Naomi Seidman

Ways of Looking at a Class Photo:
The Photo as Mystery

It might seem that the classroom photo is as simple, transparent, and conventional as a photograph can be. Its arrangement, with the students ideally all visible and facing forward, the teachers arrayed at the side, the board that acts as a caption for the class and school, is designed to convey straightforwardly its own identity.

The photo the gifted Polish photographer Agnieszka Traczewska emailed to me this week conforms in some ways to this pattern. Although it depicts students outside, sitting at food-laden tables, its identity as a school photo is evident: the school—Bais Yaakov of Lublin—is signaled in three different ways:

  1. Behind the welcome sign (perhaps greeting a visiting delegation of men) children hold up a banner that reads “Bais Yaakov of Lublin”;
  2. at the bottom of the photo, another pair of girls holds up a board that specifies in black on white that the photo was taken at the Bais Yaakov of Lublin summer colony in Zaklików on July 23, 1933;
  3. a third handwritten note conveys the same information in a superimposed box at the right of the photo.

But the straightforward information conveyed in the board and banner and text box cannot resolve the mysteries posed by this photograph.

While we are fortunate to have the date on which the photo was taken, and even the name of the studio (Studio Victoria, in Lublin), the photo also has a history that transcends that single flash of the photographer’s camera: the photo has at least two trajectories, one to a newsroom in which the board appears in white on black, and another to an archive, in which it appears in black on white.

From the Lubliner Tugblat, August 1933

The text box at the right in the newspaper version is in Polish in the newspaper, and in Hebrew in the archival version of the photograph. The archive in which it appears is the Ghetto House Museum: apparently the photo was taken to Palestine in 1937, when a student who appears within it emigrated. While the newspaper photo is clearly a reproduction, it also may capture an earlier moment in the photo’s history, with the Polish rather than Hebrew handwritten description. Which, in such a case, is “the original,” which a copy?

The photo, taken in the open air, shows young girls seated at two tables, with a series of adults ranged around and behind them. Perhaps at least some of these adults are visiting for the day, as the Bruchim haba’aim banner implies. But who are they? Parents? Agudah activists? Administrators from the school in Lublin? Is that a nurse on the left, charged with the health of the children in an era with high rates of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases linked to urban poverty? Beside her stands a man who is clearly not part of the “rabbinical” group, but rather a worker in the camp—a cook or baker, perhaps, from his work uniform? We know that photos were sometimes appended to reports to the Joint Distribution Committee or other funding organizations, and these often showcase food bought with donated funds, or the healthful effects of the outdoors on city children. Does that explain the food piled before the children?

The photo has a companion that gives us a few more clues, but also raises new questions.

In this photo the group is arranged in an apparently more conventional pose, arrayed in rows against the side of a wooden building, with the youngest seated on the ground in front and all facing the photographer. Perhaps the photographer gave the girls instructions, because many in the front row hold their arms crossed before them in a similar pose. The mustached man at the left in the previous photo, so strikingly different in appearance from the other men, appears again, now at the right.

But the uniformity of the rows and the similarity of the poses are deceptive: Unlike the front row of young children, the rows above are messier, more diverse, and harder to categorize. Unlike the crossed arms in the front row, hands reach out to touch others in no clear pattern, two heads lean toward each other in companionship.

[The baker (or cook?) drapes a casual arm around the shoulders of a teenaged girl, who leans softly into him; in the other photo, she is seated with her group (seventh from the bottom on the right side of the right table). Are they related?] EDIT: As pointed out by Jewish Book Finds and Akiva Yasnyi on Twitter, the hand on the girl’s shoulder is a left hand, making it impossible to be the  baker/cook’s hand.

A tangle of arms connects a group in the middle, of men and younger and older girls. A younger girl reaches back to hold hands with an older one. A man in the middle of the photo holds a smiling young girl between his knees, while an older girl rests her hands on his shoulders. Do these linked hands and easy touches represent family relationships within the relationships that govern schools or camps?

