I recently met a friend at the huge Belz World Center in Unsdorf, Jerusalem. The Belz Great Synagogue’s design replicates on a larger scale the original Belz synagogue in Poland which was destroyed during the Holocaust. The magnificent facility’s main sanctuary can seat 6,000 people, making it the largest synagogue in the world.
A block away from this building is Sarah Schenirer Street, which my friend explained was appropriately situated, as this trailblazing woman who single-handedly changed the role of women’s Jewish education was the daughter of a prominent Belz and Sanz Hasidic family. I subsequently learned that the other street in Israel named after Sarah Schenirer is in Netanya, not far from Kiryat Sanz, so both locations pay tribute to her Hasidic ancestry.
Sarah Schenirer founded Bais Yaakov in Poland in 1917 with one classroom of students. Eighteen years later, when she passed away, there were over 225 Bais Yaakov schools with 35,000 students. She turned the previously unacceptable idea of girls receiving a Jewish education into the new standard, successfully utilizing innovation to help preserve traditional values.
Prior to this revolution, most girls received their Jewish education at home. They were taught enough Yiddish and Hebrew to be able to read a siddur, and halachic guidance was usually received by watching their mothers and grandmothers in the home.
Interestingly, the impetus for this educational revolution came from outside the Jewish community. The Polish government instituted laws mandating compulsory education, and therefore many Jewish girls were introduced to intellectually stimulating secular studies. Their Jewish training, in comparison, was rudimentary, which caused countless young women to view Judaism as antiquated and irrelevant. Horrified by the growing assimilation numbers, Sarah Schenirer understood that the best way to turn the tide was to offer girls a meaningful and substantial Jewish education.
Despite rising assimilation, the majority of Europe’s Jewish leadership were loath to establish a Jewish educational system for girls, and therefore Sarah Schenirer did not initially act upon her convictions. However, while residing in Vienna during World War I, she was exposed to the Torah Im Derech Eretz ideology of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, which confirmed everything that she inherently understood – that adherence to tradition and devotion to education can beautifully merge to foster personal and communal growth – and resolved to devote herself to this lofty cause.
After unsuccessfully discouraging her from getting involved in such a controversial project, Sarah Schenirer’s brother suggested that they visit the Belzer Rebbe to ask his advice, probably assuming the Rebbe would put an end to his sister’s schemes. The Rebbe, however, responded to Schenirer’s request with two words, “brachah v’hatzlachah” (“blessing and success”), which was all she needed to get started. A few years later, the Agudas Yisroel, an organization founded by adherents of Rabbi Hirsch, adopted and supported the fledgling Bais Yaakov system. Over time, Agudas Yisroel collected approbations from many rabbinic luminaries, which helped silence the critics and garner financial support, fueling the movement’s remarkable growth.
Until her passing in 1935 at the much too young age of 52, Sarah Schenirer remained involved in the Bais Yaakov movement. More than a teacher and administrator, she played the role of spiritual leader and served as a role model to thousands of students who lovingly called her “Sarah Emainu” (Mother Sarah). She inspired and empowered young women to be religiously committed, and provided them the educational tools to thrive.
Sarah Schenirer wrote during the movement’s early years, “if the intent is sincere and the aim is proper, my goal will certainly be achieved.” More prescient words have possibly never been written. Sarah Schenirer’s steadfast focus, idealism and humility were legendary, which practically assured the Bais Yaakov movement’s success.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.