The book that helped inspire this website: Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, by Naomi Seidman, is available for purchase here. Use the discount code in the poster below (ADISTA5).
Sarah Schenirer’s 1935 death was accompanied not only by an outpouring of grief, but also by a burst of literary activity, commemorating her life and work. Much of this material appeared in the Bais Yaakov Journal in the months and years following her death. This column, “The World of Sarah Schenirer,” is devoted to presenting English translations of this work.
This first installment of the column comes from the Bais Yaakov Journal Issue 123 (Adar II 5695 / 1935).
THE LAST FIVE MONTHS OF FRAU SCHENIRER’S LIFE
Rest in Work
Frau Schenirer spent her last summer occupied with her usual wide range of activities. Apart from the daily occupations—the long hours speaking with students, the detailed correspondence with provincial teachers—Frau S. still found time to devote herself with incomparable energy to charity and good deeds.
Frau S. never truly knew what it meant to rest. For her, rest meant working. Between one task and another she would snatch an opportunity to go around to the summer colonies collecting charity. That was how, after classes were over for the day, she would cover whole kilometers to raise a little money for a sick person, for a bride, for anyone in need.
After the end of the summer semester, 23 of Elul (September 3, 1934), when all the students and seminary teachers left for vacation, Frau S. immediately got on the road to the small-town schools. There are still a few new schools she had not yet visited. Until the very eve of Rosh Hashana, she was still racing from one town to another. Here a quick look-around, there a brief word and so it went. And as soon as Rosh Hashana was over, Frau S. once again vanished from Kraków for a few days. She still not been to the Łódź Hakhsarah (the training program for girls preparing to immigrate to Palestine), she still had some important places to visit.
She was on the road again until Yom Kippur eve. During the last few days and hours of the Days of Awe, when she was in Kraków, she was running around the whole city. So many charitable duties to fulfill. Entire ledgers of money, promissory notes, financial obligations—this is what she was dealing with during those solemn days. A note dated the eve of Sukkot details her distribution of almost three hundred złoty. Charity work.
Frau S. does not rest, or rather, her rest is her work. She still attends meetings with the leadership of the Central Office. Teachers need to be allotted teaching positions. The well-being of every teacher, every child, every town needs to be taken care of. Like a true and faithful mother, nothing escapes her watchful eye.
The First Cloud
During the intermediate days of Sukkot, a teacher announces that she cannot return to her job. She is too weak. The work is too much for her. Frau S. insists that she be allowed to remain. The work is not for her. People look at her: what is she thinking? “I believe her. I never really understood what it feels like to be ill. But now I feel for her.”
Did something happen? Frau S. looks a little different, as if a cloud had come over her face, something has changed. She doesn’t feel well, she has lost her appetite, cannot eat. But this isn’t important to her for her own reasons right now. She only mentions it to help someone else. Her illness is of no relevance for her own purposes. On the contrary. After the last trip, she immediately began to feel much better. She felt fine while she was traveling, her appetite was strong and she worked assiduously. But the first cloud has already rolled come in. Frau S. is spending more time at home, struggling with pain, and doctors begin to visit.
Song of Songs
Friday night. Just after candle lighting. Worn out from pain and not eating. Surrounded by a few people. Frau S. begins to cry. “What’s wrong? Is the pain worse?” No! That’s not what bothers her. Frau S., in her conditions, cannot recite the Song of Songs with the new students, the way she always did with the old ones. Her happiest moments, when she can pour into the hearts of her children the taste of the holy incoming Sabbath, the exalted holiness that flows from the “Song of Songs.”–these moments are now the hardest for her, but they don’t last. Frau S remembers to trust God, remembers the Sabbath. One may not mourn on the Sabbath, and her good humor returns.
Before the Operation
Frau S. gets dressed. Friends and acquaintances fill the house. Silently, in a corner, a tear is shed. But before the eyes of all, her eyes are filled with confidence, clarity, and hope. On the way to the car she asks someone, bashfully, to deliver a letter to Mr. Orlean. They glance at it, and quickly understand what it holds. She doesn’t make an issue of it. Doesn’t mention it again. Joy. The will or letter had been written a few days earlier. Its contents: the behavior of her students and the administration of the Seminary.