Fortunately, we have some information about at least three of the people in these photos, including the girl three down from the middle of the sign with her hands resting on the shoulders of the man seated in the row below her. As the Ghetto Fighters House Archive tells us, she is Bluma Cohen (later Hajdenkrug), and he is her uncle, Yaakov Mincberg; Bluma was raised by this uncle along with his wife Sara—after Sara died in 1934, her uncle raised her alone. Bluma’s cousin, Chana-Hinda Danziger, is seated third from the left in the first row of seated girls, in a shirt with three black buttons (she is also at the top of the left table in the other photo). Bluma moved to Palestine in 1937, when she was 17, and it may be her hand that wrote the Hebrew words appended to the table photo. The uncle who raised her, whose shoulders she rests her hands on, was killed in the Holocaust. But as with so many of these photographs, we do not know the fate of the others pictured.

Like the night sky, the photo yields other details with longer viewing. In the right background of the archival photo of the children at the table (this isn’t visible in the blurrier newspaper reproduction), there is a figure who seems to have been scratched out. A ghostly hand is raised above the scratch marks, as if signaling for our attention, like an interwar photobomber. Below the scratches is a pair of child-sized pants. Who is he (if he is a person, and not a garden gnome or figment of my imagination)? And who scratched out the image? Was he scratched out because as a boy he didn’t belong in this picture of Bais Yaakov schoolmates and their caretakers? Or do the scratch marks reveal and conceal a more personal animus? Was it Bluma who scratched it/him out?

A photo records a moment in time, and yet these photos record multiple moments in time. Not only that July day but also the date a few weeks later it appeared in a newspaper, the date it was packed into luggage for an overseas voyage, the date it was labeled and relabeled, the date it was scratched out, the date it was transferred to an heir, the date it ended up in an archive, and the date I received it from another Polish photographer, and the date it comes back—like a ghost—in this blog. 

Each of these is a transformation, like the black-on-white or white-on-black naming of the school.

For those of us who have a scrapbook full of Bais Yaakov class photos, these photos that have escaped the general destruction of interwar Bais Yaakov are fascinating for their familiarity and for their differences. The casual touches among men and girls are among these differences, which hint at a different social order than the one I experienced in Boro Park. 

But if they cannot fully capture the world of interwar Bais Yaakov, answer all our questions about what that was like, they can give us glimpses of this world, even—maybe especially—when they seek to obscure these experiences.

This post was updated on May 12, 2020, to reflect the correct information for the newspaper in which the photo appeared. Many thanks to Adam Kopciowski, who made the connection between the newspaper and the archived photo.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period. Naomi’s book was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award’s Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity category and a winner in the Women Stud­ies category.

Ways of Looking at a Class Photo: Nature, Props, Grins

In last week’s blog post, I wrote about the conventions of the class photo, with their straight rows and unwritten rule that each face must be visible, as expressing the double values of unity and individuality, a (singular) class composed of unique individuals.

But Bais Yaakov class photos often push the edges of these conventions, featuring groups of classmates in unusual settings or including unusual objects beyond the ubiquitous class signs.

As a movement that prized nature, and perhaps also because of issues of lighting, students were often photographed outside their classrooms, either among the trees on outings or in the summer colonies or just outside the school buildings.

And the “props” that distinguish some of these photos signal the Bais Yaakov participation in a youth culture that prized sports and other physical activities. For instance, in the photo of the girls in the Yehudis summer colony, clearly taken by a professional photographer, one student lightly holds a ball that is clearly visible, perfectly ranged among the faces of the row beneath her.

Students from the Bais Yaakov educational network in a vacation activities program in March 1929. The program was called Yehudis.

Among the most intriguing photos we have is one of seminary students that seems more amateur in its arrangements. In this photo, from the Ghetto Fighters’ House photo archive, the students—from the Krakow Seminary—are not ranged in neat rows, and some faces in the back of the group are obscured or cast into shadow by others. The first row, which in other photos often features the youngest students cross-legged on a floor or the ground, here shows young women seated, with each face visible. And yet one student, along with the woman who might be a teacher on the far left (her hair seemingly covered with a hat), looks to the right rather than straight at the camera, a remarkably natural smile suggesting that she has seen something that amused her. Among the other young women are others with bright expressions, and one woman in the back leans forward toward the viewer.

So, too, do the young women’s hands express casual connection. Gutta Sternbuch (a family friend whom I recognized in the second row left) has her hand on the shoulder of her grinning classmate, and the fingers of two women in the center of the front row seem to brush together.

Perhaps this casualness owes something to the setting of the photo, which seems to be a sukkah—itself a less formal “house”. Homemade strings of paper and a paper lampshade decorate the ceiling, signs decorate the walls at the back, and a door stands ajar, perhaps the door connecting to the inside of the building. The sign at the back right shows a stylized and modernist menorah, with two hands joined at the base, in a visual echo of the two hands that meet near the center of the front row.

