DainyBernstein

A Bais Yaakov Haggadah: When Girls Write Like the Talmud

printed text surrounded by printed lines with handwritten notes

We take a break from Naomi’s series interpreting class pictures, in part due to the disruption that COVID-19 has caused to our daily and weekly schedules. Instead, in a timely post, we are highlighting a haggadah this week. 

This haggadah comes to our collection from Mindy (Friedlander) Schaper. It is typical of texts used in grades 6-8 in Bais Yaakov schools, with lined spaces surrounding the text of the haggadah itself, allowing students to write notes directly into the text.

(Haggadahs from younger grades tend to be handmade collections of paper tied into a booklet, featuring such fun additions as a cutting of a towel to decorate the page for urchatz and rachtzah. We hope to share more of those in future weeks or years – perhaps in time for Pesach 2021!)

a page of text with handwritten notes
In the space to the left of the printed text, note 4 asterisks, each denoting a new note. Three of those begin with “why…?” and an answer to that question.

Much can be said about the practice of using haggadahs with spaces intended for note-taking. While students are expected to take notes during classes on Chumash, Navi, Halacha, etc., they are not expected to write in the seforim themselves. However, haggadahs are meant to be used during the seder, not merely studied and then stored away. The space for notes is indicative of the text’s intended use: as a discussion aid during the seder.

The format of some of the notations is indicative of the intended use as well. Many of the notes begin with a question, mimicking the structure of the haggadah itself, which begins with four questions and then goes on to answer them by telling the story of the Exodus. 

The fascinating result of this practice is that girls in Bais Yaakov engage with the text more intimately than they do during the rest of the year. In notes for other classes (coming soon to our online archive), we can see a similar format of question-and-answer, usually quoting a meforash like Rashi or Rambam. Here, though., the girls get to take ownership of the text in a more personal way, by inscribing their own words (albeit still the thoughts of others) directly onto the page in a layout that echoes Talmudic commentary.

title page of haggadah with handwritten grade and comment in top left corner

A feature that I find particularly intriguing is the grade and comment on the title page. Someone, presumably the teacher, has graded the haggadah with an Aleph+ with an accompanying comment of “excellent work,” followed by the traditional Pesach wish for “next year in Jerusalem.” What was being graded? The commentary, which almost certainly was not student-created but dictated by the teacher? The handwriting? The amount of notes written? Did the students perhaps do research to write their own notes, rather than having the teacher dictate the notes?

Of course, we can simply ask Mindy these questions and rely on oral history since this haggadah was annotated so recently. But these questions apply to a broader range of class notes and texts and are worth asking and tracking through Bais Yaakov’s history from Europe through to contemporary schools in America, Israel, and other locations.

As we head into a seder unlike any other most of us have experienced, with fewer people at the table and perhaps no children or grandchildren to ask the Mah Nishtanah, we wish you all a safe, healthy, and happy Pesach.

Bais Yaakov in the Olomeinu Magazine

Confession: My area of specialization is not Bais Yaakov. My knowledge of Bais Yaakov’s history comes from my work on this website, in fact. My area of specialization – or at least one of them – is contemporary haredi children’s literature and education. Clearly, there is overlap between the two foci, and that’s why I’ve been working with NaomiSeidman on this project.

Some of the material in the corpus of texts I study is the Olomeinu magazine, published from 1960-2010 by Torah Umesorah. It was marketed to day schools from the beginning, although by the 2000s, the focus had become haredi schools with less attention paid to day schools. That’s part of what I’m tracking in my dissertation.

The process through which I’ve observed this shift is numerous passes through the many issues I have access to, from Torah Umesorah’s incomplete set of scans on their website and from a friend’s loan of her family’s archival collection. I have a spreadsheet where I track the appearance of repeated features, titles, and topics, etc. During this process, I came across one article on Sarah Schenirer. The article is in an issue for which I don’t have the cover, but based on some clues on other pages, I guess that it’s the December 1974 issue. (In the letters that children wrote to the Olomeinu, they mention the previous issues in which they noticed errors. They mention October 1974, November 1974, and Kislev. Since I know that the June 1974 issue was the Tamuz issue, I extrapolated that Kislev matched up with November, which means that the issue in question was Teves/Decemeber 1974. I love this kind of sleuthing!)

