by Joseph Friedenson (with additions by Chaim Shapiro)
She was not blessed with children of her own. And yet she was a mother. In fact, one could rightly say that no mother in our generation had as many children as she did.
When she departed this life in 1935, hundreds of Jewish girls walked behind her aron, towards the Cracow cemetery, and wept with heartrending outcries, as one does for one's own departed mother. And when news of her petirah became known throughout the cities and towns of Jewish Poland, thousands of Jewish girls tore kriah and sat shivah as if for a mother. The very same year hundreds of young Jewish mothers named their new-born daughters Sarah, after a woman, who - two decades earlier - was still an unknown Jewish seamstress, but who had since become: Sarah Schenirer, the legendary mother of a new Torah-true generation of Jewish women in pre-war Eastern Europe.
The Jewish Home In Danger
It was during the years following the First World War. "New winds began to blow" in many homes throughout Chassidic Poland. New ideas - charged with magnetic promise - reverberated in the Jewish street. Youth clubs and organizations sprouted like mushrooms after rain and beckoned enchantingly to Jewish youth to enter their doors. The first victim of the new “light” they brought to Polish Jewry was the Jewish girl. The treasures of our sefarim were not accessible to her. She received no systematic Jewish schooling and was therefore most vulnerable to the empty but ensnaringly attractive slogans of the carriers of the new “light,” outside; that it was necessary to emerge from the darkness, to enjoy the outer light, or at least to bring some of the outer light within. In previously idyllic Jewish homes, strife suddenly erupted. Mother and daughter ceased to understand each other. Brother and sister no longer seemed to have a common language. A “modern” daughter who had learned how to recite a few of Mitzkiewicz’s and Slowacky’s Polish poems, began to feel ashamed of her “backward” mother. She began to look with disdain upon her “fanatic” father, and had nothing but ridicule for her brother, the batlan, the unworldly one, who wastes away his time and leads an unproductive existence. She felt embarrassed over her parents’ ”broken jargon,” and finally began to hate everything Jewish. Jewish fathers and mothers, frightened and powerless, could not understand what was happening around them. They all sensed clearly, however, that the Jewish home - that enduring fortress and consolation for every affliction - was faced by the direct threat of collapse. At that dark hour a saving angel appeared, in the form of a Jewish seamstress - Sarah Schenirer.
The Cracow Seamstress
In her memoirs, Sarah Schenirer modestly and unaffectedly recounts the first steps of her great achievement. She was an unassuming and withdrawn daughter of Chassidic parents. She was a diligent pupil, but never dreamed of taking on leadership of any kind.
At the age of thirteen she completed school. She wanted to continue with her studies, but her parents’ material poverty prevented her from doing so, and she became a seamstress. When one client was unusually particular about the measurements of her dress Sarah recorded in her diary:
People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are they so particular when they address themselves to the needs of their soul?
Her thirst for knowledge remained undiminished. She continued to study and to read. In truth, such was the case with many of her friends at the time. But there was one difference. Her friends were “immersed” in Polish novels; she was drawn to her father’s sefarim. She began to swallow every sefer which contained a Yiddish translation or commentary. The more deeply she probed her “new treasures,” the further removed she became from her friends. A new world opened for her.
When her father noticed her thirst for spiritual matters, he began to bring her Hebrew sefarim with Yiddish translations. Every Shabbos she would review the weekly portion in her “Tzenah U’renah” (which cites Midrashic interpretations) with the Nachlas Tzvi. Once she had discovered the Chok L’Yisrael (which assigns passages of Torah, the Prophets, and Mishnah for every day of the year), she began to study each day’s portion.
Her family soon dubbed her the Chassidis’te. Because of her keen intellectual interest, she was invited by a relative to attend a Friday night lecture at “Ruth,” a girl’s club. She was shocked when one of the leaders flicked on the light on Shabbos.
And the kefirah and false ideas they lecture there! While the fathers of those girls are probably studying Gemara, and the mothers poring over a Tzenah U’renah. Then and there the idea was born in my mind: if those girls would only have a proper environment ....
