1884 – 1955
Although not well-known outside Jerusalem, Chana Shpitzer was an important figure in the history of Israeli education and a pioneer in the field of Jewish education for girls.
On her mother, Chaya Michal’s (d. 1917) side, she was a fifth generation descendant of one of the oldest and most significant Ashkenazi families in Jerusalem—the Rivlins, disciples of the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720–1797). The family of her father, Rabbi Zevi Asher Kahana-Schapira (1873– 1938), came from Cracow in Poland. Her maternal grandfather and brothers were active in establishing important charitable and educational institutions in Jerusalem. The family was related by marriage to Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine.
Shpitzer’s father was an “enlightened rabbi”, hiring private tutors who taught his daughter together with his sons. From early on, Chana developed a reputation among her friends as a serious student and a leader. In c.1900 she married Chayim Shpitzer, the son of Shmuel Zangwill Shpitzer, a benefactor of many charitable causes in the religious community. The couple had seven children: Avraham (d. 1953), Shelomo, Yonah, Ya’akov (d. 1977) and Shoshanah (b. 1917); two died in childhood. When World War I broke out and the economic situation of the Yishuv deteriorated, Chana’s husband set out for the U.S. to look for work, leaving her with five young children. (Although he occasionally returned for brief periods, Chana was essentially on her own for most of her adult life.) Even before he left, Chana had begun to teach the girls in her neighborhood to read and write, but eventually she decided to open a real school for girls. Her goal was that her pupils become independent and self-sufficient members of society, as well as loyal daughters of their people.
At first, Shpitzer turned to Agudat Israel (World Organization of Orthodox Jews, founded in 1912 in Poland) for support for her project. She was convinced that the language of instruction in her new school ought to be Hebrew. The leadership of Agudat Israel disagreed both with her desire for girls’ schooling and with her conception of Hebrew as a modern spoken language. (It should be noted that this was even before the establishment of the Bais Ya’akov schools in Poland in 1917.) At this point, Shpitzer turned to the Zionists for help. For many years, her enterprise was supported by the religious Zionists of the Mizrachi (religious Zionist movement founded 1902). In 1919 the school became an official institution of Mizrachi’s education department. The extreme ultra-Orthodox authorities placed economic sanctions on families who sent their daughters to her school, denying them the halukkah funds (money raised by Diaspora Jews to support the Yishuv) to which they were entitled.
Despite a stormy relationship between Shpitzer and the authorities of the Mizrachi (on personal rather than ideological grounds), the funding she received from them helped her to develop her small school of seventy students located in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem into a complex of institutions encompassing some one thousand five hundred girls. These institutions included several branches of the elementary school, a high school with both academic and commercial courses of study, a store in which the girls sold various arts and crafts items they had made, and a youth movement for girls. Shpitzer was a firm believer in single-sex education, feeling that coeducation often did not allow for the full development of the female students. In her school she tried to develop the “feminine” side of the students by stressing, for example, the emotional and aesthetic aspects of the school; but at the same time the high school curriculum included study of the Talmud. She felt it was important for all the girls to know how to cook, sew and manage their own accounts. In fact, a good deal of thought was devoted to the kind of education necessary to prepare young women for their future lives.
Chana Shpitzer was essentially self-taught, acquiring fluency in Hebrew but lacking in formal academic or professional qualifications. She was apparently a very powerful and dominant figure in the school. She herself taught Pirkei Avot (Avot, a tractate in the Mishnah) and frequently sat in on classes being taught by other teachers. Her school was known for its emphasis on order, cleanliness and hygiene, as well as scholastic achievements. One of the sources of pride in the school was that almost all of the graduates found gainful employment.
After Shpitzer’s death her daughter Shoshanah Raziel (widow of the Irgun Zeva’i Le’ummi commander David Raziel) took over as principal. Under Raziel’s leadership, one of the branches of the elementary school became coeducational. It is known today as the Yehudah Ha-Levi School in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. The remaining branches continued to function until the early 1970s.