The narrative that people tell about their own history is always fascinating. As discussed in other places on this website, the oral tradition that grew up around Sarah Schenirer’s story does not always match the historical records. Not all of the details in the account below are accurate. But it is important to read nonetheless, for what it tells us about how Torah Umesorah in the 1970s thought about the development of Bais Yaakov.

After I noticed that article, I flipped through the rest of the issues I have access to and looked for any pieces that mention Bais Yaakov schools. I found a number of fascinating appearances – some substantial and some brief mentions. I also found two articles about Krakow (spelled Cracow in the Olomeinu), neither of which mentions Bais Yaakov. I found that interesting, because if you mention Krakow to Bais Yaakov girls, they will automatically think of “Sarah, mother of Bais Yaakov.”

Below you’ll find images of the Olomeinu pages on which Bais Yaakov appears. Click each article’s image for an accessible PDF version.

PEOPLE, PLACES, AND THINGS….

Sarah Schenirer: The Seamstress Who Sewed Souls

Article about Sarah Schenirer in Olomeinu (date likely December 1974).

At the beginning of this century, there were no Torah schools for Jewish girls in Eastern Europe. Not only that, but the religious Jews were strongly against the very idea of such schools. Boys must go to yeshiva to learn Torah and girls should stay home to learn from their mothers how to build a Jewish home – that is how everyone felt.

One person felt differently. She was a young girl named Sarach Schenirer. She lived in Cracow, Poland and she workd as a seamstress who kept a diary, read Yiddish translations of seforim, and thought about the girls and women she knew. Modern ideas were coming to Poland. Jewish girls and women couldn’t understand Chumash or sefer, but they were reading all sorts of non-religious and anti-religious books and articles in Polish. A relative once took her to a Jewish girls club for a Friday night lecture – and she was shocked to see one of the lecturers turn on the lights!

Sarah was a good seamstress and she knew how particular some women could be about their clothes. She wrote in her diary, “People care so careful when it comes to clothing their bodies. Why aren’t they just as careful when it comes to the needs of their souls?”

So Sarah decided to do something. She started a school for little girls and became their teacher. Many people made fun of her and some were very angry at what she was doing. What right did she have to do something that had never been done before? Who was this young girl to set up a new educational system? Despite the opposition her little school grew. She even got encouragement from one of the greatest tzaddikim (righteous men) in all the world, the Belzer Rebbe, who blessed her work, After that, she got more and more help, especially from Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, an Agudath Israel leader and well-known editor who convinced many other leaders that Sarah Schenirer was right.

Requests began to pour in from other cities: “Please open a school for our girls, too,” She would sometimes leave Cracow for a while to organize such schools. Later on she was forced to graduate her senior class and send them to operate Bais Yaakov schools – that’s what she called them – when they were still in their middle teens. At the suggestion of Rabbi Meir Shapiro she took the next major step – she opened a seminary to train teachers. In the first year, she had a hundred and twenty students!

Sarah Schenirer’s success proved to everyone that there was a tremendous need for Bais Yaakov schools for girls. Nowadays there is hardly anyone who would say she was wrong; if anything there should have been many more people doing the same thing.

What is truly amazing about Sarah Schenirer is that she was absolutely self-taught, yet she was a amarvelous teacher, a fine writer, and an inspiring speaker. Her students were her children- she had no children of her own – and many of them devoted their lives to following her example. Most of her students died under the Nazis and they dies like true heroines. They were unafraid and loyal to Hashem. Once ninety-three of them were about to die. They smuggled out a last letter that ended this way,

“We are not afraid at all. We have only one plea from you: say Kaddish for ninety-three Jewish girls. In a little while, we shall be with our mother, Sarah Schenirer.”

A concentration camp survivor told of a Bais Yaakov student who nursed people in a concentration camp urging them to eat the non-kosher food, even giving away her own small ration to others who were sicker and weaker than she. When she finally dies, it was known that she had never eaten anything that wasn’t kosher.