Meanwhile, World War I broke out, and Sarah Schenirer - together with a stream of refugees - left for Vienna. Day and night she sat and sewed “clothing for bodies” to earn her livelihood. All she then wanted was a little bit of rest. But a visit to a Synagogue on the Viennese Shtumper Street, summoned her to a larger task than that of a seamstress.
It was Shabbos Chanukah and Rabbi Dr. Plesh spoke of Matisyahu and the Chashmonaim; of Chanah and her seven sons; of Yehudis. Sarah Schenirer felt a new inspiration and enthusiasm. In her inspired and exalted state she began to think of the Jewish girls in Cracow, for whom everything Jewish seemed alien and everything gentile seemed so alluring and enchanting. “If only I could speak in such a way to my Cracow girl friends,” she thought, “how differently they would understand the preciousness of being a daughter of Israel. If I could only describe for them, the prophetess Deborah, Yehudis, Chanah, in Dr. Flesh‘s language, how differently they would understand their shtreimel-wearing fathers, their mothers with heads covered, their brothers, the yeshivah bachurim.”
”Clothes for Souls”
Sarah Schenirer returned to Cracow full of enthusiasm. She called together a gathering of Jewish girls one Shabbos afternoon and delivered an address on Perek (Ethics of the Fathers). At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly. A large group of girls - thirsty for knowledge - had come to hear her. But when she reached the passage, ”and you shall build a fence around the Torah,” and began to explain the prohibition of muktzah, the room was suddenly filled with loud ridicule, and was soon empty. “Is this what you brought home from cosmopolitan Vienna?” they laughed. “Is this what you called us to hear?”
Sarah Schenirer felt despondent - but only for a brief while. A new thought came to her as if in a flash of lightning. She could do nothing with those whom the false shining veneer of Europe had intoxicated and blinded. She would begin with little girls, whose Jewish souls were still pure. She rented two rooms; one served as a ”tailor shop,” where she “sewed clothes for the body,” but the other she set up as a new kind of “shop” where she began to ”sew clothes for young souls.” She began to teach the daughters of Israel their duties as children of G-ds people.
She wrote about her undertaking to her brother - a Belzer Chassid living in Czechoslovakia. At first he ridiculed her. But when she insisted that nothing would stop her, he invited her to come to Marienbad: “The Belzer Rebbe is here and we shall ask him.” She invested her last pennies in the trip. Her brother wrote a note (a tzettel) to the Rebbe: ”My sister wants to educate Bnos Yisrael in the spirit of Yahadus and Torah,” to which the Rebbe replied “Berachah Ve’hatzlachah” (Blessings and Success)! These two words gave her all the impetus she needed. And one might add that, at the time, this was the only help she received.
The Beth Jacob Movement
She began with twenty-five children, whom she had prevailed upon her customers to entrust to her. People at first shook their heads in contemptuous dismissal when talking about the “undertaking of the seamstress.” But the educational results of her new school quickly yielded fruit. The parents who entrusted their children to Sarah Schenirer saw a new spirit in the hearts of her pupils. Sarah Schenirer’s pupils somehow talked differently from the pupils of the Polish schools. They did not answer in Polish when spoken to in Yiddish. They did not answer with arrogance, and defiance. They showed respect to their parents. They wanted so much to go to shul with their parents. They asked what berachah to recite for this or that. They wanted to hear stories about the Tzaddikim and the pious. They listened to their grandmothers reading Tzenah U’renah.
Who can understand my feelings now? Who can compare himself to me now? How their faces shine - their eyes sparkling with happiness - when I explain the meaning of a berachah to them!
The school develops with every passing day. My dreams are gradually coming true. Forty girls! Baruch HaShem! The difficulties mean nothing. I already passed the stage of kol haschalos kashos (All beginnings are difficult).
The twenty-five became forty and seventy-five and one hundred. Till...
