What Do We Know About The Establishment of Beit Ya'akov?

September 6, 2015

Source: Web Yeshiva 


The establishment of formal Torah education for women across the Orthodox spectrum certainly qualifies as one of the most significant changes in Jewish education in recent memory. Today, the notion that Orthodox girls and young women receive a school-based Torah education is completely commonplace. Less than one hundred years ago, it was virtually nonexistent. Much of this is related to the creation and growth of the Beit Ya’akov school system in Poland in the years between the two World Wars. Beit Ya’akov’s influence is most obvious in today’s Haredi sector, which identifies itself as heirs to that legacy, but the movement’s impact on the Modern Orthodox sector is no less profound. Despite the importance of Beit Ya’akov in the history of Orthodoxy and Jewish education, there is much that we do not know about its founding, growth, and development…


There is considerable debate about how to characterize Schneirer and her followers. Was Schneirer a proto-feminist, angry at the ignorance and meaningless Jewish practice, foisted on women by a male-centered Hassidut, as recalled by Schneirer’s colleague Dr. Judith Grunfeld. “Every day sees new crowds of… men eager to secure a place on the train, eager to spend the holiest day of the year in the atmosphere of their rebbe…. And we stay at home, the wives, the daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty yom tov. It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual content that is concentrated within a Jewish festival” (Quoted in Zolty, 271-272). Or was she a traditionalist, acquiescing to formal education as a stopgap measure to break the tide of assimilation? “The busy dressmaker saw disaster facing Jewish women, but lacking a formal education, lacking experience in teaching and public speaking, she saw no way that she could help stem the tide of assimilation,” until she developed the idea of the school (Quoted in Bechofer, p. 61). Was she an advocate of modernizing East European Orthodoxy, importing general education and a German-style neo-Orthodoxy into Hassidic Poland, or was she a conservative force, doing what she could to minimize change and modernization?


We do not know the answers to these questions. However, as Shani Bechhoffer has shown, in the absence of actual knowledge about Schneirer, her story and that of Beit Yaakov becomes a kind of mirror image of the people writing about her. Authors weave the elements of her story into a narrative that supports their own particular worldview. For those of a more liberal feminist bent, she became a liberal proto-feminist, and for those of a more conservative bent, she became a women of quiet piety. Perhaps, given how little we currently know about the woman and her movement, that is the best we can hope for.


Read the entire article at the Web Yeshiva blog.

Updated: Sep. 21, 2015