One of the prevalent themes in our long history is that the activities of the broader world hardly ever pass us by. Whether Greek Hellenism, Medieval Christianity or 18th century Enlightenment, they manage to sashay into our circles, or barge in, depending on the era. And then the Jewish community has to rethink traditional structures and systems to boldly meet the new overt or covert threat to our existence.
Female Education in the Secular World
While Martin Luther may have railed about the need for female education way back in the 16th century, no one took notice for quite some time. The 17th century French Fenelon took particular offense to the lack of female education and, in his famous treatise on the subject, decried: “The education of girls is, in general, exceedingly neglected… on the other hand the education of boys is considered as a very important concern affecting the welfare of the public” (Fenelon’s Treatise on the Education of Daughters [Albany 1806], pg. 3-4). He then goes on to expound on how if we allow the woman to be weak and ignorant, it will ultimately affect the happiness of man. We can forgive him for this obnoxious sentiment, because he was living in the 17th century.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau would echo similar prejudicial views in his 18th century writings, but still, with all their bumbling through the topic, Enlightenment thinkers did succeed in sprinkling seeds of female education. By the 19th century, schools for girls were sprouting, and by the 20th century, most nations had mandatory elementary education for all children.
Reform and Haskalah
The Renaissance and Enlightenment dribbled their scent through the Jewish world so that it became commonplace for wealthy Jews to educate their daughters in the humanities. Western European girls had a thorough knowledge of art, music and language. One progressive rabbi in Prague wrote the following in his will in 1719: “Teach your daughters to read the books printed in the German language that they may understand the content conveyed in that reading” (Mordechai Eliav “Pioneers of Modern Jewish and Religious Education for Girls” Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives on Jewish Education Studies, pg. 145). Although Jewish women had often learned the local vernacular, its primary purpose was functional (to conduct business), not ideological, and certainly not for the purpose of reading secular literature.
Leaders of the Reform movement in Western Europe and the Haskalah in Eastern Europe erected schools for girls to educate them in both secular and Jewish subjects, although the latter were not religious, but rather cultural with a strong focus on Yiddish or German (depending on location). The first of these emerged in Hamburg in 1798, another in Breslau in 1801. They mostly attracted poor girls, but eventually gained recognition from the authorities as legitimate educational institutions, and then parents were able to fulfill their education requirements for their children by sending them there, causing the schools’ popularity to increase.
David Frankel opened a school in Dessau in 1806, and taught religious subjects like Bible and prayers in German as well as Yiddish writing. He also succeeded in soliciting the local duke’s support for his project. The duke issued a decree that all Jewish children must attend the institution for a minimum of four years. This is not a unique tale. Maskilim often worked hand-in-hand with secular authorities to achieve their means. Thus, traditional religious instruction for both boys and girls was highly threatened wherever reformers had influence.
By the time the second generation of Maskilim arrived on the scene, these Jewish schools had shed even their tenuous grip on religious sentiment. New textbooks encouraged patriotism, civic duty and love of one’s country. The ambition to produce a perfectly secular Jew drove the agenda. (However, it is important to bear in mind that there were significant differences between western and eastern reformers.)
Ultimately, as the Haskala took greater root, these Jewish schools began to shrink as most modernized families sent their daughters to be educated in non-Jewish schools. Jewish modernizers shared a vision of gender equality, and thus instituted matters like female “Confirmation” as a counterpart to the male Bar Mitzvah, as well as equality in education.
Against this backdrop, it is obvious to see that the traditional religious world needed the reinvent itself. The status quo would not carry it through.
The Religious Response in the West
For the religious Jewish community, ensconced in its millennia-long continuity and tradition, reacting to this new reality was sluggish. For many, the correct counter-action was non-action and enhanced insularity. However, this would not prove a significant barrier, as writings and whisperings wiggled through the cracks in the fortifications.
In 1749, R’ Yitzchak Wetzlar of Germany decried the deterioration of Jewish knowledge amongst the community’s daughters, and the fact that they were more familiar with Italian and French than Hebrew. He further lambasted the popular Yiddish texts which were widely read by women and accepted as law while they were actually haggadic tales and legends, some of which had dubious origins. He suggested hiring tutors for daughters who would instruct them in Hebrew and Bible. Rav Yaakov Emden similarly highlighted the issue and encouraged a reformation in the way women were educated.
However, it was Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch who was perhaps the first religious leader to take proactive steps against modernization. In the early 19th century, he created an institution that would teach young girls both religious and secular subjects, and by the mid-19th century, he had established a secondary school for young women. (These institutions began as part of boys’ schools but eventually became independent institutions.)
Rabbi Seligman Baer Bamberger, often referred to as the Wurzburger Rav, opened a seminary to train young teachers, and later opened a branch to instruct women who would then go on to educate young girls. In Feurth, in 1862, Dr. Selig Auerbach opened a girls’ branch within his boys’ school, which later became its own institution.