Her main difficulty came not from the opposition of the secularists, but from the indifference in Orthodox circ1es. How was she, a girl, to convince learned Rabbis and Chassidic Rebbis that girls also need a Cheder? The boys would all attend Cheder and yeshivah, while girls would go to public school at least until the seventh grade, as required by law. There were other Jewish schools, but they were all coeducational, and often antireligious - such as the Zionist, Hebrew-speaking Tarbus schools,1 where the Torah was nothing more than a “history book.” The “Cheder Mesukan”2 was a progressive school - not antireligious, but with no commitment to Torah. True, the homes then were full of Yiddishkeit, where Shabbos and Kashrus were a tangible presence. But under the pressures of earning a living, parents often neglected their children, especially their daughters. Hence her cry, ”Girls also need yeshivos!”
”Those other schools are so far from Da’as Torah (a Torah perspective)... Every parent takes care of his own daughter, until he discovers that she is no longer a Shomeres Shabbos - and then it is too late."
More than the secular schools, the attraction of Haskalah, Polish culture, the theater, and - later - the movies were tearing these girls from their heritage. In Cracow, for instance, at one of the oldest Universities in Europe, the Yagellow University (founded by King Yagellow), many Jewish girls were enrolled. As Sarah wrote:
Yesterday there was a lecture at the University. The topic: "The Finest of Polish Literature." The room was crowded with Jewish girls. It is no one's fault but our own that our girls attend secular schools and belong to organizations where all sorts of chillul Shabbos take place... My dear sisters, don't you realize that secular studies have all the glitter of gold and all the utility of gold to the body? Think! Can gold satisfy a physical hunger? By the same token, a Jewish soul can never be satisfied from secular studies. Only our sacred studies can satisfy the soul. I very much doubt if any student is as happy as I am when I read Sifrei Kodesh (sacred literature)!
Girls would come to shul every Shabbos, and their parents were pleased. But not Sarah. She cries:
Watch how the girls daven; totally without motivation, as if it were forced upon them. Some are here to please their parents ... others, as if HaShem needs their prayers. My sisters! When will you understand that our main purpose for being on this earth is to serve HaShem? - Not for the sake of parents, - not for fear of Gehinom (Hell) - not even for reward of Olam Haba, - but for love of Hakadosh Baruch Hu!
The main thrust of a Bais Yaakov school, she concludes, is not as much teaching, as creating a Torah environment.
One can gain an inkling of her strength of character and the unremitting challenge of her environment from a note in her diary:
Tonight I became engaged. To celebrate, they tried to drag me to the theater. I recalled a Midrash: When King David tried to get up and to sing prayers to HaShem at midnight, his yeitzer hara taunted him: "Are you out of your mind? All other kings sleep late into the day, and you want to rise at midnight?" Replied David, "Alright, then, I shall spend the night at the theater." "That makes more sense," was the reply. And the yeitzer hara left the scene. David arose anyway, and composed the beautiful Tehillim we say to this very day. Instead of wasting time at the theater, (concludes Sarah), isn't it better to study Sifrei Kodesh?
Then suddenly the ice broke. Her school was "discovered' by Agudath Israel, which then became the mentor and guide of the Bais Yaakov movement. To be more exact, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, an Agudah leader and the editor of its paper, sold Bais Yaakov to the Agudah. He stormed all the ivory towers of rabbinical leadership and stirred up the entire Orthodoxy. He began publishing the widely circulated, highly respected Bais Yaakov Journal, which gave the idea a tremendous thrust, opening the eyes of the many to the hazards of neglecting the spiritual needs of growing girls.
Exactly two years after Sarah Schenirer had opened her little school, demands began to arrive from all over Poland: Please open a school in our city! Save our girls! Her oldest student was only fifteen, and she simply did not feel ready to fulfill the requests. She had traveled out of Cracow, leaving her senior students to replace her; but that was in Cracow. Finally, she was forced to graduate her senior class and appoint them as teachers in various cities.
The renowned Rabbi Meier Shapiro - then Rav in Glina, later Rav and Rosh Yeshivah in Lublin - visited her school, which had grown to 280 students. He was so impressed that he immediately suggested that she organize a seminary. She accepted the proposal, and Agudath Israel (i.e., Friedenson) undertook the job, and a seminary was officially opened. One hundred twenty girls registered for the seminary the first year. Then Agudath Israel erected a five-story building, with dormitories, classrooms, and dining halls. There were no limits to Sarah's happiness.
Eliezer G. Friedenson writes:
What influenced the rapid development of Bais Yaakov most in such a short span of time was the idealism of Sarah Schenirer and her girls. Whoever stood by the cradle of Bais Yaakov knows the purity of faith and idealism of Sarah and her first students. They suffered poverty and hunger. They lived and worked in small slum apartments, sacrificing themselves for their ideal.
Dr. Leo Deutschlander writes (in the journal of the Samson Raphael Hirsch Society) about the “inner development of this unique woman”:
No spiritual and intellectual force compared to the influence of the writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch on the self-education and the inner development of the personality of Sarah Schenirer. Hundreds of essays from the collected writings of Hirsch were copied again and again, and distributed in stencil form among the Bais Yaakov girls. No other books in the Bais Yaakov library were used so often, or showed such signs of wear and tear, as Hirsch’s Commentary on Chumash, the Psalms and the prayer book, and his Gessamelte Schriften. Up to the very last month of her life, she lectured to her students on Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, which was her favorite book, and which she loved to study again and again together with her pupils. And it is well known to those who are aware of the inner history of the Bais Yaakov movement, that Sarah Schenirer succeeded in passing on to her pupils the sense of revelation and wonder which she herself had experienced when she first read this classic.
There were some community leaders who resisted the innovative idea of Torah schools for girls. Sarah writes a letter:
You are right. If the local Rav will not support you, you will not make it. Most interesting; we had the same trouble with his brother in another city. He, too, opposed our school. The Agudah wrote to the Chofetz Chaim, and his reply will soon be published in our magazine, number 106. - In that city we lost seventy girls to the other schools. We were too late.
Wherever there was a slight chance of opposition to the opening of a Bais Yaakov school, she would travel together with her graduate students to meet the opposition head-on. One of the graduates wrote:
She went with me to S. to open a school. We arrived there in the middle of the night. The next day she called a meeting of mothers and girls, and she spoke to them. A few disturbed the meeting, opposing the idea of a Bais Yaakov. She did not rest until they accepted her invitation for a private meeting, which lasted the entire night. They became the best friends of Bais Yaakov and helped me substantially in establishing the school. I then realized that she had been reluctant to leave me alone with the opposition in town, until she had converted every last one to my side.”
She did not have to fight Reform or Conservative rabbis (they did not exist in Poland). She had to overcome the opposition of Orthodox leaders. But in the end, the psak and appeal of the Chofetz Chaim helped her succeed in her endeavors.
That was the beginning. The continuation of the story, comprises the history of a great Torah-true and “people-the” movement of Jewish girls which carries the sacred name ”Beth Jacob’; of a marvelous renaissance and a great healing process in the life of religious Jewry in Poland; of a new generation of Jewish daughters and mothers, who restored the wholesomeness of the Jewish family in tens of thousands of Jewish homes.
Her Favorite Things
Whichever city she visited, whenever she spoke, a recurrent theme would be tznius - personal modesty in dress and behavior.
She did not lecture as insistently regarding devotion to her fellow’s needs, but her personal conduct was more eloquent than any lecture. Reb Binyomin Zusman tells:
It was late one evening, Sarah Schenirer came into my house, apologizing a thousand times. It was urgent, she said. She knows a young married man who needs help badly, and here it was - two weeks before Pesach! Giving him charity openly would insult him terribly. She therefore asked me, since I daven next to him in shul, to slip fifty zloties into his coat pocket. Fifty zloties was a lot of money, but I had to fulfill her wish. I did exactly as she said, and I then watched the young man put on his coat after davening, place his hands into his pocket - and I watched his eyes light up to the heavens.