Saraha Schenirer died on 26 Adar 5695 (1935) when she was only fifty-two years old. That was forty years ago, but she is still alive in every Bais Yaakov school in the world.

Cover of Olomeinu, February 1977
"In and Around Our Schools: Middos Through Missions at the Prospect Park Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York" (Olomeinu, February 1977)
Cover of Olomeinu, June 1977
"'Thank You' Contest Winners" page 1 (Olomeinu, June 1977)
"'Thank You' Contest Winners" page 2 (Olomeinu, June 1977)
Cover of Olomeinu, November 1979
"Women of Valor: Mrs. Sheindel Yaffa Sonnenfeld, An Esihes Chayil in Yerushalayim (Olomeinu, November 1979)
Cover of Olomeinu, June 1984
"In and Around Our Schools: 'Chofetz Chaim Year' Project at the Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Olomeinu, June 1984)
Cover of Olomeinu, May 2002
"In and Around Our Schools: Bas Mikroh Girls School, Monsey, NY: Appreciating the Treasures of Shabbos" (Olomeinu, May 2002)
Cover of Olomeinu, November 2003
"In and Around Our Schools: Bais Yaakov of South Fallsburg, South Fallsburg, N.Y.: The Marvelous Middos Mission Museum" (Olomeinu, November 2003)
Cover of Olomeinu, April 2005
"The Chessed Corner" (Olomeinu, April 2005)
Cover of Olomeinu, January 2006
"Children Learn about the Laws of Shemiras Halashon - Careful Speech" (Olomeinu, January 2006)
Cover of Olomeinu, March 2007
"Meet a Friend in Israel: Calling Fourth Graders: Shulamis Herskowitz Is on the Line" (Olomeinu, March 2007)
Cover of Olomeinu, January 2009
"The fourth grade, class 413, of Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, is proud to share with Olomeinu's readers the following accomplishment: (Olomeinu, January 2009)
Cover of Olomeinu, May 2009
"School Highlights: Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens" (Olomeinu, May 2009)
"Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School of Chicago, Illinois had a special schoolwide, highly successful project." page 1 (Olomeinu, May 2009)
"Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School of Chicago, Illinois had a special schoolwide, highly successful project." page 2 (Olomeinu, May 2009)

Two articles mentioning Krakow without Bais Yaakov:

Cover of Olomeinu, April-May 1975
"Cracow: City of the Ramoh" page 1 (Olomeinu, April-May 1975)
"Cracow: City of the Ramoh" page 2 (Olomeinu, April-May 1975)
"European Cities that were: As seen through the eyes of tourists" page 1 (Olomeinu, December 1979)
"European Cities that were: As seen through the eyes of tourists" page 2 (Olomeinu, December 1979)
headshot of dainy bernstein

Dainy Bernstein is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, finishing their dissertation, “Chanoch La’Na’ar: American Haredi Children’s Literature and Education, 1980-2000.” They teach composition and literature at Lehman College. 

When Plans Go Awry

The Bais Yaakov Project Team is a continuously-growing group of people associated with Bais Yaakov in many ways. Most of us are graduates of a Bais Yaakov school, spanning multiple schools and multiple decades. Some members on the team – Naomi Seidman and Leslie Ginsparg Klein most notably – are experts on Bais Yaakov after years of research and publishing on the topic. Some of us, though, are only tangential experts.

Take me, for example. My primary area of research is not Bais Yaakov. My PhD work is on ideologies of childhood and education as represented in literature. I write about this topic as it relates to multiple time periods and cultures: medieval Britain; medieval Ashkenaz; contemporary children’s historical fiction; and, most notably as my dissertation, contemporary haredi children’s literature. I became involved with the Bais Yaakov Project after connecting with Naomi and talking about our shared passions of understanding histories of education and our shared concern over the lack of available sources documenting haredi education.

Shira Schwartz

We also had a mutual connection, Shira Schwartz, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, writing about “Yeshiva Quirls: A Textual Ethnography of Jewish Gender, Sex and Reproduction.”

