Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Adar I 5765 - March 2, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
NEWS

OPINION
& COMMENT

HOME
& FAMILY

IN-DEPTH
FEATURES

VAAD HORABBONIM HAOLAMI LEINYONEI GIYUR

TOPICS IN THE NEWS

HOMEPAGE

IN-DEPTH FEATURES
Remembering Soroh Schenirer — Her Seventieth Yahrtzeit

by Rabbi Yosef Cowen

Yehoshua ben Gamla, a Cohen Godol during the second Temple period, initiated a quiet revolution. Observing that significant numbers of children did not have fathers to teach them Torah, he enacted a takonoh that teaching facilities be established in every town. The maintenance of this system became a communal obligation. Thus, public education has been part of Jewish life for the past 21 centuries. For this innovation, the Sages crowned him with the following accolade: "May this man be remembered for the good, for if not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel" (Bovo Basra 21a).

Throughout history, numerous threats to the continuity of the Jewish people were encountered. The Sages state that the Divine promise never to forsake Klal Yisroel manifests itself in the appearance of outstanding individuals to meet these challenges.(Megilla 11a) Soroh Schenirer, the towering visionary who founded the Bais Yaakov movement, is undoubtedly an example of this phenomenon. She catalyzed a revolution which changed the face of the Jewish world. About her, it might be said: May this woman be remembered for the good, for if not for her, the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.

*

Today the Bais Yaakov system is taken for granted. To understand what these schools have wrought, we must be aware of the crisis which faced the Jewish world in the period prior to their foundation.

During the nineteenth century, the Haskalah wreaked havoc amongst Western European Jewry. Moreover, it is estimated that up to a quarter of a million of Jews converted to Christianity and hundreds of thousands joined the ranks of Reform. Torah-observant Jews were — or at least felt like — an embattled minority in Western Europe.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the tide of Haskalah and assimilation began to seep into Eastern Europe. In the twentieth century, the situation worsened. The First World War caused large scale upheaval and dislocation in Jewish communities, while new ideologies — secular Zionism, Socialism and Communism —attracted many, particularly Jewish youth. The young were naturally drawn to these movements because of various Jewish concerns such as the traditional Jewish love of Eretz Yisroel, compassion for others and concern for social justice. The trend of assimilation was such, that by the outbreak of The Second World War, the Orthodox accounted for only a half of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. (Dr. Yakov Robinson "The Holocaust of European Jewry," p. 198)

Eastern Europe Between the Wars

Divine Providence did not abandon the Jewish people during this spiritually perilous time. Outstanding Torah figures were present to guide the generation. Great yeshivos and Chassidic courts flourished. Those young men who sought spiritual refuge had the means and indeed reached great heights. This was true for the boys.

For the girls, however, no such opportunities existed. The home and family tradition could no longer provide sufficient insulation from the winds of secularism. There were no Jewish schools and almost no Torah-true literature or educational material. Attendance at non-Jewish public schools was mandatory and strictly enforced in many communities. There they were exposed not only to non-Jewish influences, but to the anti-Torah agitations of the purveyors of the new "isms."

It was not uncommon to find in the Chassidic families of Poland and the learned homes of Lithuania, fathers and sons leading active Jewish lives whilst the girls were becoming increasingly detached from the most basic traditions — and even contemptuous of them. The Gerrer Rebbe lamented, "I have thousands and thousands of bochurim amongst my followers, but I am not sure whether there exists for even ten of these young men, girls who are fit and willing to share their Torah-governed lives."

In The History of the Jewish People, Rav Chaim Dov Rabinowitz describes the situation as follows:

"The real problem of the Jewish woman in the modern age was the fact that she had little or no understanding of Judaism. In tranquil times, even perfunctory mitzvah observance can suffice to aid one in coping with attempts to undermine his faith. Despite one's lack of intellectual perception while performing them, the holiness emanating even from rote mitzvah practice lends spiritual strength.

