Sarah Schenirer was a Polish educator who single-handedly transformed the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. Traditionally, only boys received a Jewish education, but Sarah led a revolution that created THOUSANDS of Jewish schools for girls around the world.
Born to a prominent rabbinic family in Poland in 1883, Sarah attended the local Polish elementary school, while her brothers went to the best yeshiva to receive a top-notch Jewish education. In those days, only boys studied Torah. Sarah was jealous of her brothers, and wanted to study Torah too.
Sarah’s father encouraged her interest in Jewish texts. He provided her with an endless supply of reading material. Sarah was interested in secular subjects as well, and her self-education included classical works of Polish and German literature.
Sarah saw that a grave problem was developing in the Orthodox Jewish world which could threaten the very survival of the Jewish people. Jewish women and girls were increasingly disconnected from their ancient tradition. Jewish holidays meant little to them because they weren’t taught about their meaning and spiritual significance. Sarah saw many Jewish girls of her generation assimilating into the larger Polish culture and leaving the faith of their mothers.
Sarah said, “People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are they so particular when they address themselves to the seeds of the soul?”
Despite being a seamstress with no formal education and no teaching experience, Sarah decided to start a school for girls. Her idea was mocked by many Orthodox Jews who thought there would never be communal support for female education.
Ignoring the naysayers, Sarah journeyed alone to visit the great Belzer Rebbe. She told him of her dream of educating Jewish girls in Torah. The great Rebbe’s response was brief: “Mazel u-v’rocho” (Luck and blessing).
With the support of the Belzer Rebbe, nothing could stop Sarah. In 1917, she opened a kindergarten for 25 girls which was enormously successful. Girls were desperate to learn Torah. Within five years, Sarah was running seven girls’ schools for 1,040 students.
By 1933, Sarah’s movement to educate girls had expanded all over the Jewish world, with 265 schools in Poland alone. They were known as “Beis Yaakov” schools. Sarah opened a teacher’s seminary to train staff for the explosion of interest in Beis Yaakov schools.
Today in the Orthodox world, it is not just the boys who receive a traditional Jewish education. The culture has changed to reflect a huge emphasis on educating girls, and respecting their essential role in Jewish life. Hundreds of thousands of girls are educated in schools affiliated with the Beis Yaakov movement.
Sarah Schenirer was never blessed with children of her own, but she is considered the spiritual mother to all Beis Yaakov girls. Like Sarah the biblical matriarch, Sarah Schenirer is known affectionately as “Sarah Imeinu” – Our Mother Sarah.
She died of cancer in 1935, at age 51.