The Agudas Yisroel network of schools for girls. The first Beys Yankev school was established in Kraków in 1917 by Sarah Schenirer, who sought to fight the spread of secularization and acculturation among Orthodox women—who until then had received no formal Jewish education. The institution, which achieved great success, was supported by Orthodox public figures and was adopted in 1919 by Agudas Yisroel. In 1922, Agudas Yisroel in Poland began to publish a Beys Yankev journal, which spread the idea of establishing girls’ schools to form a national network.
Class at a Beys Yankev school, Kraków, 1936. The Hebrew signs read, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 111:10) and “Teach us to count our days rightly” (Ps. 90:12). (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
In 1923, the Keren ha-Torah (Torah Fund) of Agudas Yisroel granted financial aid to Beys Yankev. Concurrently, Schenirer visited many cities in which she was active in establishing schools. This combined effort won wide public approval, and the number of Beys Yankev schools in Poland consistently grew, from 55 institutions with 7,350 students in 1926, to 250 institutions with 38,000 students in 1937. The network also expanded across Polish borders, and in 1935 included 18 schools with 1,569 students in Czechoslovakia; another 18 schools with 1,292 students in Romania; and 16 schools with 2,000 students in Lithuania.
In Poland, most Beys Yankev branches provided supplementary Jewish education to girls who attended public schools in the morning hours. A number of full-time schools, in which Jewish studies were taught along with the government-sponsored curriculum, operated in larger cities. And in the 1930s, 30 vocational schools, which provided students with training in bookkeeping, typing, sewing, home economics, and nursing, were established. Teacher training seminaries, whose graduates taught in government-sponsored schools as well as in the Beys Yankev network, functioned in Kraków and in Czernowitz.
The main objective of the Beys Yankev schools was to strengthen students’ commitment to halakhah (Jewish law) and to Jewish traditions by providing a wide base of knowledge. Accordingly, against the advice of Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen (Ḥafets Ḥayim), the curriculum was not limited to scripture, ethics, and prayer but also included halakhah, Jewish history, and Jewish philosophy, while emphasizing the writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch and Yitsḥak Breuer. The study of general subjects was believed to advance the objectives of the Beys Yankev schools if ethical and religious aspects were stressed: thus the sciences were invoked to prove the greatness of God, while humanistic studies were presented as beneficial in the acquisition of virtues.
Students from a Beys Yankev school near Kraków at a seminar, Rabka, Poland, 1930s. Photograph by Foto Janina. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
The Beys Yankev schools denied that their activities were potentially revolutionary. Instead, the need to provide women with an institutionalized religious education was presented as a necessity arising from faulty parenting and from contemporary needs, not as a means to correct flaws created by a traditional upbringing. The concept that allotted different social and spiritual roles to men and women was not questioned. In this light, emphasis was placed on the importance of virtues such as modesty and motherhood. Nevertheless, the Beys Yankev schools functioned indirectly as an instrument that strengthened the feminist consciousness of their students, by exposing them to classical Jewish sources, by providing vocational and professional training, and by incorporating social and political discussions in their journal.
Gershon C. Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916–1939 (Jerusalem, 1996); Menaḥem M. Breier, “Ha-Ḥinukh ha-‘ivri be-Bukovinah,” in Ha-Ḥinukh veha-tarbut ha-‘ivrit be-eropah ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam, ed. Zevi Scharfstein, pp. 248–254 (New York, 1957); Yosef Fridenzon, “Bate ha-sefer le-banot ‘Bet Ya‘akov’ be-Polin,” in Ha-Ḥinukh veha-tarbut ha-‘ivrit be-eropah ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam, ed. Zevi Scharfstein, pp. 61–82 (New York, 1957); Shimon Frost, Schooling As a Socio-Political Expression (Jerusalem, 1998); Deborah Weissman, “‘Bais Ya‘akov’ As an Innovation in Jewish Women’s Education: A Contribution to the Study of Education and Social Change,” Studies in Jewish Education 7 (1995): 278–299.
Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen