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The Earliest Bais Yaakovs in North America

Among the strange aspects of researching Bais Yaakov is that it is much easier to understand its early history than figure out what it is today. Bais Yaakov lacks a central office or archive, and many of the schools have no online presence. While I was able to see lists of schools in archival material from the pre-Holocaust era, the researchers at the Bais Yaakov Project are using not only the usual methods of Google searches and digital archives but also—and ironically—more old-fashioned methods like word of mouth and interviews with people who have some knowledge of this more recent history.

Every once in a while we get lucky, finding a researcher who knows the terrain intimately and knows how to find what they don’t already know. Frieda Vizel, who leads a walking tour of Hasidic Williamsburg (which is how I met her), is one such person; see her website at https://friedavizel.com. She knows Williamsburg inside and out, and understands where to find the history that is no longer present on the streets. Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg has a special status in Bais Yaakov history, the only school on North American soil that was founded under the umbrella of the Krakow Central Office, with a director, Vichna Kaplan, who had been a prized student of Sarah Schenirer. Despite the difficulty of establishing the school, it got off the ground and spawned many other Bais Yaakovs. But while Bais Yaakov was once part of the Williamsburg Jewish landscape, it has barely left a trace, in a community that aligned itself increasingly with Hasidic groups who formed their own girls’ schools. But those traces of Bais Yaakov remain, for those who have eyes to see. Frieda put together this beautiful walking tour, more virtual than the one she usually leads. But in it, the past comes alive. We hope you enjoy it.

View the Tour »

Sara Imejnu, the Graphic Novel

Just in time for her eighty-seventh yahrzeit, Sarah Schenirer is recognized for what she was–a SUPERHERO!

Krakow now has its very own Jewish, female comic book hero. Though her superpowers differ from Superman’s or Wonder Woman’s, her feats are no less astonishing and remarkable. Her will was stronger than steel, her vision powerful enough to change the course of history, and her convictions defied all odds. The graphic novel, Sara Imejnu, brings to life the revolutionary story of Sara Schenirer and her founding of the Bais Yaakov school system. 

Sara Imejnu is a collaborative effort between a trio of young educators: Olga Adamowska, Justyna Arabska, and Marcjanna Kubala. In their respective roles at the Jewish Community Centre Krakow, the MIFGASH Foundation, and Hillel Krakow, they share a common mission of educating Polish students and youth about the rich Jewish culture of Krakow and Poland more generally. In a recent Zoom conversation, Olga, who describes herself as a Jewish feminist, explained that one of the motivations behind creating the graphic novel was the need to portray the Jewish culture and history of Poland before the Holocaust, to show young Poles that the Jewish community was full of colour and life. While there is only one surviving photo of Sara Schenirer, the graphic novel’s detailed illustrations and dynamic backgrounds indeed animate a lesser known side of Sara Schenirer, showing readers how she, Bais Yaakov, and her Orthodox community were more than the black-and-white photos found in textbooks or museums. “You get to see Sara Schenirer at different ages,” says Olga. By sharing and illustrating the story of Sara Schenirer and Bais Yaakov, the graphic novel also shines the spotlight on women leaders in Jewish history and how their important contributions to the community ensured its growth and survival. 

Photo Credit Agnieszka Trajewka

Working in Krakow, the writers were constantly aware of how much Sara Schenirer was and continues to be part of the city. “Sara Schenirer is very much connected to Krakow, which is our city” explains Marcjanna, “the first Bais Yaakov school was in our neighborhood, where we go to work every day. I pass by this building every day on my way to work, so that is very inspiring.” The first Bais Yaakov teachers seminary was established on Świętego Stanisława Street right by the Vistula River, less than a ten minute walk from JCC Krakow. In the graphic novel, the Krakow scenes show a familiarity with the city’s landscape and its community, firmly situating Sara Schenirer and her revolutionary movement within her hometown. While the origin story of Bais Yaakov and its matriarch is well-known among the Orthodox community, the broader Krakovian and Polish public is largely unaware of their Polish roots. In showing the intimate connection between Sara Schenirer and Krakow, as well as Bais Yaakov’s growth in Łódź and Warsaw, the writers want the graphic novel to show how this revolution in women’s education is as much a part of Jewish history as it is Polish history, and vice versa. Having written the graphic novel in Polish, the writers hope they can bring Sara Schenirer into focus for the broader Polish community.

Sara Imejnu’s illustrations bring historical settings, histories, and characters to life. During the composition of the graphic novel, the writers knew it was crucial to find the right art and design to capture the exact places, communities, and customs of the era. More importantly, they had to find an artist that would capture the essence of Sara Schenirer and her vision of Bais Yaakov. After some searching, they came across the illustrations of Julia Naurzalijeva. Upon seeing her sketches, they all agreed, “This is Sara.” The soft, neutral colour palette effectively foregrounds the interpersonal dynamics between characters, which Naurzalijeva realizes with her organic line work. Whether the bustling streets of Krakow or the meditative Tatra mountains, the backgrounds animate the characters’ movement and dialogue. What is perhaps most striking in Naurzalijeva’s illustrations is the subtle detail of characters’ emotions. The singular facial expressions capture a deep range of emotion, reminding us of the human depth and intensity of the historical narrative: the dismissive glances in Sara Schenirer’s failed educational group for women; the fulfilling satisfaction that fills her first classroom; or the spiritual wonder and awe experienced in the Tatra mountains during an intimate observation of Lag BaOmer. Naurzalijeva’s illustrations truly bring the reader closer to Sara Schenirer. 

With the composition and publication of Sara Imejnu, Adomowska, Arabska, Kubala, and Naurzalijeva are beginning a new chapter of cultural awareness and education. Sara Schenirer’s mission of education is not only expressed through the pages of the graphic novel, the text and images continue her work by educating younger generations about their history, culture, and community. An English translation is slated to be published before the summer, which will undoubtedly herald the graphic novel’s spread throughout North America. When asked about other translations, the writers wishfully pondered the possibility of Yiddish and Hebrew editions in the future. Currently at the JCC Krakow, there is an exhibition featuring the graphic novel which runs until the end of April; its illustrations, along with a few other original pieces by Naurzalijeva, are framed and displayed with additional commentary. The release of Sara Imejnu is both a testament to the significance of Sara Schenirer’s herstory and a living expression of her vision’s continuing impact. On Sara Schenirer’s 87th yahrzeit, her memory continues grow and her story is reaching more and more people.

Benjamin Bandosz is a PhD candidate and 2017 Vanier Scholar at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature. He has published on literature, media, and political economy in Deleuze and Guattari Studies, Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, and Journal of Canadian Studies. As a translator, Benjamin has worked with multimedia subtitling, academic articles, and archival documents. His critical translation work focuses on Polish-language news media’s translations in diasporic contexts, namely their expressions of nationalism and conservatism.

Bais Yaakov, My Mother, and Me

A few days ago I visited my mother for the first time since the pandemic began. On previous visits, we’d pull out the Scrabble board and play a game or three. But since I began to research Bais Yaakov, we’ve pulled out my mother’s old photo albums instead, and gone over what to me is her fascinating story in Bais Yaakov. My mother, Sara Abraham (later Seidman) was born in 1922 in Turda, a town in the Transylvanian region of Romania. She attended a coeducational Jewish school, and only had her first experience of Bais Yaakov in 1938, when she attended the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Czernowitz (then Romania, now Ukraine), which was founded in 1935 as the third of the Bais Yaakov teachers’ seminaries. Instruction was in German, and many of the teachers were refugees from Nazi Germany. She remembers one fellow student from Italy, who told her about her father doing research in the Vatican Library.

She also remembers that the students were required to be outside, walking, each day after lunch, however cold it was. In this photo, you can practically see the shivers.

My mother made a dramatic escape from Czernowitz the day in 1940 the Soviets invaded the city, with another five Bais Yaakov girls on the last train out. One of the teachers pushed some money into her hand as she was packing, telling her that it was for the rest of the year’s tuition, even though the semester was nearly over. Back in Turda, she immediately opened a Bais Yaakov school to serve the towns’ girls and, when the Jews from surrounding areas were sent to Turda, those displaced girls, too.

She also ran a Bnos youth group, and was the leader of a large group of children and young women, some older than she was. She was paid as a teacher, but the money went to feeding the refugees breakfast, for many of them their only meal of the day. Each year on her birthday, a photo was taken of her surrounded by these students.

After the war, my mother worked at another Bais Yaakov, in the Displaced Persons camp at Föhrenwald, Germany. She was also involved in the Bnos in the DP camp. It was there that she first met my father, Hillel Seidman, who was touring the DP camps on behalf of Agudah. This was also the camp where my mother reconstructed a Hebrew textbook from memory, using the back of German military requisition forms because paper was scarce.

My parents met again a few years later in Paris, where my mother had gone to found yet another Bais Yaakov and try to acquire a visa that would allow her to join her parents in New York. One photo shows the school preparing for the visit of my father, apparently a distinguished speaker. Others show my mother taking her students on class trips, or spending the summers with them in the countryside, in a town call Fublaines.

In 1949, my mother spent the summer at the DP camp in Bergen Belsen, hoping that she might have better luck acquiring a visa from there. This photo shows her with one of the two Bais Yaakovs in the camp, the one that served Hungarian students (rather than Polish ones).

That fall she attended the Neshei Uvenos Agudath Israel in Antwerp as the delegate from France. This was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the women’s organization in 1929, and the first time it had met since the war.

A few months later, my mother finally got her visa, a teacher’s visa, sponsored by the Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg. In 1950, she married my father in New York, and continued her involvement with the school system that had so shaped her life.