The Letter from the Clinic
Frau S. is still lying motionless, completely exhausted, barely getting out a few word; she lies flat on her back, but that doesn’t stop her from having a chat with her children, with the seminarians. A pen, a notebook, she lies on her back and writes. One page, two, three. Someone tries to stop her, to no avail. A letter to the children, a Torah teaching for the Sabbath table, a letter to the teaching staff. To every single one, that they must take care to prepare for the Sabbath. This was her routine, before every Sabbath. She almost never missed a week. For every occasion, a letter. Hanukah approaches. At this point she feels incredibly weak. She writes a few words.
The Connection with Heaven
Her words, and Torah, and reflections often had a special charm. Simple, heartfelt, to the point, and close to every person. That is how she writes, lying in bed in the clinic.
The Living Calendar
Frau S. is back at home, she is walking around the house, she is very clear, she enjoys everyone, she asks about every little thing, she reads everything through, and doesn’t stop writing. She is learning Hezekiah’s prayer [Isaiah 38], translating it. Shouldn’t she pass this along to her children? She writes it out and sends it out along to the Bais Yaakov Journal office. Who remembers, who can keep in mind such minutia as the date of “nitl” [referring to nitl nacht—Hasidic practices relating to Christmas]?
But Frau S. is a living calendar. She remembers everything on time and prepares for everything. Tomorrow is “nitl.” The children should refrain from studying. Because of this, she writes up a story about a watch, to relay to the Seminary students and pass along the Bais Yaakov Journal. A story with a moral from Rabbi Israel Salanter, of blessed memory [Israel b. Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin 1809-1883].
Bind Them to the Tablet of Your Heart [Proverbs 7:3]
She knows the psychology of young students very well. She knows how negligent they can be about keeping track of details, of the beginning of the semester, of days off, of the new month. But for her this is all essential. She is a living calendar and would like to her children to be the same. She remembers a lovely custom of the Seminary, in which the continuing class gives the graduating one autograph books with little inscriptions. Frau S sends for the younger students before the graduation ceremony, so that they can order these books, with the little calendars bound inside. They will keep them, so they can know when it is a new month, what time to light candles. When various holidays fall, and, in particular, they will also have the Prayer for Travelers. The Seminary students will become teachers, and so they will travel, and how could they not say the Prayer for Travelers!
As they leave, she says: you should buy calendars, for God’s sake buy calendars, and thus you will be able to fulfill “bind them to the tablet [luakh, calendar] of your heart.” This is how she takes every opportunity to teach a law, a custom, a good deed. Frau S never forgets the smallest detail. When the date for saying tal u matar [the winter prayer for rain] returns. She is already watching out for it, and can remind everyone as it approaches. By now her condition is already very serious. As soon as she returned from Vienna, her state worsened. “Children” she says, “today is little Purim [occurring on a leap year], which means that in the Seminary you should sing “Shoshanat Yaakov!” [The Rose of Jacob, found at the end of the Scroll of Esther].
The Last Visit to the Seminary
Every single day, Frau S. hurries to the Seminary. The new apartment on Kordeckiego Street is not far from the Seminary building. She continues to go out, putting one foot in front of the other, trudging up paths. No one can hold her back. The time is approaching for the ceremony to mark the completion of the book of Exodus. She wants to make a visit for the occasion. It is already the afternoon. Most of the pupils are off taking a walk. A messenger comes to the dining hall: Frau Schenirer is on her way. Some of the teachers are still lingering over lunch. Everyone’s heart begins to pound. The short distance will take some five minutes, or maybe half an hour. Frau S. is coming. A few girls catch sight of her; the news travels like wildfire that she’s here, in the entry hall. Frau S. sits down in the ground-floor dining hall. People stand frozen in shock, their eyes welling with tears, their shoulders quivering. Frau S.’s face is all the evidence they need that the illness hasn’t passed. This is no lucky return to work. The breath catches in the throat. Please, let this not be the last visit.