No wonder she was called “the female version of the Chofetz Chaim.”
Her slogan was “a true Jew must be a whole Jew,” and, indeed, she expected her children to occupy themselves in extra- curricular activities. Out of her concern that they have a proper society and the right type of environment for their enterprises, she was among the founders of Bnos Agudath Israel.
When she took ill and was admitted to the hospital for an operation, she wrote:
For the first time in twenty-three years I did not daven be'tzibbur, and did not spend Shabbos with my girls.
She was only fifty-two when she passed away on 26 Adar, 5695 (1935), but she enjoyed the great satisfaction of seeing the widespread success of her revolution "Leshem Shomayim" (for the Sake of Heaven).
The New Type of Jewish Daughter
When Sarah Schenirer departed this life in 1935, there were close to 300 Beth Jacob schools in Poland alone. And Beth Jacob schools had also risen in many other countries. Agudath Israel assumed responsibility for the direction and maintenance of the movement, thus enabling its extraordinary expansion. From those schools there emerged a new generation of women who upheld their Judaism with pride, who often evoked unbelieving amazement amongst their surroundings. Jewish girls who had been "running," as if magnetized to the outside world, began to feel fortunate and happy in their Jewishness. They began to discard their novels, and to joyously imbibe a pasuk in Yeshayahu and Mishlei, a passage in a Mussar sefer. Everything Jewish became precious to them again. They ceased being ashamed of their parents' Yiddish, and began to speak it again at home and in the streets, without fear of being called "old fashioned' or "backward." They began again to take pride in their father's shtreimel and mother's sheitel. The old Jewish Torah-centered home again became their ideal.
That was the achievement of Sarah Schenirer. She was the spiritual mother of them all. She loved them all as only a mother can, and they responded with child-like love. She knew all the schools, and maintained contact with all the Beth Jacob teachers. She wrote for them and to them. She wrote hundreds of essays on a wide variety of themes. She had a share in almost every single school, because she personally visited almost every city and town. She herself never attended a teachers seminary, but nevertheless became the "life spirit," of one of the finest teachers seminaries in the world - the Beth Jacob Seminary in Cracow.
During the Years of the Holocaust
The Second World War broke out and plunged the Jewish world into utter darkness. But in all that enveloping darkness, the pure light which Sarah Schenirer kindled in the hearts of Jewish girls, never ceased to flicker and shine.
The Kiddush HaShem story of Sarah Schenirer’s Beth Jacob pupils during those tragic churban years has not yet been told. But that story is more than a chronicle. It is a heroic saga, which waits for a Divinely blessed poet to preserve for later generations the account of its pathos, tragedy and exalted song.
How different they were, those pupils of Sarah Schenirer’s Beth Jacob schools. I saw them in the ghettoes of Lodz and Warsaw, I saw how they secretly maintained schools, kitchens for children and youth groups. I saw how they starved and carried food to Jews who were ill and to lonely talmidei chachamim. I saw them studying Mishlei and Chovas Halevavos, in times when others could no longer think about anything other than bread. I saw how they felt the sorrow of the community, when others proved incapable of seeing more than their own “I”...
Shabbos Candles in Auschwitz
I saw a group of them in the Birkenau women’s camp in Auschwitz. They were the only ones who remembered when it was Shabbos and Yom Tov, when others forgot the sequence of days. Several candles were somehow lit every Friday evening in Auschwitz. Young women placed kerchiefs upon their heads and whispered a tefillah. Some no longer had for whom to pray. They no longer had their husbands or parents, and they wept in prayer for their tortured people.
