An Historical Case Study in Jewish Women's Education: Chana Shpitzer and Ma'aleh

Fall, 2015

Source: Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues Number 29, pp. 21-38


This article presents two pioneering religious Jewish schools that opened their doors to girls in Jerusalem in the first decade and a half after the end of World War I and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. One of these schools, established by Chana Shpitzer, was exclusively for girls, while the other, Ma‘aleh, was coeducational. Although both schools were Orthodox in outlook and identified with the growing Zionist movement, their approaches to Torah education for girls were quite different. I believe a comparison between these two schools offers some insights into the relative advantages and disadvantages of single-sex and mixed Jewish educational frameworks.

Jewish education is often seen as a negotiation between the “traditional” and the “modern.” Is a coeducational framework necessarily more “modern” than a single- sex school? How is modernity measured? And on a meta-theoretical level: In what ways might the study of the history of Jewish women’s education affect Jewish educational theory?

In the two case studies presented herein, I have contrasted Chana Shpitzer’s single sex school, which took girls and their particular religious and educational needs very seriously, with Ma’aleh, a school committed in principle to coeducation, which, “without excluding girls,” nevertheless seems to have neglected their needs. One of the core issues in education is that of “paideia.” Invoking ancient Greek notions of the rearing and education of the ideal member of the polis, “paideia” refers to how a school conceptualizes its ideal graduate. In this context, one may ask: If the educational role models presented by a school are predominantly (or exclusively) male, what happens to the girls? Marc Silverman of the Hebrew University has written on the secondary schools of the religious kibbutz movement—ideologically close to Ma'aleh and, until quite recently, similarly committed to coeducation—and their educational ideal of producing a “Torah scholar, pioneer and citizen.” Not only are the terms all in the masculine; Modern Hebrew has had to struggle to find a feminine equivalent for “Torah scholar.” This is not merely a question of Hebrew grammar; it reflects the dearth of role models and educational ideals for girls and women.

Creating a coeducational school in which the distinctive educational needs of the girls are taken seriously poses an important challenge. As Yoske Achituv (1933-2012) wrote, “Striving for equality within difference will challenge us in the post-modern period, rather than striving for similarity.” I believe that equality cannot be achieved through a coeducational framework in which the sexes are separated for what is considered by the school to be the most important subject in the Jewish curriculum— Torah—and in which women are also denied the opportunity to study Torah at the highest levels, including Talmud.

As we have seen in our comparison of Chana Shpitzer and Ma’aleh, it may not be the case that coeducation is necessarily more modern or progressive than single-sex schooling. A coeducational framework may create formal equality while ignoring the girls’ specific educational needs as against those of the boys.

Updated: Apr. 20, 2016