Students go in one at a time, but they cannot master their emotions, they slink back out again with swollen eyes. Frau S. asks them to come back, to sit down. One student is invited to repeat the presentation she had given at the school assembly, which had made such a good impression on everyone. Some of the older people object, ask her not to make the presentation—it will exhaust Frau S. “Speak, speak, I’ll enjoy it. It won’t tire me out. This is my greatest pleasure.” She offers no criticism, doesn’t suggest that the presentation is getting better or needs more work, but her joy knows no bounds. She is back within the walls of her warm, beloved home. And so she sits for an hour, and then she can barely make it back to her house, so weak is she. Frau S. falls right back into bed. Despite this experience, it takes all her relatives all their powers of persuasion to prevent her from going to graduation. No, it is impossible to imagine the pain of this refined soul, in having to miss—for the first time in almost twenty years—her favorite celebration, the graduation from the Seminary.
Frau S. can scarcely be persuaded to satisfy herself with congratulatory letters, and with inviting the graduating students to visit her after the ceremony. Whoever has not seen how Frau S. would weep copious tears at every graduation, and then dance with her children, and finally, with great intimacy, speak to them about the holiest Jewish principles, cannot truly imagine what that last graduation meant for Frau S. She asked her sisters to at least drop in on the ceremony, and then begged them to tell her every detail about how it went, and then, after the ceremony, she spent a few hours celebrating with the graduates.
On the Train to Vienna
Recognizing that her condition is only becoming worse, the Bais Yaakov administration and her family decide that they should take her to Vienna, which has many famous specialists who might become the agents of her healing. Frau S. agrees to travel. Indeed, Vienna awakens her dearest hopes, since it was from that very place that she had brought the seeds of the whole Bais Yaakov movement.
Frau S. at the train station, Frau S. sits in an armchair, around her the family, the seminary faculty, and the leaders of the Bais Yaakov administration. Everyone chokes back tears, hoping only to see her again. Frau S. smiles and calls out to each, “I brought the spiritual medicine from Vienna; now I am travelling there for physical medicine. It must be providential. Apparently I still have something to accomplish in Vienna.” “You’ll see,” she calls out humorously. “I’ll show you all! I’ll disappear and then turn up at the Vienna Bais Yaakov Seminary, and deliver a lecture.” And that was how she entered the train carriage, with complete humor and confidence.
The Letter from Vienna
The letters from Vienna are everywhere punctuated with indications of just how serious the situation was. Many letters end with the words: “Pray for me!” And yet the confidence and hope shine through every letter, she never missed a detail, she provided a Torah teaching in every single greeting, and she appended a reminder about the various duties everyone had taken upon themselves.
A Seminary in Miniature
Her love and feelings of connection to the Seminary were unimaginable. Students drop in to see her on Friday nights right after candle lighting. Frau S. takes hold of the opportunity: “Let’s recite together the Song of Songs, let me imagine that I’m in the Seminary.” This is what she does throughout her entire illness, lying in bed, taking advantage of every moment to write, to teach, to remind, to awaken, to do whatever she could do.
As is well known, whenever she could, Frau S. would pray in a congregation. Praying alone was less satisfying; saying the kedusha, or a barchu [blessings that are only said together with the congregation] was simply a joy for her. In her home, she discovered that she could hear communal prayer through a wall. Even when she was sickest, Frau S. would not rest, and would drag herself to hear a kedusha. When she could not longer do even this, she would say to her students: “Go to synagogue and when they recite the benediction, keep me in mind.”
The Power of Charity
As exceptional as Frau S. was in her work for Bais Yaakov, as a teacher, an instructor, as a God- fearing person, the power of her charity was beyond description. What we know of this is no more than a tenth of what she did in secret. She was truly the mother of everyone in need. It was therefore entirely appropriate on the part of the Bais Yaakov administration to be able to give Frau S. pleasure towards the end by organizing a charity event for those poor and sick people she cared for. It is impossible to convey her joy, that 18 groschen would be given on the Day of Prayer for her health. The point was not her health, but rather the funds that were raised on her behalf. What a great merit it is for those who contribute!!! “Children you should never neglect charity. The power of charity is very great.”