And at the left, another half-obscured sign reflects the religious values of this gathering more textually, “honor your father and your mother.” Bais Yaakov stressed this commandment, and Sarah Schenirer wrote about it in some detail.

But the sign stands in some contrast with the image that obscures it, in which young women took pride in a community they had created (and perhaps also in a structure that they had built, or at least decorated) in the absence of fathers and mothers, and in the presence of the companionship and shared experience that was at the heart of the seminary experience.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Class Photo

Among the sixty-two photos of Bais Yaakov assembled on this site, over half of these are class photos.

When we were deciding on photos for my book on Bais Yaakov, the publisher at Littman Library, Connie Webber, advised against including any of these. She hardly needed to explain why. Class photos are remarkably similar, following an instantly recognizable and fairly strict set of conventions. These photos may have been of interest to those who were in these classes, where they can jog memories about classmates and teachers. And those that were sent to donors and philanthropic organizations along with reports—we found many of the photos on the website in the archives of the Joint Distribution Committee—no doubt captured the reality of what their money had bought more vividly than budgetary reports. But what else can they tell us that would justify their inclusion in a book on Bais Yaakov history?

Bais Yaakov of Rymanów, 1933
Second Graduating Class of Bais Yaakov, Łódź, 1934
Kibbutz Bnos Agudath Israel in Bad Gastein, 1945-1948

It seems to me that they do continue to speak to us, not only in their subtle differences, but also in their uniformity and conventionality. Of course, these two dimensions of Bais Yaakov, its conservative adherence to the rules and ideals of Orthodoxy and its revolutionary character as a new phenomenon within this traditionalist world, were precisely the features of Bais Yaakov on which I focused.

But first to the conventions of the class photo:

  • The students stand or sit in rows, often dressed in school uniforms.
  • Each face should be seen, but their similar ages and demeanors marks them as that singular “class,” rather than a group of individuals or the multigenerational assortment that is a family.
  • Of course, their teacher or teachers often appear alongside them, an older woman seated at the center or off to the side.
  • A row of children may sit cross-legged on the floor.
  • Somewhere toward the bottom of the photo a rectangular sign, perhaps held by a child, will identify the class or the school.

This same arrangement governs the Bais Yaakov class photo from the earliest iterations we have until the ones Dainy Bernstein has provided for the 1990s. These conventions speak to a certain continuity of the Bais Yaakov experience—and more generally, of school experience—beyond the differences between black-and-white and color photography, interwar Poland and Bais Yaakov today.

Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade 3 (Class 301), 1996-97
Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Kindergarten (Class 104), 1993
Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade 5 (Class D7), 1998-99

And yet, within these similarities, the differences speak loudly, too.

Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade Pre-1-A (Class 101), 1993-94

The above photo from 1993-94, for example, shows girls in the Pre-1-A class dressed colorfully for the photo, so colorfully that it might be imagined that the wild profusion of flowered dresses was somehow coordinated to produce such an effect. The photo’s setting is the classroom, with the English and Hebrew alphabets displayed on the walls behind them and “Merkaz HaShemiya” – a “listening corner” – visible on the right.

By contrast, in 1994-95, these same girls in their first grade class are already arrayed in uniforms. One of the girls in the back row is wearing a bright red flower in her hair, another is wearing a turtleneck under her shirt, and styles of skirt and jumpers differ – perhaps an attempt at distinction and individuality. The photo’s setting is the auditorium, where classes took turns arranging themselves for the photographer. The background is bare with no evidence of classroom activity.

How did these girls experience the transition from flowers to uniforms, sitting in their everyday environment versus a neutral auditorium?

Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade 1 (Class 211), 1994-95

And what about those long-ago class photos taken in interwar Bais Yaakov? On the one hand, many of them do conform to the rules of the class photo, so that we instantly understand them to be part of that recognizable genre. But they often push the limits of that genre in unexpected directions.

