Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Carry Me in Your Heart: The Life and Legacy of Sarah Schenirer

I have been reading a lot lately. The latest book which I just finished is "Sa'uni Belibchen", which is the Hebrew version of "Carry Me in Your Heart: The Life and Legacy of Sarah Schenirer, Founder and Visionary of the Bais Yaakov Movement ". The author of the book, Pearl Benisch, knew Schenirer personally and was one of her students. A friend of my youngest daughter lent her the book, and after she was done I read it as well. Too bad she didn't bring home the original English version. I could have finished it in half the time!

I found the book fascinating and inspiring. One of the things that I learned about Sarah Schenirer was that she was deeply influenced by Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch. This came as somewhat of a surprise. My girls, who learn in Bais Yaakov schools, rarely mention anything in the name of Rabbi Hirsch. However, a quick search on the internet verified Hirsch's influence on Shenirer:
"I assume you've heard of Soroh Schenirer o'h." Mrs. Schenirer was a native of Catholic Poland. She arrived in Vienna together with a flood of other Jewish immigrants during the First World War and she lived in an attic that was owned by a Jewish woman. On her first Shabbos in Vienna — it was Shabbos Chanukah — she asked her landlady to direct her to a beis haknesses and, following her instructions, she arrived in the beis haknesses in Stampfer Gasse. There, Mrs. Schenirer listened to the rov, Rav Dr. Moshe Flesch z'l, speaking with pathos about the heroism of the Maccabees. The rabbi called upon his listeners to learn from the Maccabees' example and to fight for themselves and for their Judaism. Impressed by the talk, Mrs. Schenirer approached the rov afterwards and asked him where she could learn more.

"I learned in the Frankfurt Yeshiva," he told her. "The ideas that I quoted in my talk belong to Rav S. R. Hirsch."

Rav Flesch directed the interested seamstress to the writings of Rav Hirsch and of Rabbi Dr. Marcus Lehmann zt'l. Henceforth, Mrs. Schenirer would come to the beis haknesses every Shabbos to hear the rabbi's talk. Few, if any, other women were there listening. Soroh Schenirer's eventual conclusion was that she had to return to Cracow to teach Jewish girls about their religion.

With the learning that she had absorbed in Vienna she returned to Cracow, gathered a group of Jewish girls and with her vision and burning enthusiasm, laid the foundation for Bais Yaakov.

Here is another example describing Hirsch's influence:
Serving Hashem with joy was a principle that guided her efforts. For example, during the summers, she would bring teenage girls from the ghetto slums of the Polish cities to an uplifting rustic camp site in the wooded Polish mountains. There was a joyous Chassidic spirit at these summer retreats which included much singing and dancing, as well as an emphasis on heartfelt prayer. She was joined by educators from Germany who were followers of the universal Torah approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, such as Dr. Leo Deutschlander and Dr. Judith Grunfeld. There, under an open sky, the students would study the Psalms in depth, and the words of King David became alive as they meditated on the wonders and beauty of Hashem's creation. They would also study Rabbi Hirsch's writings which explore the universal vision of the Torah; in fact, Sarah also gave a course on Rabbi Hirsch’s “Nineteen Letters” during the year. Through Rabbi Hirsch's writings, the students began to appreciate how Torah teachings can transform and elevate the entire world, and they no longer felt a strong attraction to the secular movements of their day which were seeking to transform the world. Their joy in being Jewish was reinforced by a new pride in the universal role of the Jewish people - a people that are destined to become an ethical and spiritual model for all the peoples of the earth. They therefore began to dedicate their lives to renewing the inner strengths of our people.

After a little more searching I revealed that Rabbi Hirsch had already established in Frankfurt organized learning for religious girls (the Realschule) as early as 1853! This also had an influence on Sarah Schenirer:
Sarah Schenirer discovered that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had developed an educational structure for Jewish girls in Germany, and she was inspired to do something similar in Poland. Her goal was to start a network of Torah schools for Jewish girls, and although she initially faced some opposition, she won the support of most of the leading Torah sages of her era, including the Chofetz Chaim. The international Torah organization "Agudath Israel" began to fund her first school, and it provided her with a skilled administrator, Dr. Leo (Shmuel) Deutschlander, who was from the community developed by Rabbi Hirsch.
I already mentioned that my daughters rarely mention Rabbi Hirsch. What happened to Beis Yaakov?:
There was a major difference, however, between the Bais Yaacov of Williamsburg and the Bais Yaacov of Poland in pre-war Europe. The Bais Yaacov movement in Poland emphasized the universal Torah teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while the Bais Yaacov of Williamsburg did not give Rabbi Hirsch's teachings the same emphasis. Why were Rabbi Hirsch's teachings regarding the Torah's universal vision no longer the main focus? Most of the teachers and students at the American Bais Yaakov were Holocaust survivors who felt a need to turn inward after experiencing the hatred of the Gentiles around them and the horrors of the Holocaust. They knew that most of the "humanistic" intellectuals and artists of Germany actively supported the brutal persecution of the Jewish people. They also knew that most of the "enlightened" countries closed their doors to Jews who were trying to escape the Holocaust. In addition, they knew that most of the Christian religious leaders of Europe did not protest the organized murder of millions of Jewish men, women, and children; moreover, many Christians in the countries occupied by the Germans actively assisted the Germans in rounding up the Jews for the death camps. In fact, a number of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who returned to Poland after the war were murdered in Polish pogroms! It is understandable that these survivors felt the need to first heal themselves before worrying about the world which had abandoned their suffering people.

In addition, these survivors did not have the strong attraction to secular western culture which an earlier generation of Bais Yaakov students had once experienced, and their feelings are expressed in the following memoir of Dr. Judith Grunfeld:

"Almost seventy years have passed since, and we have today most unfortunately an easy enough means of demonstrating that all cultures which we then venerated have revealed themselves to be nothing but a flimsy veneer covering over diabolical inhumanity. European humanitarian ideas so prevalent then, so much on the tip of everyone's tongue, preached by leading university representatives, have been proven utterly hollow. For they did not succeed in preventing, and indeed could be said to be frequently instrumental in strirring up the raging, terrible fire of man's inhumanity to man." ("Rebbitzen Grunfeld" by Miriam Dansky, p. 72)

I imagine that what is true about Williamsburg is also true about Israel. The teachings of Rabbi Hirsch are apparently another victim of the Holocaust.

In any case I highly recommend "Carry Me in Your Heart". The book is informative and inspiring.

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