The students followed the guidance of the Remah, [Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530-1572)] in praying for her health. But her health was not the main point. “You have recited Psalms. Thank God, that my children know how to recite a Psalm.” Of all the great achievements, all the successes in their studies and learning, she never forgot to value a girl’s simple recitation of Psalms—this was her greatest joy. That was Frau S.—the will to exaltation and joy from the plainest and simplest things.
Torah Is Not Tiring
The final two weeks. The Sabbath. Frau S notices the heavy gloom of the visiting students. “Tell me a Torah, I would so enjoy that!” “But isn’t Frau S. very tired?” “Silly children, Torah can never make one tired.”
The Voice of Torah
Frau S. cannot fall asleep, so she asks her students to say a word of Torah. “Say some more Torah, I can fall asleep to the sound of the Torah.” She asks them to repeat everything, every report that was presented by a student in the Seminary, every Torah lesson that was said at the Sabbath table. Through it all, she never forgets the anniversary of a death. I will tell you something about her.
There's No Time!
Over the course of her illness, Frau S. never complained, never aggravated anyone, never showed the smallest shudder; she was completely calm, happy, full of hope—that was her mood throughout her five months of being ill. But often she would burst out with: “I have no time. There is so much still to accomplish, we have to support the group “Taharas Bnos Yisroel” [the purity of the daughters of Israel]; we need set up a group for visiting the sick; we need to do this and that; oy I have no time.” She felt and knew her condition, but that led only to her doing deeds, to doing even more deeds, to the urge to do and accomplish, although not, God forbid, with even a trace of confusion or disappointment.
The Bais Yaakov Journal and Kinder Gorten
Whichever one of the teaching staff would visit her toward the end, she would first ask about the Bais Yaakov Journal and Kinder Gorten. With what sorrow she spoke to Editor Friedenson about her inability to find a copy of the Bais Yaakov Journal in Vienna. She asked everywhere, but couldn’t get hold of a Journal. This was how, two days before her death, she forcefully almost commanded the Kraków teacher Mrs. Heitner, long may she live long, and all the others: “See to it that the children read Kinder Gorten, we have to spread the Bais Yaakov Journal throughout the world,” and so on. She understood the power of this instrument for the idea of Bais Yaakov. She was leaving this world, and knew that the what she had accomplished in her speaking would suffer, but at least the written publication could be strengthened by the power of her urge to communicate, by her still living words.
Never Give Up
Naturally, Frau S. was a teacher to the core. But in addition to this, she was also an educator. A teacher must have full classes, and an organizer must have masses to lead, but for an educator, a mother, one child is enough. She could just sit down and give a lesson to three, to two, to one child, whoever there happened to be.
She asked a student in the last days, why don’t you have a Bnos chapter here? The student answered, there are so few of us here that there is really no one with whom to found a chapter. To that she reacted with all her energy: so there are only a few girls, that’s no reason to give up! That is how she was during her whole life. She herself never gave up. In a word: a mother.
Remember Jewish Law
At every opportunity, she would always check to make sure that Jewish law was remembered. The rules needed to be hammered into every one. The last Wednesday, a student is washing her hands. “You remember how to do that, right? Three times over each hand, each hand separately.” She was never embarrassed to remind people. Whoever it was, a grown woman, a graduate, one must always ask, always remind.
They Are My Children
Her relatives tried to ease her suffering, were careful not to let people in and out all day. But she would always protest: “Let them in, let everyone in. They are my children.”
The Last Minutes
At two thirty there was a teacher with her, from the Seminary, they spoke warmly, she barely mentioned the state of her health, she talked about preparing for the Sabbath. An hour later she burst out with a question… “Are any of my people here?” And with the words: “Help me, Father,” her holy soul ascended.
May her soul be bound to everlasting life.
[Written by the editorial staff of the Bais Yaakov Journal]
Translated by Masha Y. Kalmanovitch.
We’re going live on March 24, 2019! Join us for a lecture by Naomi Seidman, a choir led by Basya Schechter, and a demo of the Bais Yaakov Project website. More information and tickets here.