SCHENIRER, SARAH (1883–1935), was a pioneer in religious education for Jewish females and founder of Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov educational institutions. Born to a Belzer Hasidic family in Kraków, descendant of rabbinic scholars, Schenirer was a devout Jew who worked as a seamstress by day and spent her evenings in the private study of biblical texts and rabbinic legends, a discipline begun in her youth. This was unusual for a woman in her times and even as a child she was affectionately teased as "the little pious one."
In 1914, inspired by a sermon, Schenirer conceived the idea of Jewish classes for women. Until that time, Jewish education in eastern Europe was designed exclusively for men, inasmuch as rabbinic tradition interpreted the commandment to study Torah as incumbent upon males only. But Schenirer's religious fervor and love of sacred texts, combined with her fear of the inroads of cultural assimilation, secular Zionism, and Polish feminism, led her to radical innovation: the creation of a school that would both increase the knowledge and strengthen the faith of young Jewish women.
Despite initial setbacks, Schenirer persisted. Securing the blessings of the influential rebe of the Belzer Ḥasidim, in 1918 she opened her first school in her home, with two young aides whom she sent off after a year to establish schools in other communities. In 1919, the Orthodox Agudat Yisraʾel movement adopted and expanded the network of Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov (Yi., House of Jacob). By 1925, twenty schools were operating, including several high schools. In combining religious studies with secular and professional training, Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov represented a synthesis of Polish Hasidic piety and Western enlightenment.
Schenirer soon relinquished executive duties but remained a central figure in the movement, a role model and personal source of inspiration to the students. She also founded the Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov Teachers' Seminary and established the Bnos̀ (Daughters) Youth Organization for religious females.
Little is known of her personal life. Her first marriage ended in divorce; a primary factor in the couple's incompatibility was that her husband was less religiously committed and observant than she. She had no children and died of cancer at the age of fifty-two.
The Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov movement suffered a terrible blow in the Holocaust. Most of the students and teachers who had been involved with Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov between 1918 and 1939 did not survive. After the war, Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov and Bnos̀ were reestablished and expanded in the United States, Israel, and Europe—with more of an eye, however, to conserving tradition than to bridging tradition and modernity, as was its aim in Schenirer's lifetime.
The most sophisticated analysis of Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov as a religious, cultural, and political movement, and of Schenirer's role in it, is Deborah Weissman's "Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov: A Historical Model for Jewish Feminists," in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Koltun (New York, 1976), pp. 139–148. A more personal portrait of the woman and the movement is drawn by Judith Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, a former teacher in the Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov institutions in Poland, in her article "Sarah Schenierer," in Jewish Leaders, 1750–1940, edited by Leo Jung (New York, 1953), pp. 405–432. The most valuable source of information is Em be-Yisraʾel: Kitvei Sarah Shenirer, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1955–1960), a collection of Schenirer's writings translated into Hebrew from the original Yiddish, including her diary, stories, and plays, as well as articles she wrote for the Bais̀ Yaʿaḳov Journal.
Teller, Hanoch. Builders: Stories and Insights of Three Primary Builders of the Torah Renaissance. New York, 2000.
Blu Greenberg (1987)
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