Sarah Schenir­er and the Bais Yaakov Movement

Nao­mi Seidman

January 1, 2013

Sarah Schenir­er is one of the unsung heroes of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Ortho­dox Judaism. The Bais Yaakov schools she found­ed in inter­war Poland had an unpar­al­leled impact on a tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish soci­ety threat­ened by assim­i­la­tion and moder­ni­ty, edu­cat­ing a gen­er­a­tion of girls to take an active part in their com­mu­ni­ty. The move­ment grew at an aston­ish­ing pace, expand­ing to include high schools, teacher sem­i­nar­ies, sum­mer pro­grammes, voca­tion­al schools, and youth move­ments, in Poland and beyond; it con­tin­ues to flour­ish through­out the Jew­ish diaspora.

Nao­mi Sei­d­man explores the move­ment through the ten­sions that char­ac­ter­ized it, cap­tur­ing its com­plex­i­ty as a rev­o­lu­tion in the name of tra­di­tion. She presents the con­text which led to its found­ing, exam­in­ing the impact of social­ism, fem­i­nism, Zion­ism, and Pol­ish elec­toral pol­i­tics on the process, and recounts its his­to­ry, from its foun­da­tion in inter­war Kraków to its near-destruc­tion in the Holo­caust, and its role in the recon­struc­tion of Ortho­doxy in sub­se­quent decades.

A vivid por­trait of Schenir­er shines through. The book includes selec­tions from her writ­ings pub­lished in Eng­lish for the first time. Her pio­neer­ing, deter­mined char­ac­ter remains the sub­ject of debate in a cul­ture that still regards inno­va­tion, female ini­tia­tive, and wom­en’s Torah study with suspicion.

Discussion Questions

This fas­ci­nat­ing and orig­i­nal study blends biog­ra­phy, the his­to­ry of an edu­ca­tion­al move­ment, and pri­ma­ry sources into a sig­nif­i­cant and acces­si­ble book that brings Bais Yaakov to a wider audi­ence. Nao­mi Sei­d­man takes the Bais Yaakov move­ment as a lens through which to explore ten­sions between tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty and the para­dox­es of gen­der roles and oppor­tu­ni­ties in inter­war Poland and beyond. Bais Yaakov schools were found­ed in 1917 by the indomitable Sarah Schenir­er to pro­vide Jew­ish girls with an alter­na­tive to assim­i­la­tion that would also expand their edu­ca­tion­al and aspi­ra­tional options. The move­ment grew quick­ly, offer­ing young women the oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­bine free­dom and reli­gious com­mit­ment, and attract­ing the inter­est — and con­trol­ling influ­ence — of male com­mu­nal lead­ers. Sei­d­man traces the tra­jec­to­ry of the Bais Yaakov move­ment from its charis­mat­ic roots to insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, point­ing out how seem­ing­ly oppo­si­tion­al ten­den­cies, such as reli­gious strin­gency and rad­i­cal­ism, could also be mutu­al­ly enforc­ing. And she enrich­es her nar­ra­tive by weav­ing her per­son­al con­nec­tions to the Bais Yaakov move­ment into the sto­ry; these reflec­tions illu­mi­nate the ongo­ing rel­e­vance of both the Bais Yaakov tra­di­tion and the con­flicts at its heart.

Seidman’s vol­ume is enriched by Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Schenir­er’s Yid­dish and Pol­ish writ­ings. Mak­ing these pri­ma­ry sources in Schenirer’s own voice avail­able to a gen­er­al read­er­ship illu­mi­nates her pro­found con­tri­bu­tions and com­mit­ment to the sig­nif­i­cant move­ment she founded.