What to make, for instance, of the undated photo held by the Ghetto Fighters Archive of the Bais Yaakov in Grójec, which is labeled with the caption: “Pupils of the Bais Yaakov ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Grójec, with their mothers and teachers.” Why the mothers? And what does it mean that it is so difficult to discern in this photo which are the young women and which their mothers? Many of these women are wearing stylish berets or cloches: does this category include daughters and mothers? Are any of these mothers wearing wigs? Were the mothers seated beside their daughters, or together, as if they formed a shadow class? Does this photo speak to a Bais Yaakov with a particularly active mothers’ association, or does it tell us something about the larger aim expressed by Sarah Schenirer of “bringing daughters back to the mothers, and mothers back to the daughters”? And what to make of those younger faces visible in the windows of what must be the school building?

Pupils of the Bais Yaakov school in Grojec, with their mothers and teachers. Donated by Dov Kole. Ghetto Fighters House Archive.

The weeks that follow will be devoted to “reading” these school photos, which are easy to ignore as identical iterations of a too-familiar genre but nevertheless filled with the meanings of their specific concrete circumstances. The class photo, more generally, constitutes the frame for both individuality and the collective that never completely succeeds in subsuming the individuals that constitute it. As in the Bais Yaakov of Grójec, we cannot hope to discover all the answers to the questions raised by these photos, but the questions are worth asking anyway.

This blog post series was inspired by the recent publication by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. University of Washington Press, 2020.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

The Secular Jewish Press on Orthodox Women’s Conferences

The last few blog posts documented the founding conference of Neshei Agudath Israel, the women’s organizing of the Agudah. 1929 saw other women’s conferences, including the Lodz conference for the Bnos Agudath Israel, the youth movement for girls and young women, that was held in May. Bnos at that time had been in existence for three years, but already had a few hundred chapters throughout the country. The conference was hailed as a significant religious and political development in the Orthodox press, but others considered the phenomenon of a conference of religiously observant young women intrinsically ludicrous. A satirical column in Haynt, the Warsaw daily, focused on the issue of male speakers at this conference (which we know did include speeches by male Agudah leaders).

The explanatory brackets are my own. Special thanks to Chaim Sniczer for calling our attention to this column.

The Rascal, by the Happy Pessimist
May 24, 1929
The Conference of the Bnos Agudath Israel in Lodz

Cartoon accompanying the satirical article, referencing the Orthodox rule against men looking at women.

As we know, this week the Bnos Agudath Israel convened a national conference in Lodz. At this conference, a member of the Central Committee of the Agudah delivered greetings from the organization. Here is what he said:

“Honorable women!

I will not speak for long, since it says ‘Do not speak excessively with women’ [Pirkei Avot 1: 5].

A woman is a wondrous thing, not to be dismissed with a wave of the hand. The importance of women might be gleaned from the fact that the word “Mitzvah” is grammatically feminine and the word “Aveirah” [transgression] is also feminine and “Oylem hazeh” [this world] is masculine.

Those who say you are fanatical women are lying. At a time when modern women were still going around with their own hair, you were already fashionably dressing à la garcon [NS: lit. like a boy–with shorn hair?]

In the name of the Agudah, I greet you briefly with the brief wish that you might become my footstool [NS: according to Jewish folklore, women who support Torah scholars are privileged to serve as their footstools in the world to come].

We don’t bother with the Zionists, and their Hebrew. We believe in Yiddish. Let them pay respects to the “Lady,” we are going with the “Servant Girl.” [NS: Hebrew was sometimes referred to as the high-born “Lady,” as compared to the simple Yiddish “servant girl.”]

And I have good news for you: The Agudah has manufactured a very long dress, which begins in Lodz and ends in the Central Committee.

I’m done! I beg of you not to start singing, because “a woman’s voice.” [NS: “a women’s voice is nakedness,” i.e. forbidden for men to hear]

After the discussions, the following resolutions were taken up:

  • To convene a conference on the best chulent in Poland.
  • To work out a compromise with the Agudah wherein [male] Agudah members relinquish their right to vote in kehillah elections in exchange for the female members of the Agudah ceasing to recite the blessing “Who has not made me a woman.” [NS: the Agudah fought strenuously and successfully to keep women from being able to vote or be represented in elections of Jewish community councils. The blessing “who has not made me a woman” is part of the morning blessings recited by men; women ordinarily substitute “Who has made me according to his will”]
  • And that Meshulam Kaminer should launch a newspaper called “Di yidene” [NS: Meshulam Kaminer was an Agudah activist, journalist, and from 1925 to 1930 editor of the Orthodox newspaper Der Yid; the term “yidene” is an old-fashioned and often derogatory term for a Jewish woman. For more on Kaminer, see http://yleksikon.blogspot.com/2019/02/meshulem-kaminer.html ]

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period. Naomi’s book was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award’s Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity category and a winner in the Women Stud­ies category.