"In the circumstances created in the modern age, it is almost impossible for a woman of even average background to maintain her Judaism without having at least a modicum of love and understanding of G-d and His Torah. Only after the era when an educational system for girls was at least founded did an improvement in her attitude toward Judaism take place." (Rav Chaim Dov Rabinowitz, The History of the Jewish People Vol 2. pp. 295-296)

Soroh Schenirer

Into such a world appeared Soroh Schenirer. Born in Cracow in 1883 to a typical Chassidic family, from early childhood she possessed a deep-seated, natural piety. Unattracted to the blandishments of the outside world, her desires were directed to spiritual growth. Attending Polish public school like all other Cracowian girls, her religious convictions were untarnished. She attended to her own Jewish education, immersing herself in the Yiddish translation of Chok LeYisroel and Tz'enah Ur'enah. Although popular, she sensed a growing estrangement from her increasingly Jewishly detached contemporaries.

In her Collected Writings (published in Yiddish) she described lectures on various subjects at Polish folk universities:

"All of the lectures were well attended by Jewish youth, who listened to them enthusiastically since it was the only interesting knowledge available.

"I regretted going to those places, but unfortunately there was no Jewish environment to meet the needs of the Jewish youth. I was happy to have my Jewish education, but what about the other girls? If only I could inspire them with Torah wisdom and the beauty of the Jewish heritage. If only I could!"(Quoted in Pearl Benisch, Carry me in Your Heart p. 8-9)

During the First World War, panic gripped Poland and many sought refuge in safer places. Amongst these were the Schenirer family, which moved to Vienna. There young Soroh Schenirer encountered Rav Moshe Flesch, who was . The first time she heard him speak was Shabbos Chanukah, when he delivered an impassioned entreaty to follow the example of Chashmonaim to make a stand for Judaism.

In Vienna, through Rav Flesch, she also became acquainted with the brilliant and unique works of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch which captured the imaginations of many young people. She was inspired by this great individual who built a vital Jewish community against overwhelming odds. By the end of the war when she returned to Cracow, she was ready to embark on her mission of establishing schools for girls.

Her initial attempts met with failure. Community leaders could not be convinced of the need for an educational system for girls. She consulted with her brother, explaining her plans. He tried to discourage her. But on seeing her determination, he suggested going to the Belzer Rebbe to seek his advice. The Rebbe endorsed her plans, giving his brochoh.

Her second attempt to inspire groups of adolescent girls met an icy barrier of indifference. The girls regarded her thoughts as outdated and irrelevant. She realized that she would have to start with younger girls, not yet jaded by negative trends. In early 1918 she began with a group of seven girls in an austere room with nothing more than a table and chairs.

By October that year the school had grown to twenty-five. Shortly thereafter the room was too crowded and she rented a small flat, that now bore the sign: Bais Yaakov School for Jewish Girls.

The new school grew unexpectedly quickly and Soroh Schenirer found herself unable to do all the teaching herself. Fourteen and fifteen year-old graduates became the initial cadre of teachers. In 1919 Soroh Schenirer began traveling from city to city organizing new schools. Within four years there were already eight schools with over a thousand students.

A major breakthrough in the development of the movement came in 1923 when the Kennesia Gedolah of Agudas Yisroel held in Vienna officially acknowledged the importance of the Bais Yaakov movement and assumed financial responsibility for it.

Dr. Leo Deutschlander Steps in to Help

Dr. Leo Deutschlander, the German-born head of Aguda's Keren HaTorah (established for the purpose of establishing religious schools), met Soroh Schenirer the following year. Inspired by her dream, Dr. Deutschlander committed his prodigous educational and organizational talents to the development of Bais Yaakov.

His first step was to summon the fifty teachers staffing the schools. They were gripped by the "fire" of Soroh Schenirer, but were not sufficiently trained or equipped.

Dr. Deutschlander designed intensive courses providing the teachers with skills and inspiration and subsequently founded the famous teachers seminary in Cracow.

Bais Yaakov became a well-organized professionally-run organization, the school in Cracow receiving official status as a school and teachers' seminary recognized by the Polish educational authority. Soroh Schenirer's Chassidic fervor fused with sophisticated professionalism of the west.

The burgeoning movement was blessed with unusual siyata deShmaya. People of extraordinary talents were attracted into its ranks. Its expansion was staggering.

