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Seminary for Girls: A Brilliant Invention

Published on Monday September 14th, 2020

Everyone knows about the concept of Yeshiva, a concept that goes back thousands of years and regularly renewed by the greatest masters of Judaism, especially in modern times by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the main students of the Vilna Gaon, who introduced the principle of boarding in Yeshiva. But what about seminaries for girls?

One cannot speak of a girl's seminary without mentioning the context that gave rise to the first seminary, or its Jewish name, Beit Ya'akov. From 1800, European Judaism was experiencing the pangs of assimilation. Indeed, the Haskala, a movement called "Jewish Lights" that echoed the movement of "Enlightenment" among non-Jews, begins to wreak havoc. The liberation of the ghetto and access to secular knowledge proved to be a deadly trap for many of our fellow believers who succumbed to the artificial charms of modernity. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left the ranks of Judaism and sometimes even converted to Christianity... Compulsory schooling for all lead Jewish girls in Poland and Galicia to attend public school and to get involved with the non-Jewish population. This lead many girls to feel attracted towards the Polish Christian culture and even sometimes to leave Judaism.

This was where Sarah Schenirer intervened. She was born in 1883 in Krakow, Poland. She came from an Orthodox family affiliated to the Belz Chassidus. For lack of anything better, she attended public school and distinguished herself by her excellent results. Fascinated by the Torah, she immersed herself in the study of a Yiddish book for women "Tzena Urena" or "Nachlat Tzvi". After having successfully completed her studies, she learned to become a seamstress, and she quickly earned herself a good reputation.

Following the outbreak of World War I, she fled to Vienna with her family. It was there that she first attended Torah classes given by Rav Moshe Flesch, who was himself a student of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. In one of his classes she heard a fiery discourse on the greatness of the soul of Yehudit, a Jewish heroine and a great Tzadeket a who saved the Jewish people from the hands of the Greek king Elifroni who had come to besiege Jerusalem. Yehudit, who entered the enemy's camp, managed to be presented to the king, and after many adventures managed to make him get drunk, and she then cut off his head. Very impressed by the dedication of this exceptional woman, Sarah Schnierer also decided to devote herself to saving the Jewish people, through teaching Torah to the young Jewish girls.

Sarah Schenirer plan was innovative. As far back as we go in the history of the Jewish people, young Jewish girls had always been educated at home. Indeed, the mother taught the girl the foundations of Judaism and the transmission was almost perfect. Proof of this is the unwavering loyalty of the Jewish people to the Torah throughout the centuries. Moreover, halacha clearly states that a woman is not obliged to learn Torah (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, hilchot Talmud Torah, chapter 1, halacha 13). However, Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid, in Sefer Chassidim (12th century) explains that a father has the obligation to teach his daughters the mitzvot of the Torah such as Shabbat so that she does not come to transgress it.

Until Sarah Schnierer appeared on the scene, there was no Jewish institution that taught girls Torah. In addition, such an innovation that would trigger a revolution in the Jewish people required the approval of the greatest modern Torah Sages. This all began in 1918, when Sarah Schenirer opened the first school for Jewish girls, Beit Ya'akov, in her own home with seven students who were studying in public school in the morning and then would come to Sarah Schnierer in the afternoon.

The Admor of Belz, Rabbi Yissachar Dov, the Admor of Gur, and the Chofetz Chaim, gave their approval to Sarah Schneier's project. The Chofetz Chaim, in his book "Likutei Halachot" on the treatise of Sota, explains that the habit of not teaching Torah to girls was justified in previous generations where the transmission of knowledge took place within the family. But today, following the upheavals of modern times and the break-up of many communities as well as the fact that many Jewish girls have become secular educators, it is necessary to teach these young girls the Tanakh as well as books of Mussar to prevent them from straying from the right path.

This idea made its way. Thus, in Poland by 1935, there were 250 Beit Ya'akov schools with 35,000 students.

What about today? The concept of Jewish education for girls has become widespread and has saved Judaism worldwide from disappearing. The action of Sarah Schnierer and her exceptional dedication to the education of Jewish girls changed the course of Jewish history.

But why should a Jewish girl go to seminary today? If she did not attend a Jewish school, the answer seems obvious: one cannot consider founding a Jewish home without a minimum of knowledge of the Jewish laws, Jewish ethics and in general the tremendous spiritual heritage that belongs to the Jewish people. On the other hand, if a young girl has already been educated in a Jewish school, the question is different. However, whatever the level of the Jewish school, the curriculum generally followed includes secular subjects. In contemporary seminaries, the curriculum includes a year of entirely kodesh studies.

This immersion in the Torah for one year gives a Jewish girl the opportunity to disconnect from the secular world and to prepare herself in the best possible way for her future role as wife and mother of the Jewish people. Moreover, the fact of no longer living at home and boarding for a year allows the "umbilical cord" between mother and daughter to be cut, preparing the daughter for an independent life in the context of marriage.

In conclusion, for a Jewish girl to attend Seminary for a year today is not a luxury but is an indispensable investment for her future. She will learn to distinguish the superfluous from the essential, to understand the purpose of her existence, to build herself in order to be able in its turn to build her family and especially not to waste time. The ideal age to attend seminary is generally around eighteen years before a girl begins to undertake studies that can be long, or to start a job for an indefinite period of time...

You who are intelligent and full of ambition, in search of spirituality and truth, take your courage with both hands and go to seminary to discover a life of Torah that will give you access to happiness. Do not miss this opportunity! Know how to make the right decision at the right time and choose a good seminary. You will not regret it and you will build a quality future with a truly Jewish life worthy of Sarah Imeinu ...

Rav Emmanuel BOUKOBZA - © Torah-Box Account

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