By: Rabbi Eliyahu Sussman
The Talmud teaches that it was in the merit of the righteous Jewish women who persevered during the many hardships that we suffered in Egypt that we were eventually redeemed from there. In my humble opinion, allow me to say that, so too today, it is in the merit of our righteous Jewish women that the Jewish people are receiving abundant blessing. We are privileged to live in an era of Jewish rebirth and exceptional growth in Torah observance and Torah study. One could attribute these phenomena to various factors. Unquestionably, one of the most significant is the large number of Jewish women who are inspired, committed, and dedicated to the vision and guidance of our Torah leaders, Gedolei Yisroel. As such, these women are willing to forgo many of life’s comforts to ensure that Torah and Klal Yisroel (the Jewish people) can flourish. This exemplary commitment by a significantly high proportion of our women can ultimately be traced back to a young seamstress, Frau Sarah Schenirer, a”h.
Born in 1883 in Cracow, Poland, she attended school until age 13. Unable to continue as a result of her family’s poverty, she had to start working. When one client was extremely particular about her dress measurements, Sarah Schenirer wrote in her diary, “People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are they particular when they address themselves to the needs of their soul?”
Wherever she turned she saw young Jewish girls bored and uninspired, lacking an appreciation of the beauty of the Torah. Torah observant parents were becoming strangers to their own daughters who lived in a different world. The writing was on the wall – losing these young Jewish girls to foreign ideals and values would mean the loss of Jewish homes, and losing Jewish homes would result in catastrophic consequences for the Jewish people.
After the outbreak of World War I, Frau Schenirer moved to Vienna. Attending shul, she learned from the weekly teachings of Rabbi Moshe Flesh, ztz”l. He, in turn, introduced her to the timeless teachings of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, ztz”l. It was on Shabbos Chanukah, listening to the teachings of Rabbi Flesh as he spoke about the Maccabees and their strength and commitment to the Torah, that she thought to herself, “If only I could bring these beautiful words about our glorious history to all the women and girls at home.” The seeds of the salvation of our Jewish girls was sown.
Returning to Cracow in 1915, inspired and energised with a goal, Frau Schenirer began teaching a group of girls Jewish studies. A revolution was set in motion. To appreciate it, we need to bear in mind that, until that point in history, Jewish girls did not receive a formal education. Girls were educated and nurtured at home by their mothers. With the support of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, aka the Chofetz Chaim, ztz”l, and Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Gerer Rebbe, ztz”l, Frau Schenirer pushed forward, eventually opening up a school in 1917 with 25 girls in the first class. The name she chose for her school was extremely befitting: Beis Yaakov. At the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Torah tells us how Hashem first addressed the women and then the men. The title given to the women was Beis Yaakov, the House of Jacob. This name was a mission statement; the rededication and re-sanctification of the Jewish home. Not, as is often misconstrued, that a woman’s place is exclusively in the home, but that a woman is the home. She raises children on her lap and imbues them with a love of Torah and fear of Hashem.
In 1919, in consultation with Rabbi Ben Tzion Halberstam, the Second Bobover Rebbe, ztz”l, she affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish Organisation Agudas Yisroel, who then took over the financial responsibilities of her movement. This was the crucial turning point, a transition from a private initiative to a school network. Dr Leo Deutschlander, z”l, from the Agudas Yisroel, threw himself behind the movement; organising, expanding, and raising finances. The school network grew to become the largest educational movement in Poland, spreading to Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Israel (Palestine at that time). By the end of 1930, there were 250 schools and 38 000 students! Frau Schenirer had turned the tide. Previously, Jewish women dressed their bodies beautifully, but spiritually they were in rags and tatters. Now, spiritually, they were adorned in attractive garments as well.
As a person, Frau Schenirer was not only the founder, the teacher, the leader, and mother to her many pupils, she was also a living example of everything she sought to impart to her students. She merited exceptional Divine blessing for success. She raised many students who spread her vision and message and who, in turn, merited to raise many pupils, and so the process of inspiring, teaching, and raising pupils continued and still continues to this day. In fact, every Jewish girl since then who has been blessed to receive a Jewish education owes some debt of hakaros hatov (gratitude) to Sarah Schenirer.
May the Beis Yaakov movement, the Beis Yaakov Girls’ High School here in Johannesburg, and every Jewish school dedicated to raising our daughters to be inspired by the Torah and committed to the future generations of the Jewish people grow from strength to strength.
Sarah Schenirer – The Story of a Great Movement by Bnos Agudath Israel of America
Sarah Schenirer and the History of Beis Yaakov (Agnieszka Oleszak, University of London)
Were it not for her… An appreciation of Sarah Schenirer, a”h, on the occasion of her 50th yahrtzeit, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, The Jewish Observer, April 1985.
Trained by the acclaimed Beis Yaakov Prinicpal, Rabbi Yoel Kramer, for the past 7 years, Rabbi Eliyahu Sussman has been the Principal of Beis Yaakov Girls’ High School, a school privileged to be a link in the Sarah Schenirer chain and dedicated to her vision. Graduates of Beis Yaakov are involved with the Jewish community, here and abroad, at all levels, from serving as religious studies teachers and heads of schools and tertiary level seminaries, to serving as Rebbetzins in their communities.