Shira and I had once dreamed about someday, when we weren’t grad students trying to get our dissertations done, creating an online repository of documents from Bais Yaakov schools and yeshivas so that others who work on these subjects after us could have an easier time. When Naomi talked about all the material she had collected from multiple sources as she worked on her book, it was the perfect shidduch – I had already been thinking about what an online repository could look like, and we immediately got started on building a website.

For fields like ours, where the focus is on attitudes and approaches to education, it’s important not to rely only on sources like official school reports or official school publications. Sources like student publications, class notes, and teachers’ lesson plans are equally as important. They demonstrate what happened in schools in great detail, while official documents tend to provide a much broader picture.

Of course, these sources of detailed and minute evidence are also among the first to disappear. As I wrote about previously, ephemera like class notes can show us how teachers conducted their lessons and how students received them.

For today’s peek into the archives, I want to highlight what we can glean about the structure and ideology of schools from a lesson plan book. The pages I’m focusing on today comes from my own lesson plan book, from my years teaching Grade 8 English Language Arts in Bais Yaakov of Boro Park (2007-2009).

The title page of a lesson plan book.

For two years after I graduated from Yavne Seminary in Cleveland, I taught alongside my own teachers in the institution where I had once been a student. Each week, I submitted a page to Miss Carmie Homburger, who had been my principal when I was in 8th grade, outlining what I planned to teach that week. My usual weekly plan included literature on Mondays and Tuesdays; grammar on Wednesdays; and writing on Thursdays. 

The page from my lesson plan book showing the week of March 24-27.

When I extricated my lesson plan book from my boxes of old papers in order to scan and upload it for the Bais Yaakov Project website, I was struck by the way I often updated the lesson plans to keep track of what actually happened in class.

As all teachers know, what we plan often isn’t what ends up happening in class. But the paper documentation doesn’t always reflect the reality of what transpired. For the week of March 24-27 in my lesson plan book, though, I took care to record the “real” lesson.

The carbon-generated plan, the one that I handed in to my supervisor, indicates a focus on Flowers for Algernon on Monday and Tuesday; grammar on Wednesday; and writing on Thursday. The ink column, titled “REAL,” shows what actually happened in class, and the reason the lesson diverged from what I had planned.

On Tuesday, one of my classes did not meet because they had a gym period instead. And on Thursday, another class had a gym period. Now, since I’m working with my own documents here, I can draw on my memories to fill in the blanks.

In New York State, schools are mandated to provide physical education. Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, since it receives government funds for programs like transportation, textbooks, and special education, is bound by those laws and regulations. But the Bais Yaakov school day would need to be lengthened even more, past its 4pm dismissal time, if Phys Ed were a class scheduled regularly like any other.

Instead, the school crafted a system where each class of students would miss one afternoon period a week for “gym,” rotating among the four periods so each teacher would give up one lesson a week per class.

And I had forgotten to account for the two classes who would be missing my period for the week of March 24-27.

The page from my lesson plan book showing the week of October 29-November 1.

Accounting for the change in schedule involved a simple shifting around of plans. Usually, the school would schedule all three of my classes for gym the same week, so that I could count on all three classes missing one day. That would make my rescheduling of lesson plans easier.

Of course, even without the occasional hitch in schedule – accounting for things like assemblies and gym – classes all moved at different paces, and you can see that difference in the more regular lesson plans as well.

When we work with documents that are older than mine, and whose creators are no longer able to provide context via their memories and oral accounts, we’re left to guess at what happened in each document. And the more documentation we have, the better our chances of guessing right become!

Later this week, we’ll be uploading scans of a curriculum plan from a school in Toronto. As I hope this peek into the archives makes clear, planbooks and curricula indicate an ideal, but plans often go awry. Looking at the original plan and the ultimate outcome together helps us get a more complete picture of what Bais Yaakov schools look like and value.

headshot of dainy bernstein

Dainy Bernstein is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, finishing their dissertation, “Chanoch La’Na’ar: American Haredi Children’s Literature and Education, 1980-2000.” They teach composition and literature at Lehman College. 

