Jewish Studies Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov
Naomi Seidman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0144


Among the most significant developments in 20th-century Orthodoxy was the establishment in the interwar period of formal educational systems for Orthodox girls. These school systems were halakhically problematic, given the prohibition (or warning) against teaching women Torah. Nevertheless, halakhic warrant was found for formally teaching girls Torah, given the dire “needs of the hour,” which is to say, the crisis of young women’s defection from Orthodoxy in turn-of-the-20th-century eastern Europe. While Bais Yaakov (also Beit Ya’akov, Beth Jacob, etc.) was not the first such system (that distinction belongs to the Havatzelet schools established in Warsaw in 1916), it was the most widespread and successful of these schools, with perhaps 200 schools and 38,000 students in interwar Poland. The school system was founded in Kraków in 1917 by Sarah Schenirer, a seamstress with little formal education in either Jewish or secular subjects and no teaching credentials. In 1923 administration and financial support of the system was taken over by the Agudath Israel, the political arm of world Orthodoxy. The system included afternoon supplemental Jewish schools for pupils in public schools; a few full-day elementary and high schools in the larger cities; three teachers’ seminaries in Kraków, Vienna, and Czernowitz; vocational training schools and programs; and the affiliated youth movements of Bnos Agudath Israel and Basya. In the postwar period, Bais Yaakov flourished in the new Jewish centers of North America and Israel, with schools found in many other countries as well. In the postwar period, there was no longer a single central office. Other school systems for Orthodox girls (for instance, those aimed at students from different Hasidic groups) also arose, often patterned after Bais Yaakov.

General Overviews

The field still lacks a comprehensive academic introduction to the Bais Yaakov movement from its origins to the present day. There are a number of essays and dissertations that address Bais Yaakov in the interwar period. Atkin 1959, a dissertation, provides a general history, rich with statistical detail. Weissman 1976 is a brief history, with an argument for the feminist uses of the movement; Weissman 1977, another dissertation, provides a sociological analysis of the movement within the framework of a modernizing traditionalist ideology. Friedenson 1957 is a good introduction, with some illuminating anecdotes, by an insider to the movement. Scharfer 2010 is an accessible and brief introduction. Soraski 1967, by an Orthodox historian, sets the movement within the larger history of Orthodox education, and provides material about its activities in the Land of Israel missing from other sources. Weissman and Granite 2009 provides an accessible introduction to the movement in an encyclopedia entry.

  • Atkin, Abraham. “The Beth Jacob Movement in Poland (1917–1939).” PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1959.

    Comprehensive history of the movement in interwar Poland, with a particular focus on the growth of the movement, legal and administrative challenges, and the curriculum in the supplemental schools and seminaries.

  • Friedenson, Joseph. “Batei sefer levanot Beit Yaakov befolin.” In Haḥinukh vehatarbut ha’ivrit be’eropah ben shete milḥamot ha’olam. Edited by Zevi Scharfstein, 61–82. New York: Ogen, 1957.

    An overview of the school system that includes many eyewitness descriptions by the Agudah activist and journalist Joseph Friedenson, the son of the editor-in-chief of the Bais Yaakov Journal. In Hebrew.

  • Łagodzińska, Anna. “Powstanie i rozwój ruchu Bajs Jakow na przykładzie wybranych ośrodków w latach 1917–1939.” Kwartalnik Historii Żydów 1 (2012): 39–51.

    Brief introduction to the school system with special attention to the full-day high schools in Łódź and Warsaw, including the new types of trade and business schools that opened in those cities.

  • Scharfer, Caroline. “Sarah Schenirer: Founder of the Beit Ya’akov Movement: Her Vision and Her Legacy.” Polin 23 (2010): 269–275.

    Brief introduction to the major developments of the movement in the interwar period, by a student and colleague of Judith Rosenbaum Grunfeld, an early instructor in the teacher training courses and Kraków seminary.

  • Soraski, Aharon. Toldot haḥinukh hatorati betkufah haḥadashah. Bnei Brak, Israel: Or Haḥayyim, 1967.

    A history of Orthodox education, with the last section (pp. 420–462) devoted to the Bais Yaakov schools, which are praised for rescuing Orthodoxy at a moment of great peril. Focuses in particular on the development of the movement in the Land of Israel and on its activities during the Holocaust.

  • Weissman, Deborah. “Bais Yaakov: A Historical Model for Jewish Feminists.” In The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives. Edited by Elizabeth Koltun, 139–143. New York: Schocken, 1976.

    A brief description of the emergence of the movement, with a focus on its methods of legitimating Torah study for girls. Suggests that such efforts might serve as a model for contemporary feminists struggling with halakhic barriers to their intellectual and spiritual growth.

  • Weissman, Deborah. “Bais Ya’akov, a Women’s Educational Movement in the Polish Jewish Community: A Case Study in Tradition and Modernity.” MA diss., New York University, 1977.

    The most comprehensive history of the movement we possess, with sociological analysis of the interplay between tradition and modernity in Bais Yaakov. Suggests that the movement was effective in part because Bais Yaakov was a “total institution,” functioning as far more than a school system in the interwar period.

  • Weissman, Deborah, and Lauren B. Granite. “Bais Ya’akov Schools.” In Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Paula E. Hyman and Dalia Ofer. Brookline, MA: Jewish Women’s Archive, 2009.

    An encyclopedia article detailing the establishment and rapid growth of the movement, and suggesting that the movement was “proto-feminist,” although these tendencies were cut short by the Holocaust.

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