Suicide or Accident:
A Tragic Mystery at the Krakow Seminary

Among the new offerings in the relaunched Bais Yaakov Project website is a section devoted to Polish press coverage of Bais Yaakov in the interwar period. But what can we discover about the movement from Polish articles, as opposed to what we learn from the Hebrew or Yiddish press, or Bais Yaakov’s own journal? The first article that turned up in a search, by the BYP member Charna Perman, was a report about the apparent suicide of a student at the Krakow Seminary, an event that understandably caught our attention and that was not reported in the Yiddish or Hebrew press. Click here to see the original newspaper article (on page 15), Benjamin Bandosz’s translation of the article can be found here. The student, who was from Romania, was described as having been distraught the night before leaving the seminary, as “obviously despondent” when she arrived, and asking to sleep on the fifth rather than third floor. It was true that neither her family nor anyone at the school knew any more details about what might have been troubling the young woman, but the first article made it seem likely that she had indeed committed suicide.

Even more thought-provoking was a follow-up article a few days later, which declared the investigation into the shocking event (which included an autopsy) closed. Click here to see the original article on page 14  The investigators had determined that it was impossible to know whether the girl had jumped out the seminary window or rather accidentally fallen. With both possibilities in play, the investigation was inclined to allow for a tragic accident, rather than continue to suppose, as at the outset, that this young woman had committed suicide. As evidence for this second possibility, the writer mentions a key piece of evidence: the dress that had been wrapped around the girl’s legs, although she was wearing a nightgown. This dress allowed the investigators to suggest a scenario for a tragic accident: Miss Winter (we never learn her first name) had been shaking out or dusting off her dress out the window when she fell. No doubt such an explanation came as something of a relief to the school administration, which might be charged with psychological neglect, and to the parents, who could now legitimately bring their daughter to Jewish burial, something denied to suicides. Perhaps the girl’s fellow students, too, preferred to mourn a shocking accident than recognize the presence in their midst of such grievous psychological pain. And the newspaper, which tended toward social conservatism, might also have preferred to propagate the less sensational alternative, even if they followed the investigators in first entertaining one and then another possibility.           

The investigation saw the significance of the dress in helping construct a scenario for an accidental fall. But reading that article as someone steeped in the culture of Bais Yaakov, I interpreted that dress differently. Might this dress signal that even in the extremis of the act of suicide, this Bais Yaakov girl was working within the framework of tsnius, the cornerstone of Bais Yaakov culture then as now? Was she ensuring that even in her death, her legs were not exposed? If this was a suicide, it was one that operated within the bounds of Bais Yaakov culture, leaving that world without also transgressing its values. Every life is a mystery to others, and those who surrounded this seminarian were unable (or unwilling) to describe her private pain. But in her unwillingness to expose her naked legs (if I am reading that detail right), the Bais Yaakov girl who jumped out the seminary window (if indeed it was a suicide) both covered herself from exposure and gave us a glimpse into her most intimate thoughts.

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.

Remembering the 93

The story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls from the Krakow Teachers’ Seminary, who killed themselves rather than be taken as prostitutes, appeared in the New York Times on January 8, 1943, about six months after the events described in the letter were supposed to have taken place. By February of 1943, news of this event reached the Land of Israel, where mass meetings were held, poetry was written, trees were planted, and streets were named in honor of the martyrs.

The story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls from the Krakow Teachers’ Seminary, who killed themselves rather than be taken as prostitutes, appeared in the New York Times on January 8, 1943, about six months after the events described in the letter were supposed to have taken place. By February of 1943, news of this vent reached the Land of Israel, where mass meetings were held, poetry was written, trees were planted, and streets were named in honor of the martyrs.

Beginning in the 1950s, a scholarly consensus has developed deeming this event a pious fiction. Mysteries nevertheless remain: Who wrote the first letter, purporting to be from Chaya Feldman, one of the 93 girls (this letter is sometimes called “The Last Will and Testament of the 93 Bais Yaakov Girls)? And who wrote the second one, by a purported eyewitness named Chana Weiss, which appeared in 1947 and lent dramatic detail to the events that had been missing in the brief first letter? Why would these letters have been written?

The fictional status of these events does not void their historical interest. On the contrary, the letters and the reactions they provoked are an important part of Bais Yaakov history, Orthodox Holocaust memory, and Jewish experience in the 1940s. Naomi Levenkron, for instance, has shed light on the group that sponsored the commemorations in Palestine, “The Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Jewish Daughter.” This group arose not in response to the reports about the 93; it was already in existence, as a response to the scandals of the secular Zionist street, particularly Jewish prostitutes with Arab customers, and Jewish women who consorted with British colonial officials. For Bais Yaakov to ally itself with forces fighting Jewish prostitution was not a new phenomenon. In 1927, Leo Deutschlander, the chief administrator for Bais Yaakov in the Agudath Israel, attended a conference of organizers against the International White Slave Trade, the sex trafficking rings in which Jews were overrepresented as pimps and prostitutes; at the conference, he found valuable support for Bais Yaakov precisely as a bulwark against such travesties. In that respect, the Tel Aviv Committee was just continuing an old alliance.

In the weeks to come, we will present more documents about these events and their commemoration, in the original Hebrew or Yiddish and in English translation. In the meantime, we are presenting the commemorative booklet published in the summer of 1943, in honor of the 93—this publication was called for at the mass event described in the booklet.

As always, we are curious to hear from Bais Yaakov graduates and others about your responses to this story. Had you heard of the 93? Did this story figure in your education? What do you think it teaches us about Bais Yaakov?