In the late 19th century, European Jewish communities began to notice that the younger generation of women were focused on the outside world and were no longer interested in maintaining the traditions of their foremothers.
While most people did little to change anything, one young Polish seamstress, Sarah Schenirer (1884 – 1935) not only transformed the world in which she lived, but her legacy continues to have a profound impact on Jewish life even today.
While her formal education ended at age 13, Sarah Schenirer’s father provided her with Hebrew/Yiddish texts, which she studied intently. Looking around at Jewish society, she was dismayed not only at the lack of piety that she witnessed but, most critically, at the lack of knowledge. While boys were sent to yeshiva, the girls were often uneducated, even in the basic tenets of Jewish life.
Realizing that the young women were already hardened against spiritual growth, Sarah Schenirer rented a small room and began a school with 25 girls. She faced great opposition. Even her brother thought her ambitions were foolish…until the Belzer Rebbe (of whom he was a chassid) blessed her endeavor. When her school gained the endorsement of Agudath Israel, Sarah Schenirer began receiving requests from other communities to help them start schools too. These new schools, known as Bais Yaakov (House of Jacob), were staffed by her first graduates.
Sarah Schenirer dedicated herself to convincing communities of the importance of educating their daughters, traveling extensively to seek the endorsements of the great rabbis of the era. Most importantly, she had the support of the leader of the generation, the Chofetz Chaim.
At the time of Sarah Schenirer’s death in 1935, Bais Yaakov had become a full-fledged movement. Today, around the world, there are hundreds of Bais Yaakov Schools dedicated to teaching Jewish girls and women.
-March is Women’s History Month
Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.