On the Occasion of our World-Congress [1929]

Over the past few weeks, we’ve blogged about the founding of the Neshei Agudath Israel. We’ve translated coverage of the event from the Bais Yaakov Journal and from Der Israelit. This week, we present Sarah Schenirer’s own words, taken from her Gezamelte Schriften [Collected Writings] (pages 38-43 in this edition) and translated here by Naomi Seidman.

The Eve of the Congress

. . . And so the Orthodox woman has awakened from her long, lethargic sleep and has begun to organize. From day to day her work for society intensifies, with pride she carries our Torah banner of old, around which all the women of Israel will congregate.

This month all the delegates chosen by religious Jewish women will gather in Vienna to create a world organization of Orthodox Jewish women. It has not been long since we first established the Bnos organization in Poland, and already from the dais of the World Congress the powerful voice of the religious Jewish woman rings out on the world stage. She is no longer isolated either in her thoughts or aspirations, the daughter of Israel who knows the Jewish sources. In every corner of the world she has close and intimate sisters in spirit.

I know full well that many of our pious Jews will look at us with scepticism. We hold sacred the ideal of women’s modesty. ‘She is in the tent’ [Gen. 18: 9] and ‘all the glory of a princess is within’ [Ps. 45: 14]! No doubt a portion of the community will regard our congress with suspicion and fear and see it as a deviation – God forbid – from Israel of old.

But these same pious Jews should know that this conference of Orthodox women is a necessary response to the dangers that prey on our sisters from various secularist directions. Et la’asot lahashem, ‘It is time to act for the Lord’ – from this perspective must our public efforts be understood.

We have recently been hearing about other women’s congresses, which present themselves as if they were the sole representatives of the masses of Jewish women and put forth various resolutions that stand in absolute contradiction to the ideals and aspirations of religious women. Even though no one has appointed them to do so, they take upon themselves the right to proclaim various slogans against the spirit of our Torah and launch false accusations against our Torah sages. Just recently we heard of a women’s congress where certain things were said and written about the agunah question and about women’s suffrage that we Orthodox women would never have dreamed of saying – although we know the meaning of ‘women’s rights’ perfectly well, and no one feels more deeply than we do the plight of the unfortunate agunah. But we also know that the Torah and Jewish law are supreme. And that is why we religious women, just like religious men, submit to the Torah and Jewish law, which always works for our benefit and happiness.

Our congress is necessary right now for just these reasons. From our speakers’ podium it must boldly be proclaimed that all those other women have no right to speak in the name of the religious Jewish woman. The aims, approaches, and ideals of the great masses of religious Jewish women must be made clear before the whole world. The Jewish world must know that thousands and tens of thousands of Jewish women all over the globe cling to the Jewish religion and wish to continue to spin the golden thread of Jewish tradition.

But that does not mean that we do not have many problems requiring internal resolution. Family purity, luxury and fashion, the education of our children, and so on. The weightiest issue we are facing now is how to combat the public school system, which increasingly threatens the Jewish family.

Our task must also be to find ways and means to fight for the protection of the Jewish daughter and her moral improvement.

It will be a great day when we come together to collectively consider how to improve Jewish family life and return the sanctity to Jacob’s tent.

It will also be a great sanctification of God’s name before the eyes of the world that our congress is taking place at the same time as the second World Congress of Agudath Israel. The honor and esteem of Orthodox Jews will be strengthened when, at the same moment as the sons of Israel declare in ringing tones their faithfulness to the God of Israel, the daughters of Israel proclaim to Orthodox Jewry: ‘We are with you!’

During the great days of the month of Elul this year, we will fulfil ‘We will go with our sons and our daughters, for we must observe the Lord’s festival’ [Exod. 10: 9], and this will be remembered for generations as the great holiday of the revival of the entire Jewish people!

After the Congress

We find ourselves in the splendid hall of the Bayerischer Hof, the same hall in which twenty-one years ago a conference in honour of the German writer Herder was held. Oh, how happy it made me in those days to take an interest in German literature! Many Jewish girls and women sat in this room then, gazing in rapture at the lecturers.