Somewhere in the Auschwitz women’s camp - on a Chanukah evening in a dark horse stable which the Germans called a barrack - several Chanukah candles were lit At first a mere handful of girls gathered around the candles. But soon the group grew in size, and the light spread over the entire barrack. And in a few minutes several hundred Jewish women were singing a deathless song of contempt for their tyrants; "Moaz Tzur Yeshuasi,” and listening to addresses filled with trust in the ultimate vindication of G-ds purpose. Who were the girls who thought of the sacred, heroic deed? They were several pupils of Sarah Schenirer‘s school in Tarnow.
How Different They Were
They were easily recognizable in Auschwitz. They talked differently. They never became accustomed to the vulgar language of the camps. They dressed differently. When they worked in the bakery or in the kitchen, they deprived themselves of that beckoning extra bit of bread, and smuggled it out - not to exchange for cigarettes or other objects, as so many others did, but to sustain a weak camp chaverah, at the end of her strength. They stuck together, and helped each other, but their hearts were also filled with readiness to extend succor to total strangers. They never sought privileges or the easing of their burdens at the expense of another, while others trod upon the dead and the living in an effort to lighten their sufferings. What mesiras nefesh they had for Judaism - for the observance of a mitzvah! I remember one episode in Birkenau. A young woman stood near an old Jew who had arrived in the camp only two days earlier. He was deathly hungry, and she stood near him with a bowl of soup, which she begged him to eat. He would not touch the soup because it was treife. But she proved to him with pesukim and citations from Chazal, that it was permissible for him to have the soup, that he had to partake of the soup, that it was a mitzvah for him to eat whatever he was given. She was a former instructor of Sarah Schenirer’s Beth Jacob Seminary in Cracow. And it later became known to me, that for so long as that young woman was in Auschwitz - she spent four years there - she herself never ate treife food.
Now certainly no one would dare to criticize or condemn others who did not have their mesiras nefesh in the midst of those terrible circumstances. All the more then does one realize how inadequate human language is for conveying the superhuman exaltation of those pupils and teachers of Beth Jacob.
Her Life Work Endures
In Poland, in the land where Sarah Schenirer planted her kernels for a new generation of Jewish women, there are no Beth Jacob schools left today. There are no Beth Jacob schools in Lithuania or Latvia, in Pressburg or Bucharest.
But Sarah Schenirer’s life‘s work, a branch of the eternal Jewish tree of life, has been transplanted, wherever the surviving remnant of the Holocaust has been transplanted. Her Beth Jacob movement lives wherever Jews evince the desire to continue their existence as a "Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy People."
More than fifteen thousand Jewish girls are enrolled in over a hundred Beth Jacob schools within the frame of Chinuch Atzmai in Eretz Yisrael. The Central Beth Jacob Seminary in Jerusalem - sustains the living heritage of the Cracow Seminary. Today it can be told. The students of the Jerusalem Seminary made possible - at a crucial moment - the organization of Chinuch Atzmai. They were the first Chalutzot to respond to the call of the Gedolei HaTorah not to permit integration of the religious schools into the frame of the government-sponsored educational system. They expressed readiness to work for half salaries in order to keep alive the spirit of Sarah Schenirer in the education of Jewish girls.
In America, there are approximately twenty five thriving Beth Jacob schools. And here, too, there has not yet been an adequate evaluation of the contribution made by these schools to the rise of Orthodox life in America.
We take so much pride in the new yeshivos and centers of Torah which have been erected in America in the last two decades, but we tend to forget, that without the Beth Jacob schools many of the yeshivos would very likely not have been found on the Torah map. And as for the future - what future could we envisage for the yeshivos, without the achievement of Beth Jacob!
She Lives In Their Hearts
They are an indomitable legion in the battle for a "whole" Judaism, which must fill the heart of every Torah-true Jew with hope and pride. They are now to be found by the tens of thousands in Eretz Yisrael, in America, in England, in Switzerland, in Belgium, and even in Argentina and Uruguay. And everywhere they are characterized by profound love of Torah and of all that is holy to the Jewish people; by wholehearted piety and pride in their being Torah-true daughters of their people.
They are all children of Sarah Schenirer. For she lives on in the hearts and actions of them all.