Although Sarah Schenirer – the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement – is a legend in Orthodox Jewish circles, the woman responsible for bringing her vision to the United States, Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan (1913-1986), is relatively unknown.
A book recently published by Feldheim aims to correct this state of affairs. “Rebbetzin Kaplan: The Founder of the Bais Yaakov Movement in America” by Rebbetzin Danielle Leibowitz (with Devora Glickman) runs close to 600 pages in recounting the life of this pioneer in Jewish education for girls in America.
Rebbetzin Leibowitz was an early student of Rebbetzin Kaplan and the wife of Rabbi Yehuda Cohen, z”l (principal of Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway for many years), and, after Rabbi Cohen’s passing, of Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz, z”l (rosh yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva).
The Jewish Press: Where did Rebbetzin Kaplan grow up?
Rebbetzin Leibowitz: She was born in Slonim in Poland in 1913 and was orphaned as a little girl. She was brought up in Baranowitz by her uncle, Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky – who was the mashgiach of Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s yeshiva – and his wife, Rebbetzin Faiga Malka Lubchansky, who was the daughter of Rav Yossel Horowitz, the Alter of Novardok.
How did Rebbetzin Kaplan wind up at Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov teachers seminary in Krakow?
Well, the story goes like this. In her small town of Baranowitz, Vichna saw an ad for the Bais Yaakov seminary and wanted very much to become a teacher of Yiddishkeit because many girls were going off the derech at the time. She approached her uncle, but he said, “You can’t go to a big city like Krakow. ‘Kol kevudah bas melech penima – The glory of a woman is within’ [Psalms 45:14]. A girl has to be in the house.”
She was very disappointed but she was determined, so she went to Rav Elchonon Wasserman. He approved of her plans, so Rabbi Lubchansky let her go.
What happened next?
She went to Krakow and became the star pupil of Sarah Schenirer. Later she moved to Brisk. The Brisker Rav – Rav Velvel Soloveitchik – had written to Sarah Schenirer asking for a teacher for his daughters and Sarah Schenirer sent Vichna. Vichna taught in Brisk for five years, and became very close to the Brisker Rav’s family. When she was there she would give public lectures and the whole town – both men and women – would come to listen to her because she was such a powerful speaker.
How did she wind up in America?
A shidduch with an American boy, Boruch Kaplan, was suggested to her. Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman, the hero of the book All For the Boss, had a great influence on Boruch and sent him to study in Rav Yehudah Heschel Levenberg’s yeshiva in New Haven and then later in the Chevron Yeshiva. He was there during the Chevron Massacre in 1929, and was saved by an Arab who hid him.
After that, Boruch learned in Mir and Brisk, and that’s where the shidduch was made. Vichna’s uncle, Rabbi Lubchansky, opposed her moving to America – it was a “treifa medinah” – but the Brisker Rav told her, “For a boy like Boruch Kaplan, you have my permission to go anywhere in the world.” So she left Europe and came to America in 1937 on the same boat as Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. She married Boruch in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas with a wedding meal consisting of salami sandwiches.
The following year she started the first Bais Yaakov in America with seven girls.
Why was she determined to found a Jewish girls school so soon after her arrival in America?
Because she wanted to continue Sarah Schenirer’s ambition and she knew girls in America didn’t know anything about Yiddishkeit. She wanted to teach what it meant to be a bas melech, what the Torah was all about, what a Jewish girl’s ambitions should be.
Most of the parents she approached about starting a school didn’t want their girls to be “old-fashioned” ladies. They wanted them to be Americanized and make a good living. So the beginning was very, very difficult. Rebbetzin Kaplan had seven girls in her first class. Two of them were the daughters of Rav Shraga Mendlowitz [the founder of Torah Vodaas].
The first class met around Rebbetzin Kaplan’s table. They were a bunch of American girls who weren’t initially interested in being there. They went to public high school, and after high school they worked to help supplement their family’s incomes. They went to Rebbetzin Kaplan at 7 o’clock, four nights a week. And then on Sunday and Shabbos Rebbetzin Kaplan had a bnos group.
What was the state of Jewish education for girls in America at this time?
Negligible. Girls had very little knowledge. There were Talmud Torahs and girls learned a bit from their parents. There were also Shulamith and Ramaz, but these were elementary schools. Bais Yaakov was the first full-day Jewish high school for girls in America. It started off as an after-school program, but it became a full high school in 1944.
You note in the book that in the early years of Bais Yaakov, students came from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Yes, there were all kinds – litvish, chassidish, the daughters of roshei yeshiva and girls who weren’t even shomer Shabbos. Rebbetzin Kaplan took them all in. If they wanted to learn Yiddishkeit, she welcomed them. Her whole mission in life was to teach these girls. And she succeeded. When I entered Bais Yaakov in 1947, many of us wore very short sleeves. She said we should wear longer sleeves, so we did. Many also started wearing sheitels after they got married. Rebbetzin Kaplan was a very charismatic person and when she spoke we wanted to listen because it came from her heart and we wanted to be good.
She believed in us and only saw the good in us. To me, her aura was one of goodness and kindness, and she gave us a feeling of what we should do with our lives – that we should want to be Jewish and we should want to have a Jewish home and bring up Jewish children. She taught us Yiddishkeit and that we were princesses. And we wanted to do what she wanted because she gave it to us with such sincerity, truthfulness, and goodness. You didn’t want to disappoint her.