Who could have dreamt in those days that all these years later Jewish women from every corner of the globe would gather in this very room to spread the ideal of Torah?

From every corner of the world, from every country in which a Jewish heart beats we have gathered. The writing on the banners, ‘Not by might, nor by power’ [Zech. 4: 6] and ‘May all unite in a single fellowship (agudah ahat) bear witness to what is transpiring here. The aim of this gathering, ‘to organize the Jewish girls and women of the world under the banner of Agudath Israel’, fills every heart with passion and exaltation.

Mrs. Goldschmidt, the daughter of Dr Löwenstein from Zurich, calls on Jewish women to work together, to unite on behalf of the Torah and yiddishkeit. Her voice resounds powerfully, the voice of an authentically Jewish feminine heart, which penetrates deeply into the soul.

Soulful and moving are the words of the Gerer Rebbe’s wife. ‘All beginnings are difficult’, but as hard it is, a beginning must be made! The gathered women listen with bated breath to her emotional speech, which moves them to tears . . .

One after another the women ascend to the dais, delegates from the United States, England, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Every speech is well considered, and each boils down to the same thing: let us unite, organize ourselves in order to help the suffering people of Israel! Let us devote our physical and spiritual energies to soothing and healing Jewish suffering! Let us help build the House of Israel!

We find ourselves in an intimate circle in Mrs Bondi’s home when suddenly the question of wigs comes up. One of the delegates, a very intelligent woman and a teacher in the Riga girls’ high school, found herself in an uncomfortable position when the resolution was put forward that all [married] women who wish to belong to the Women’s Union of Agudath Israel must wear wigs. She acknowledges and confesses that she doesn’t cover her hair because none of the young [married] women in her city wear a wig. She is surprised, however, when the delegates from Germany report that all the young religious women in Germany wear wigs, ‘even the most educated ones, with advanced degrees’. The delegate from Riga decides on the spot to start wearing a wig, and also to try to persuade all her female acquaintances to do likewise.

There is so, so much we got from the first international Women’s Congress. Unfortunately, many of our Bnos leaders in Poland were unable to participate in this extraordinarily interesting gathering. But have no doubt, dear spiritual sisters. You were fondly remembered and everyone there was very pleased to hear about your work! Let us devote ourselves to it with renewed energy and sacrifice, since we are now, praise God, already an international organization!

The dais at the Neshei Agudath Israel Women’s Conference at the 1929 World Congress of the Agudath Israel, held at the Bayerischer Hof [Bavarian Court] hotel in Vienna during the same week that the Agudah met at the Sofiansaal Concert Hall. From left to right: Mrs. Fanny Lunzer (London), Rebbetzin Leah Grodzinski (Vilna), Mrs. Henny Schreiber (Vienna), Mrs. Franziska Goldschmidt (Zurich), Mrs. Ernestine Bondi (Vienna), Rebbetzin Feyge Mintshe Alter (Gur), Mrs. Malka Meierovitsh (Riga), Miss Lotka Szczarańska (Sharansky, a teacher at the seminary in Kraków). The speakers included three wives of distinguished leaders and Bais Yaakov supporters from east Europe, Abraham Mordechai Alter (the Gerer Rebbe), Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Chief Rabbi of Vilna), and Aharon Levin (the Raysher Rov], and two local women, Mrs Bondi and Mrs Schreiber, who served on the Bais Yaakov committee in Vienna and who had family connections to Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Hatam Sofer and Akiva Eiger, respectively. Mrs. Lunzer served on the Beis Yaakov committee in London. Mrs. Meierovitz, a teacher at the Torah V’Derekh Eretz girls’ school in Riga, reported on Bnos in Latvia, while Miss Szczarańska reported on Bnos in Poland. Mrs. Goldschmidt, who chaired the conference, was the daughter of the chief rabbi of Zurich, Tuvia Lewenstein, and headed the international committee that worked to link the women’s initiatives of the Agudah in the two years before the founding of the Neshei Agudath Israel. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum Vienna/Archive, number 003808_1. For more on Rabbi Aharon Levin, see http://aaronlevine.info/reisha/reisha-rav-harav-aharon-levine-hyd/

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

Der Israelit: From the Women’s Conference (Neshei Coverage Part 2)

Last week’s blog post translated Yiddish coverage of the founding of Neshei Agudath Israel in the Bais Yaakov Journal. This week, we present translation of German coverage from Der Israelit, a long-running newspaper founded by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann in the mid-nineteenth century. The article below appeared in the issue of September 26, 1929.