Ephemeral Treasures

After a summer hiatus during which we strategized and brainstormed (and wrote grant applications), we’re back with more material from the archives! 

This week, I’m highlighting some materials donated by individuals from personal archives: class notes.

The first page of a bundle of notes from a high school class.

Class notes are the kind of thing that usually don’t survive more than a generation or two, if they even survive past the beginning of the summer. (Don’t lie, have you ever tossed a year’s worth of class notes into the trash with a great sense of satisfaction?)

Thankfully, some of us are hoarders and keep every scrap of paper we’ve collected through the years. Having access to these class notes is a tremendous benefit to scholars and researchers of Bais Yaakov, since it allows us to take a deeper look into what was taught in the classroom.

We can of course use resources like Torah Umesorah to find out what materials teachers use, and we sometimes have access to school curricula.

But how do we know what classroom instruction actually looked like? How can we know if the lessons in official documentation were delivered that way, or if they were altered by each teacher to fit her style and method? How can we know how the lessons were received by students?

That’s where materials like class notes come in. From these valuable documents, we can glean information like the structure of a lesson; the words and terms used; the note-taking methods of students; and whether students doodled or not.

We currently have material from three individuals: myself, with notes from Bais Yaakov of Boro Park (1994-2002) and Bais Yaakov High School (2002-2006); Mindy Friedlander Schaper, with notes from Bais Yaakov of Boro Park (1994-2002) and Bais Yaakov High School (2002-2006); and Shamira Gelbman, with notes from Shulamith (1984-1988), Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva Elementary (1988-1992) and Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva High School (1992-1996). We also have a workbook in Hebrew language and grammar from the 1960s.

We are continuing to digitize and post the material we have from these individuals, and we hope to get more from other schools so we can represent the full spectrum of Bais Yaakov! If you have notes or workbooks from your own school days, or if your mother, aunts, grandmothers, etc., have any papers saved, please let us know here.

Click on the links below to see the items along with information about them.

begins with a note that this is "not history - but development of torah" ...
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Handwritten notes from a twelfth-grade Chumash class covering Bereishis and Noach ...
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Handwritten notes from a twelfth-grade class covering Jewish history from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century ...
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Handwritten notes from a twelfth-grade class. Includes some dikduk (grammar) notes, as well as some idioms and expressions with literal ...
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Handwritten notes and photocopied handouts; laws of Shabbos and holidays ...
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Sefer Trei Asar, beginning with Yonah ...
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Grade 9 notes on various topics under the umbrella of "Jewish thought" ...
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[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id="63" gal_title="Class Notes: Chumash, Bnos Leah Prospect Park High School"] ...
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Printed book for studies in Hebrew language and grammar ...
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Handwritten and photocopied handouts from eleventh-grade chemistry class ...
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A workbook for Hebrew language and grammar, with many pages filled out in pencil. Some pages have papers pasted over ...
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Handwritten writing assignments from grades 4-6, contained in one binder ...
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Twelfth-grade handwritten essay with teacher's comments ...
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headshot of dainy bernstein

Dainy Bernstein is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, finishing her dissertation, “Chanoch La’Na’ar: American Haredi Children’s Literature and Education, 1980-2000.” They teach composition and literature at Lehman College. 

Extra-curricular Memories

The choir on stage at YIVO, March 24, 2019. L-R: Naomi Seidman, Michelle Miller, Roni Mazal, Dainy Bernstein, Rivky Grossman, Batya Okunov, Basya Schechter.
Photo: Steve Beltzer.

Two weeks ago, Naomi Seidman wrote about the Bais Yaakov songbook that she found in the YIVO archives. That blog post includes video of the very first contemporary performance of the songs, arranged by Basya Schechter, at UPenn. Naomi and Basya continue to work on those songs and others, most recently at an Archive Transformed workshop in Boulder, Colorado.

On March 24, 2019, a group of Bais Yaakov graduates, myself included, performed the songs as part of an event at YIVO where Naomi delivered a lecture about the subject matter of her book, Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition.

