1883 – 1935
As the founder of the Bais Ya’akov educational movement, Sarah Schenirer brought about a revolution in the status of women in Orthodox Judaism. Born into a prominent rabbinic family in Cracow, Poland, Schenirer, who attended a Polish elementary school for eight years, envied her brothers the opportunities they had to learn Torah. Her father, Bezalel Ha-Kohen of Tarnow (Poland) was a direct descendent of Rabbi Shabbetai ben Meir Ha-Kohen (1621–1662), better known as the ShaKh, an acronym for Siftei Kohen. Her mother, Sheine Feige, was descended from Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561–1640), known as the BaH, an acronym for Bayit Hadash. The family had ties with both the Belz and Zanz hasidic dynasties. Recognizing her interest in Torah study, Schenirer’s father began to provide her with a steady stream of religious texts translated into Yiddish.
The assimilation of her girlfriends troubled her and they began to call her “the little pious one,” not necessarily out of admiration. During World War I, the family relocated to Vienna, where Schenirer was inspired by a neo-Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Flesch, who had been a disciple of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888). One of his sermons described the glorious role women had played in Jewish history. Upon her return to Cracow in 1917, Schenirer decided to initiate some type of educational activity for the women of her community.
Since a lecture series which she organized for adult women did not greatly improve the situation, Schenirer began to dream of establishing a school for young girls. Her brother suggested she consult with the Belzer Rebbe (Issacher Dov of Belz, 1854–1927) at his home in Marienbad. When Schenirer paid a visit there, the rebbe uttered his immortal words, Mazel u-v’rocho—“luck and blessing”—thus giving his sanction to the endeavor. Nevertheless, he added, the daughters of Belz Hasidim could not send their daughters to this radical innovation. Later, the main power base of the Bais Ya’akov movement was the Gur branch of Hasidism.
In 1917 Schenirer first set up a kindergarten with twenty-five pupils. An apocryphal anecdote relates that, as the gematria (numerical values of Hebrew letters) of twenty-five is ?? (KO), this was an omen that, based on the Biblical verse “Ko tomar le-veit Ya’akov” (“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob …” [Exodus 19:3]), the school should be called “Bait Ya’akov” (or, with its Yiddish pronunciation, “Bais Ya’akov”) a Midrashic metaphor for the women of the Jewish people. The movement grew quickly and soon became the women’s educational arm of Agudat Israel.
Sarah Schenirer, a seamstress who lacked formal qualifications in either the Judaic or general academic-pedagogic realm, thus became the head of a worldwide movement with tens of thousands of pupils in hundreds of institutions. Apparently she was a charismatic figure about whom legends began to spread. The girls within the movement called her “Sarah Imeinu”—Our Mother (or Matriarch) Sarah. Under her leadership, the Bais Ya’akov movement developed a sophisticated strategy for giving legitimacy to the innovation they were introducing into the traditional community, including stories, symbols and role models that would bolster what sociologist Peter Berger has called an alternative “plausibility structure.”
In 1933, after years of work, Schenirer stepped down as titular head of the movement, but remained the symbolic head until her death. In her youth, she had been engaged briefly, but remained alone for most of her life, till her marriage to Rabbi Landau. They had no children. Schenirer died of cancer on March 1, 1935 at the age of fifty-two. To this day, her name and legend remain as part of the heritage of Bais Ya’akov girls.
In 2005, the seventieth anniversary of Sarah Schenirer’s death, an archival repository was established at the Central Bais Ya’akov in Jerusalem to document the early history of the Bais Ya’akov movement. Schenirer herself had refused to be photographed during her lifetime (“I don’t need anyone to remember what I look like,” she was quoted as saying. “I want them to remember my vision”), and the only extant photo of her is a passport photo brought to Israel by one of her pupils. But numerous women, Holocaust survivors who had attended the first wave of Bais Ya’akov schools, contributed both memories and mementos towards the establishment of the Bais Ya’akov historical society.
That same year, a dedicated cadre of women set out to achieve another goal: the restoration of Schenirer’s tombstone. They traveled to Poland and replaced the tombstone at Sarah Schenirer’s grave in Cracow’s Jewish cemetery, which had been razed when the Plaszow concentration camp was built. A large contingent of Bais Ya’akov students and teachers from the United States and Israel attended the rededication ceremony. The director of the Central Bais Ya’akov eulogized the woman to whom all assembled had come to pay their respects: “Frau Schenirer, we are not merely placing a memorial on your grave site. We are placing it upon our hearts: for us, and for all the generations who will come after us.”