By the outbreak of World War Two, the network had spread through central and eastern Europe — Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Austria — and had also reached Eretz Yisroel. There were hundreds of schools, elementary and high schools, trade and commercial schools, evening classes and teacher training facilities. The impact of these institutions together with the remarkable people who ran them is described by Rebbetzen Grunfield (one of the outstanding pioneers of the movement): "Slowly it became obvious how the almost lost ground of Jewishness was being regained and gradually redeemed." (Miriam Dansky, Rebbitzin Grunfeld p. 139)

*

Soroh Schenirer's vision was broader than the classroom. Although Jewish education was the essential foundation for every Jewish girl, additional measures were required to protect and nuture her. Books and newspapers have traditionally had a powerful impact on popular opinion. The Jewish press at this time was dominated by secular writers with a distinct anti-Torah bent. This material was avidly read by large numbers of people and had a devastating effect.

Soroh Schenirer dreamed of the development of a literature of Jewish thought for girls. In 1923, she approached Reb Gershon Friedenson, a Cracow journalist and publisher, with her idea. Applying his talents and dedication, he produced two monthly journals: Kindergarten for children and Bais Yaacov Journal for older girls. These evolved as high-quality Orthodox publications, helping to make up for the serious shortage of authentic Jewish reading matter.

Soroh Schenirer was still concerned for the welfare of her students. After graduating at the ages of fourteen or fifteen, girls left the inspiring and nurturing environment of Bais Yaakov and entered a hostile world at large. She planned to establish an Orthodox youth organization to continue the girls' Jewish education and maintain their dedication to the ideals of Bais Yaakov.

In 1926 she turned to Reb Gershon Friedenson who enthusiastically adopted her initiative. Bnos Agudas Yisroel was thus founded. It rapidly became a strong organization. Chapters in major cities such as Cracow, Lodz, Warsaw, Tarnow, Sanz, Charzanow, each had hundreds of members. Smaller chapters existed in other towns wherever there was a Bais Yaakov school.

It provided extensive programs of inspiring on-going Jewish education, sponsored chesed projects, and provided a vital social network for its members. "No longer was the life of the Jewish daughter empty at home", writes Rebbitzin Grunfeld. "She had her community life, her school, center and club where there were comradeship and studies and well- organized activities — an outlet and a spur for her eager ambition" (Ibid p. 142).

*

The unique nature and stunning success of the Bais Yaakov movement was to a large extent the product of the sublime purity of Soroh Schenirer's personality. She made an indelible impression on thousands of her disciples. "She was loved like a mother", writes Rebbitzin Grunfeld, "with a love that increased with the span of time and the growing maturity of her pupils." (Ibid p.144)

She provided them not only with knowledge but with a role model. They studied her behavior, her selflessness and loving concern for others. She sacrificed herself totally to the service of Hashem. Her joy and enthusiasm in the observance of mitzvos spilled over to her pupils. Soroh Schenirer succeeded in restoring their pride in being daughters of Israel.

Mostly due to the influence of Soroh Schenirer, a new entity had come into being: a Bais Yaakov girl. Fueled by the fire of Torah that Soroh Schenirer had kindled as well as an intense desire to emulate their beloved role model, a new generation arose to continue her work in girl's education. The inner strength and moral conviction of Bais Yaakov girls enabled them to withstand great trials.

The beautiful flourishing orchard planted by Soroh Schenirer was savagely withered by the Holocaust. It could not, however, be destroyed. The spiritual training of Bais Yaakov was put to the ultimate test in the crucible of the ghettoes and the concentration camps. Here, Bais Yaakov girls fulfilled the description of the Av HaRachamim prayer (composed to commemorate the martyrs of the crusades): "They were beloved and pleasant in their lives and in their deaths they were not separated."

