innovator without celebrating the idea of innovation”. And so, it was decided that, if ambition contradicts the traditional ideal of female piety, Sarah Schenirer’s memory would have to evolve first and foremost as a paragonof modesty, a modern-day redeemer of the daughters of Israel. And so, she has become today exactly what she once mourned in her diary: a woman wrapped in shawls rather than words, a perfectionist in “clothing the body” but not so much in clothing the seeds of the soul - or the mind, for that matter.

 

Perhaps what’s most radical – and also, sadly, most overlooked – about Schenirer’s memory is her diplomatic talent, a subtly dimensional way of thinking which drew on both the cold precision of a Viennese seamstress and the heated passion of a Krakow Hasid. A woman who proved that ambition and modesty needn’t be mutually exclusive - that serious piety and serious education might both have a place, if one only has the intellectual capacity to allow for both.

Utterly unapologetic about tradition and modernity, Schenirer can serve as an unlikely symbol of women’s empowerment, accomplishing the unimaginable in securing major Haredi leaders’ approval to forever change Orthodoxy, withinhalakha. Instead of attempting to shatter an entire, and immersive, legal and social system, Schenirer worked within the structure of Torah and social conventions, becoming a quiet emblem of powerful influence - not through a revolution in the streets, nor through unseemly opposition rallies.

Rather than wielding a saber or picket, Schenirer held a schoolbook.