As Naomi explains in her lecture, plays – and extracurricular activities in general – are a major part of the Bais Yaakov experience. So when we all got together in Basya’s apartment a week before the event at YIVO to rehearse the songs, there was an air of familiarity to the activity for all of us. How many hours had we all spent staying late after school to practice for plays and choirs, for school shabbatons and Mishmeres and G.O. and chesed?

The choir from a play performed by students in Bais Yaakov High School (Brooklyn, NY), February 2005.
A group of students in Bais Yaakov High School (Brooklyn, NY) preparing for a performance. November 2005.
Dainy Bernstein, sewing a costume for the school play. Grade 11, Bais Yaakov High School (Brooklyn, NY), February 2005.

As we figured out the melody and harmony and arrangement for each song, it was work. And when we put it all together and sang each song, it was magic – it was like a kumzitz, those hours and hours we spent as Bais Yaakov students sitting on floors and at long tables, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing together. Adding motions was another level of nostalgia.

Of all the songs we sang on March 24, 2019, I had only heard one of them before. But it still felt like singing songs I had known my whole life – it’s not the melodies or the lyrics themselves that make that happen. It’s the ta’am, the feel and atmosphere of the songs as a whole. We may not have sung these songs that Bais Yaakov girls of interwar Europe sang, but we are part of the same Bais Yaakov movement, and this experience connected us across decades and oceans. 

You can clearly see the joy and fun we have performing on stage. This is a group of people I had met exactly one week before the performance, but that’s what a shared history can do – we became instant shvesters, connected by the Bais Yaakov history we shared, amplified by the songs.

You can also clearly see that none of us on the stage followed in the path our Bais Yaakov teachers and principals would have wanted. We are academics and performers, some of us parents and spouses – though perhaps not in the way our teachers would be proud of. Singing these songs was not pure unmitigated sweetness. 

Rivky Grossman reflects:

“I rarely sing traditional stuff. I haven’t immersed myself in anything frum or Bais Yaakov related in so long that at first it came with an almost full on resistance, like NO way am I doing this!

But I let the resistance pass, and I started to realize there’s a nostalgic sweetness. And inside of that sweetness, some calm entered in, and then there’s community, and through joining all of us together, that sweetness and calm and relatability expanded much more to allow room for the academic part, the emotional part, the traditional part – all rolled into one big curious and uniting force. We shared music and channeled our uniqueness from our present day beings.

Weird, silly, special, bittersweet. Lovely.”

The video below, recorded and posted by YIVO, includes Naomi’s lecture as well as the songs. The songs are at the following moments in the video:

Play Video

Dainy Bernstein is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. Their dissertation is tentatively titled Suffering, Sacrifice, Saints, and Survival: The Construction of a Jewish Past in American Haredi Children’s Literature and Education, 1980-2000

Report Card Revelations

What can a few simple report cards tell us about Bais Yaakov schools?

A lot, actually.

One of the purposes of the Bais Yaakov Project website is to foster scholarship of the Bais Yaakov movement – its beginnings, its development, and its current character(s). We collect documents that might seem insignificant at first glance, because researchers can often find significance in the smallest and most banal of items.

Sometimes, an item from the archives is interesting for a tidbit of information it reveals, like the intriguing epigraph from Eleanor Roosevelt on a document from the Central Office of Bais Yaakov that helps us understand the role of Bais Yaakov in a broader context. And sometimes, an item becomes fascinating when compared with other similar items.

Take report cards, for example. A report card can tell us a lot about how a school functioned. We can look at:

  • What are the subjects listed on the report card?
  • Which subjects are given a grade? Are any left blank?
  • Are the subjects all academic, or are non-academic areas given grades as well?
  • What is the grading system on the report card?
  • Are attendance and lateness marked?
  • Does the report card indicate parental involvement?
  • Does the report card provide room for comments apart from grading?
  • Is the school year divided into quarters or semesters, etc.?

All of these questions can help us understand how a specific school functioned, what its mission was, and how its function matched its mission.

We can also ask the same questions about report cards from multiple Bais Yaakov schools and multiple time periods. That way, we can build up a data set which we can use for comparisons of various kinds.