Showing Their Nature in Adversity

In his Warshaw Ghetto Diary Dr. Hillel Zeidman writes:

"Even the opponents of Orthodoxy agree that in the camps, the stance of observant Jews was noble. Often they showed self- sacrifice to save others. They particularly praise the worthy deeds of the teachers and students of the Bais Yaakov schools. The horrendous destruction, mass murder did not dull their sense of mercy."(Dr. Hillel Zeidman, Warshaw Ghetto Diary p. 214-215)

Books have been written describing the seemingly superhuman sacrifice of these girls. A window into this spiritual greatness is an episode related by Mrs. Pearl Benisch in her stirring biography of Soroh Schenirer, Carry Me in Your Heart. Mrs. Benisch, an early disciple bearing the stamp of her great mentor, describes "the greatest joy in my life."

In Auschwitz she encountered an acquaintance, Cylka, who had become broken, losing her faith and her will to live. After trying to encourage her she relates: "Just then I recalled that a neighbor of mine who had recognized me, had thrown me a piece of bread over the electrified fence. Miraculously, I still had it. I gave it to Cylka. My joy, my happiness, knew no limit. I had something to give." (Benisch p. 251-252)

The remnants who survived the horrors, picked up the pieces of their shattered lives and began the process of rebuilding what their great teacher had begun. They brought Jewish women's education to new lands.

In today's world, sophisticated quality Jewish education for girls is taken as a matter of course. It was not always so. Soroh Schenirer's vision transformed her world and the future of the Jewish people. In the words of Rebbetzin Grunfield: "She threw a large stone into the waters of Jewish history — which continues to ripple in ever-widening circles. " (Ibid p. xxi)

May her memory be for a blessing.

Soroh Schenirer's Encounter with Heritage of German Jewry

In a recent article about various aspects of the German Jewish heritage, Rav Binyonim Hamburger discussed the contribution that this heritage made, and specifically HaRav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, to Soroh Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov movement.

On her first Shabbos in Vienna — it was Shabbos Chanukah — Soroh Schenirer asked her landlady to direct her to a beis haknesses and, following her instructions, she arrived in the beis haknesses in Stampfer Gasse. There, Mrs. Schenirer listened to the rov, Rav Dr. Moshe Flesch z'l, speaking with pathos about the heroism of the Maccabees. The rabbi called upon his listeners to learn from the Maccabees' example and to fight for themselves and for their Judaism. Impressed by the talk, Mrs. Schenirer approached the rov afterwards and asked him where she could learn more.

"I learned in the Frankfurt Yeshiva," he told her. "The ideas that I quoted in my talk belong to Rav S. R. Hirsch."

Rav Flesch directed the interested seamstress to the writings of Rav Hirsch and of Rabbi Dr. Marcus Lehmann zt'l. Henceforth, Mrs. Schenirer would come to the beis haknesses every Shabbos to hear the rabbi's talk. Few, if any, other women were there listening. Soroh Schenirer's eventual conclusion was that she had to return to Cracow to teach Jewish girls about their religion.

With the learning that she had absorbed in Vienna she returned to Cracow, gathered a group of Jewish girls and with her vision and burning enthusiasm, laid the foundation for Bais Yaakov.

Morenu Yaakov Rosenheim z'l was the chairman of Agudas Yisroel and he sent Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Deutschlander z'l to assist Soroh Schenirer. Dr. Deutschlander provided the impetus for the formation of Bais Yaakov by inviting Orthodox teachers from Germany to come and lend a hand in setting up the movement. Teachers arrived from Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt. My own aunt," Rav Hamburger recalls, "was one of those pioneering teachers. She taught in the Cracow Seminary and from there she went to Romania, where she opened the Seminary in Czernowicz. My aunt by the way, was the only woman whom the Gerrer Rebbe hosted in his home for an entire Shabbos. It was a sign of his support and encouragement for the new venture.

In her Seminary in Cracow, Soroh Schenirer taught Rav Hirsch's writings in German. The teachers spoke German and the Polish students learned German. My aunt once spoke to the gaon HaRav Meir Shapira zt'l of Lublin and he told her, "If not for your work in educating Jewish daughters, I would have to close my yeshiva in Lublin."

"That," explains Rav Hamburger, "is how Rav Hirsch saved European Jewry. What would have become of European Jewry without Bais Yaakov? And how can one imagine Bais Yaakov without Rav Hirsch?"

 

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.