I’d like to credit Kalman Sporn for bringing this article to my attention, to Gershon Bacon, Michael Simonson for the preliminary translation, and the Leo Baeck Institute for the document.

Aus der Frauentagung
Vienna: September 25

The first meeting was enriched by a wide-ranging lecture by Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, the central theme of which will be discussed below.

After nightfall on the Shabbat, the second, well-attended gathering of Agudah women took place at the Bayerischer Hof [Hotel]. In her role as the chairwoman, Ms. [Franziska] Goldschmidt-Lewenstein from Zurich opened the evening with a report on the “International Working Committee of Agudah Girls’ Organizations,” which was established in 1927 Frankfurt am Main at the National Agudah Conference. This committee emerged out of the need for increased collaboration among girls’ organizations, to support activities within each of the countries and groups by exchanging reports, sharing practices, and convening conferences. At that point, only Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland were represented within the committee. The Central Office, based in Zurich, worked to accomplish its task by circulating reports and letters to this membership.

With the opportunity of the World Congress, the General Assembly of the Agudah declared its support for a gathering of women’s and girls’ groups; according to Mrs. Goldschmidt, the already existing international committee was now, at the Women’s Conference in Vienna, expanding to form a truly “International Association of Agudah Women.” The point of this expansion was to strengthen build on each other’s strengths. In particular, it was important to form women’s groups following the example of Hamburg, Breslau, Berlin, Poland and Latvia, which would strengthen women’s commitment to the Agudah and create opportunities for girls’ activities, even after they are married. The Central Office was committed to developing a working agenda, educational curriculum, and list of recommended reading in the next weeks and sending it out to all member groups.

The gathering was attended by unelected delegates of their respective countries (the Women’s Congress was organized at the last minute, for various reasons), but unanimously authorized by the General Assembly of the Agudath Israel, which officially recognized and enthusiastically greeted the “International Association of Agudah Women’s and Girls’ Organizations”.

Miss [Lotka] Szczarańska, a teacher at the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Kraków, spoke next, delivering an extensive report on the necessity, development and activities of the Bnos Agudath Israel in Poland, which works with exemplary discipline and passion. As of 1929 there are about a hundred Bnos groups with roughly 10,000 members, as well as some groups for Agudah women. The speaker described the achievements of the Bnos groups in the social sphere, including visits to the sick, volunteering for patients in non-Jewish hospitals, aid and support for new mothers, tutoring for children with learning difficulties, distributing food and clothing to impoverished Bais Yaakov pupils, and Tu Beshvat gifts of fruit to invalids, orphanages, and camps. They raise funds by strictly collecting small daily donations from each member, which works very well from a financial perspective. These small amounts are supplemented by periodic donations collected from families.

This past year, the first leadership program was held in the Carpathian Mountains. Young women from Bnos chapters all over Poland were instructed in leadership by teachers from both Eastern and Central Europe. The Bais Yaakov Journal helps spread the Bnos idea and enables intellectual exchange among participants. The report emphasized the need for further input from abroad, and in the name of the Bnos Organization of Poland, strongly supported the establishment of the international association.

The second report was delivered by Mrs. [Malka] Meierovitch, a teacher at the Torah and Derech Eretz School in Riga. There, too, founding Jewish schools for girls is very difficult, but the Bais Yaakov committees are doing their utmost to overcome all obstacles. Riga’s delegates are counting on help and material support from the International Association.

Mrs. Betti Wreschner from Breslau reported on the successful activities in the social realm of the women’s group in Breslau, and its intentions to expand its cultural activities this upcoming winter. Miss Halpern [possibly the ceramic artist Anna Halpern] and Miss Bisher from the Netherlands, and Mrs. Bella Schlesinger and Dr. Pollack from Vienna participated in the debate that followed.

In regards to the Land of Israel, Mrs. Miller reported on the conditions of the schools in Tiberias and called on the international association for assistance.

Dr. Rosenbaum from Frankfurt and Kraków again clearly highlighted the guidelines of the newly established International Association. Mrs. Bondi from Vienna brought the conference to a close with the invitation to all participants to work together to fulfill the aims of the Agudah’s women’s movement in each of their countries.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.