We can, for example, compare how Bais Yaakov elementary schools versus Bais Yaakov high schools operate, what subjects and areas they stress, how much parental involvement and student responsibility is expected, etc. We can also compare schools from different geographic areas, asking how Bais Yaakov schools differ from Europe to North America to Israel, or how Bais Yaakov schools in different American cities compare (Brooklyn, Lakewood, Baltimore, “out-of-town,” etc.).

All of these comparisons become significant when we have a bulk of data to compare. The Bais Yaakov Project currently has report cards from only a few individuals, so it’s harder to do a comprehensive survey.

But we can compare two similar report cards from two very different eras – Yocheved Halpern’s Grade 1 report card from Bais Yaakov of Rzeszów, Poland, in 1935; and Esther Shaindel Bernstein’s Grade 1 report card from Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, New York, in 1995. By comparing these two report cards from Bais Yaakov schools separated from each other by 60 years, we can take a preliminary look at how Bais Yaakov changed – or didn’t – over the course of its development.

The very familiarity of the report card shouldn’t obscure the fact of just how innovative the report card was (along with the innovativeness of Bais Yaakov, more generally). Yeshivas and heders didn’t have report cards, and it was a sign of Bais Yaakov’s “modernity” and professionalism that it divided the school day into regular subjects, had a formal curriculum that all Bais Yaakovs were supposed to follow, and had a standardized grading system. These seem to have been borrowed from the Samson Raphael Hirsch schools, which had similar innovations. But apparently Sarah Schenirer herself did not wait for the arrival of German administrators to introduce report cards, since we have a very early one, handwritten and with Schenirer’s signature, for one of her first students, Devorah Teitelbaum.

Report card of Devorah Teitelbaum, an early student of Sarah Schenirer.

Below you’ll find images and transcripts of the two report cards: Yocheved Halpern‘s report card from 1935 Poland, and Esther Shaindel Bernstein‘s report card from 1995 Brooklyn. Following the transcription, we’ve sketched out a few significant details. There is a lot more to be said about these report cards themselves, and even more to be said when we have more report cards to add to the study!

We hope this rough study demonstrates the vast information stored in archival documents of Bais Yaakov.

Report Card: 1935, Rzeszów  

Seventh-Grade Girls’ School Bais Yaakov in Rayshe
Under the Administration of the Agudath Israel
Certificate
Student: Halpern Yocheved
Class: (pre-first / first)
City: Rayshe
Born: Rayshe, 12 July 1928

School Year 1934-1935

I

II

Jewish Practices

Outstanding

 

Attitudes towards work

Outstanding

 

Attitude to surroundings

—-

 

Interest in studies

Outstanding

 

Understanding of studies

 

Mastery in the Subjects of:

  

Prayer

Very good

 

Meaning of prayer:

 

Pentateuch

 

Judaism

Good

 

History

 

Grammar

 

Yiddish

Very good

 

Organization

Very good

 

Absent hours

6

 

Late hours

2

 

Excused absences

6

 

Signature of the parents

  

Report Card: 1995, Boro Park, New York

 

א (A)

ב (B)

ג (C)

ד (D)

Pentateuch

    

Understanding the topic

    

Translating the words

    

Rashi

    

Nakh

    

Understanding the topic

    

Translating the words

    

Knowledge and worldviews / ideologies

    

Judaism

    

Laws and customs

    

Meaning of prayer

    

General knowledge

    

Torah portion of the week

Excellent

Excellent

Excellent

 

Prayer and blessings

    

The Holy Language (Hebrew)

    

Reading

Excellent

Excellent

Excellent

 

Penmanship

Very Good

Very Good

Excellent

 

Spelling

    

Speech Fluency

 

Excellent

Excellent

 

Composition

    

Grammar

    

Yiddish

    

Reading

    

Spelling

    

Language

    

Writing

    

Behavior and Responsibilities

    

Care in mitzvos

Satisfactory

Satisfactory

Outstanding

 

Conduct and derekh eretz

Satisfactory

Satisfactory

Outstanding

 

Conduct during prayer

    

Order and cleanliness

Satisfactory

Satisfactory

Outstanding

 

Class participation

Outstanding

Outstanding

Outstanding

 

Strives to improve

Satisfactory

Satisfactory

Outstanding

 

Homework

Satisfactory

Satisfactory

Outstanding

 

Lateness

    

Absences

    

Teacher's Remarks:

Term 1: Esther Shaindel is a sweet and smart girl. She enjoys learning and participates nicely in class.

