Sarah Schenirer (also Soroh Shenirer) (July 15, 1883 - March 1, 1935 (yartzeit 26 Adar I 5695)) was a pioneer of Jewish education for girls and began a change in the way women were perceived in Orthodox Judaism. In 1917, she founded the Bais Yaakov (lit. "house of Jacob") school network in Poland.
Sarah Schenirer was born into influential rabbinic family in Krakow, Poland on July 15, 1883. Her parents, Bezalel Schenirer (born in Tarnów) and Reizel were both descendants of well-known rabbis. Her father provided her with religious texts that he had translated into Yiddish. In her memoirs, she describes herself as the unassuming and withdrawn daughter of Belzer Hasidic parents. She was intelligent and had a strong desire to learn, and was envious of her brothers' opportunity to learn and interpret the Torah.
Schenirer would write later in life:
Her friends teased her for her desire to learn the Torah and called her "the little pious one." She attended elementary school for eight years. She then became a seamstress.
During World War I, Schenirer and her family fled from Poland to Vienna. While there, she became influenced by Rabbi Flesch, a disciple of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Modern Orthodox Judaism. His sermons emphasized the role of women throughout Jewish history, which inspired Schenirer.
Schenirer occasionally attended lectures at the university, where she befriended young Jews who were in a campus program called Ruth, where she observed them lighting candles on the Sabbath, in violation of halakha. She perceived from this the need for better Jewish education.
Bais Yaakov schools
Schenirer returned to Kraków in 1917, where the inspiration she received in Vienna led her to seek to establish a school for girls. She initially approached her brother, who suggested that the idea wouldn't catch on. However, he agreed to take her to see the Belzer Rebbe in Marienbad, who gave her his blessing in two words, "Mazel uBrocha."
Schenirer established a kindergarten with twenty-five students in her seamstress studio. She instilled in her students a love for the Torah, and excitement to do mitzvos. Her sensitivity and care for others were something her students strove to emulate. Schenirer also began to set up lectures and a library for Jewish women.
After work, Schenirer stayed up late to study the weekly Torah portion and Tanakh:
The lessons were a blend of Lithuanian-style study of the Hebrew texts, together with Hasidic-style character development. Schenirer succeeded in overcoming initial resistance against this new type of school, receiving the approval of the leading rabbis of the time, such as the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter and Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (known as "the Chofetz Chaim"). Within 5 years, Schenirer's lessons grew into 7 schools with 1,040 students. By 1933, there were 265 schools in Poland alone, with almost 38,000 students.
In 1923, Schenirer set up a teachers' seminary to train staff for her rapidly expanding network of schools. The main goal of the schools was to
In 1933, Schenirer stepped down as the official head of the movement, but remained very much involved until her death in 1935.
Sarah Schenirer married young, but was divorced from her first husband, either because he wasn't religious enough, or because the couple was childless. Schenirer married again later in life. Although she remained childless, her students would speak of themselves as being her children. They are considered the legacy of Frau Schenirer.
On March 1, 1935, Schenirer died from cancer at the age of fifty-one.
By 1939, there were about 250 schools established and over 40,000 students in Bais Yaakov schools. One of her students was Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, founder of the first Bais Yaakov high school and teachers' seminary in America. In her will, she wrote: "My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands." The admiration was mutual, and the girls within the movement called her "Sarah Imeinu," which translates to "Our Mother Sarah." She had no children of her own, so the girls of the movement filled that void for her.
On the 70th anniversary of Schenirer's death in 2005, an "archival repository" was installed in Jerusalem in her honor. In the same year, some of her women supporters set out on a mission to restore her tombstone. Her original tombstone was destroyed when the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp was built. Her tombstone was restored in 2005. Upon the restoration, the director of the Central Bais Yaakov gave a eulogy for Schenirer, and closed it by saying, "Frau Schenirer, we are not merely placing a memorial on your grave site. We are placing it upon our hearts: for us, and for all the generations who will come after us."
In her novel Peleh Laylah, Israeli author Esther Ettinger, who studied at a Bais Yaakov school as a girl, weaves in passages from Sarah Schenirer's writings.
Her student Pearl Benisch wrote a book about Sarah Schenirer called Carry Me in Your Heart.
The book Rebbetzin Grunfeld: The Life of Judith Grunfeld, Courageous Pioneer of the Bais Yaakov Movement and Jewish Rebirth Artscroll Series, was written by Miriam Dansky about Sarah Schenirer's colleague.