Prior to World War I, traditional Jewish parents in Eastern Europe provided their daughters with, at the very most, a few years of formal religious education. If girls received any schooling beyond that, it would be at a secular institution; it was common, in fact, even for prominent Orthodox rabbis to send their daughters to secular schools. This all changed thanks to a Galician Jew named Sarah Schenirer, who founded a network of girls’ schools—known as Bais Yaakov—that grew rapidly in the 1920 and 30s; today, most ḥaredi girls attend Bais Yaakov institutions. Schenirer has since become a hero in ultra-Orthodox circles. But the popular version of her story muddles some key details.
According to most accounts, Schenirer first secured the approval of the major rabbinic figures of her time—most notably Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Ḥafetz Ḥayyim, a sort of living symbol of non-ḥasidic piety—before launching her grassroots educational movement in 1917. Some argue that she secured this approbation even before she began laying the foundations for her project in 1915. . . . [They claim] she obtained the approval of not only the Ḥafetz Ḥayyim, but also the Gerer rebbe [then the leading rabbi of Poland], and Rabbi Ḥayyim Ozer Grodzinski [the equivalent figure in northern Russia, among others]. . . .
However, there is something problematic about this account. . . . The Ḥafetz Ḥayyim’s letter in support for Bais Yaakov . . . was written sixteen years after Schenirer opened the first Bais Yaakov school in Krakow. In fact, the declarations of support from the Gerer Rebbe and Grodzinski were likewise issued a number of years after she had established her flagship school in her native city of Krakow. The only exception was the Belzer rebbe, who gave Schenirer a verbal blessing for her future labors. . . .
Schenirer seems to have gone to the Belzer rebbe, Yissachar Dov Rokeach, because she came from a family of his followers; at the time Rokeach was among Galicia’s most prominent ḥasidic rabbis, and also among the most conservative. Yet his approval consisted only of the words “blessing and success,” conveyed via Schenirer’s brother. Klein explains, therefore, that it was not the sanction of rabbinic leaders that paved the way for Schenirer’s educational innovations, but rather her school’s success that won her their support.
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