Term 2: “All good things wrapped in one.” Esther Shaindel is one gem of a student. She makes every day a happy day.

Term 3: (spills over into the space for Term 4) It was a pleasuring [sic] to have Esther Shaindel as a student. She was a great asset to the class. May you continue to see much nachas from her. Have a happy and healthy summer.

Promoted to Grade 2.

Notice that the two report cards have some clear similarities:

  • Both ask for a parent’s signature (though the 1935 Rzeszów report card is unsigned)
  • Both split up the year (though the 1935 Rzeszów report card is split into two semesters and the 1995 Boro Park report card is split into four quarters, with the last quarter left blank)
  • Both provide space to record absence and lateness (though the 1995 Boro Park report card does not record this)
  • Both use a word-based grading system rather than letters or numbers (although these word-based systems differ)
  • Both leave some subject areas ungraded (a comparison of upper grade report cards from Bais Yaakov of Boro Park would show that the report card remains the same, and subjects begun in later grades are simply left blank in lower grades)
Grade 8 report card from the same school in Boro Park, 2002

Some of their subjects are shared:

  • Pentateuch (Chumash)
  • Meaning of Prayer
  • Judaism
  • Grammar
  • Yiddish

However, those subjects are broken down into more components in the 1995 Bais Yaakov of Boro Park report card.

Other subjects do not overlap:

  • Prayer (appears as a subject area in the 1935 Rzeszów report card but as a behavior category in the 1995 Boro Park report card)
  • Nakh (appears only in the 1995 Boro Park report card, though it is ungraded)
  • History (appears only in the 1935 Rzeszów report card)

The categories of behavior also differ, as does their placement in the report card: the 1935 Rzeszów  report card lists attitudes and interest in studies before the studies themselves, while the 1995 Boro Park report card lists behavior and responsibilities after the studies. This difference is open to interpretation and could indicate a number of things. One possibility is that the Bais Yaakov of Rzeszów in 1935 valued the attitudes more than the studies, and vice versa for the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park in 1995. That is impossible to say conclusively with only one document from each school, however.

The 1995 Boro Park card also provides space for comments, and the comments themselves are worthy of study as well. (I wrote about what comments can indicate on my personal blog.)

Another significant difference is that the 1995 Boro Park report card is accompanied by another report card for secular studies.

This can be understood within the context of how Bais Yaakov started – as a supplementary program which students attended in addition to their state-mandated schools – and how most Bais Yaakov schools exist today – as fully self-contained educational institutions providing both Jewish education and state-mandated education. On the other hand, there was a full-program Bais Yaakov in Rzeszów and it is possible that the report card we have was accompanied by a secular report card that did not survive.

The separation of an individual student’s grades into two separate report cards – one for Jewish studies and one for secular studies – is an indication of the school’s attitudes toward the way Judaism and secular knowledge interact. If we had report cards from other Bais Yaakov schools in 1990-2000 or so, we could ask whether all Bais Yaakov schools separate their curriculum in this way, whether some combine them into a single report card, and what distinguishes the schools who follow one method from schools who follow the other.

Our hope is that Bais Yaakov graduates will loan us their report cards or report cards from their family archives. If we can enrich our collection, we open up the possibility for comparison across time, location, age, and other features of Bais Yaakov schools, gaining a richer understanding of the development of the Bais Yaakov movement.

If you would like to lend your Bais Yaakov materials, or materials from your family collection, please contact us. All materials will be handled with utmost care and returned to you after digitization. Names can be removed from documents, and all addresses and phone numbers will be redacted from documents published to the website.