The ambition of these schools was to produce women highly educated in Torah knowledge and halacha, who would be capable of raising the next generation of Jewish children in a fast-changing world, as well as supplying them with the secular knowledge to navigate that world. There were also practical domestic skills and crafts included in the curriculum.
However, despite religious efforts to educate women, secularization in the West was so prevalent, that these modest barricades could hardly stop the advancing tides.
The Religious Response in the East
Eastern European girls may have gone to cheder with their brothers for a few years of early childhood, but the vast majority continued their education in secular gymnasiums, comparable to public schools, and had little to no formal Jewish instruction. Assuming that the centuries-long successful system of maternal and familial education would be sufficient, leaders were chagrined to realize that young women, more so than their male counterparts, were growing up without foundational Jewish conviction and commitment. The image of the pious, simple and domestically maternal Jewish woman no longer appealed to these secularly educated girls.
The result was devastating assimilation.
Attempts were made to stem the loss of Jewish lifeblood. Agudath Yisrael emerged, and a smattering of institutions for girls appeared.
The Telz Yeshiva umbrella had institutions for boys and girls, and, by the 1920s, Rabbi Bloch, recognizing how directionless teenaged girls were, endorsed the opening of a female high school. A few years later, a women’s Yavneh seminary was started in Telz to educate future teachers. Kovno also had a Yavneh girl’s elementary and high school, and, although it was religious, it seemed to have some Zionist and modern undercurrents.
A Holocaust survivor writes about her childhood experience at this school:
The institution was housed in a modern building and was equipped with the best up-to-date facilities: libraries, laboratories, workshops and gyms, teaching aids and modern furnishings. Discipline in the school was strict, a lot was demanded of us and the standard of studies was very high….both religious and secular subjects were infused with a love of the People of Israel and the Land of Israel, with belief and with G-d fearingness (Safira Rappaport, “A Pedigreed Jew: Between there and Here” (Gloucestershire 2016) a Yad Vashem project.).
The writer describes the uniform she wore as consisting of a brown pleated jumper, a white blouse with a large collar, a black apron and a purple hat with two white stripes. She expounds on the depth and breadth of the curriculum (as well as some of the girls’ extra-curricular activities like sneaking off to visit the boys division!).
When Rabbi Emanuel Carlebach came to Warsaw during World War I as a military advisor, he recognized a need for reform, and started a girls’ school called Havatzelet. However, this school did not meet his vision, and petered out by the Second World War (Ilan Fuchs, Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Religious Education and Modernity [New York 2014] pg. 35).
Yet these efforts were anemic compared to the robust and pulsing Bais Yaakov movement which would revolutionize the religious world.
In 1917, an unassuming seamstress in Poland, labeled “the little pious one” by her social circle, undertook a revolution. With bold and fearless courage, she persisted in pushing past naysayers, and with the two short words of the Belzer Rebbe – “mazel u’vracha” – she built the first Bais Yaakov.
Although she targeted a more mature audience for her first lectures, Sarah Schenirer quickly realized it was too little too late, and began to focus her energies on younger girls. She opened her first kindergarten class with 25 pupils.
By 1935, over 200 Bais Yaakovs were established. Some served full-time students, others provided teacher training, and still others acted as a supplemental education for girls who attended secular school. Under the Bais Yaakov umbrella were vocational training programs, lectures for women, Batya and Bnos groups, and even organizations dedicated to helping women resettle in Palestine.
The Chofetz Chaim wrote strongly in favor of this burgeoning movement, a response that blends a tragic thread into this strong fabric of support.
“Ask your father and he will tell you (Devarim 32:7).”With this we could have said that she would not learn Torah, and would rely on instruction from her righteous fathers. But now, in our great iniquities, the tradition of our fathers has been greatly diluted, and it is common not to live in the same place as one’s forefathers – especially those women who are learning to read and write the languages of the nations. It is a great mitzvah therefore to teach them Scripture and the prophets and holy writings and the moral writings of our holy sages… so that our holy faith will resonate with them, because, if not, they might leave the path of G-d completely.
Bais Yaakov institutions succeeded in streaking past the mere title of school and became a movement. It created an avant-garde identity and culture for Jewish girls, replete with modern techniques and educated activists (such as Dr. Judith Grunfeld and Dr. Leo Deutschlander), alongside millennia-old lessons and texts.
The Holocaust arrested the movement in Europe, but it had already spread to North America and the soon-to-be Israel, ensuring its continuance.
And the rest, well, the rest of the story is history.
Jewish women. As we’ve said, they have always had an education, but it has taken on different looks, smells and tastes over the course of our history. So whether its a medieval wife listening to a Shabbos lecture by a rabbinic woman, an early modern one poring over her Yiddish techinos while baking bread, or a modern one, armed with her backpack of Ramban homework and trigonometry textbooks, the Jewish woman has always been educated. And it is with that education that she has succeeded in raising generations of G-d-fearing children who will go on to do the same with their own.