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Carry Me in your Heart
The Life and Legacy of Sara Schenirer
Founder and Visionary of the Bais Yaakov Movement
Copyright © 2004 by Pearl Benisch
Forward (part of the forward): by Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder and Dean of Yeshivas Aish Hatorah.
...RABBI YECHEZKEL (CHASKEL) SARNA, the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Chevron and a very great man, was addressing a gathering at the bris of Reb Moshe Chevroni's grandson — who was also a grandson of the Gerrer Rebbe. A large segment of Eretz Yisroel's Torah giants were there, among them the grandchildren of the following leaders of the previous generation: the Chofetz Chaim, the Slonimer Rebbe, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Gerrer Rebbe, the Levush Mordechai, the Alter of Navardok, the Alter of Mir, and the Alter of Slobodka. Their grandchildren were all there at this bris.
Rav Yechezkel Sarna got up and said, "Everybody in this room thinks that it was his grandfather that did the most for Am Yisroel in the last one hundred years. The Chofetz Chaim, the Alter of Navardok, the Alter of Slobodka — the talmidim they had, the yeshivos they created. I'm here to tell you that it's none of them."
Rav Sarna was very confrontational, and the people present said, "Reb Chaskel, let's not have fights. Please sit down."
Reb Chaskel said, "I'll tell you more. The one who did the most for Klal Yisroel in the last one hundred years, never learned a blatt gemara."
"Outrageous!" everyone said. "Reb Chaskel, you're going too far."
He answered, "I'll tell you more. When I mention the name, you will all agree with me that it wasn't your grandfather, it wasn't one of these great rabbis, but yes, it was in fact this person who did the most for Am Yisroel in the last one hundred years."
Everybody started laughing. Can you imagine that the chassidim and the misnagdim would all agree on who did the most for Am Yisroel in the last century? Was it possible?
Reb Chaskel mentioned the name...and they all agreed with him.
The name was Sarah Schenirer. If it wasn't for that woman who never had a formal Jewish education, if it wasn't for that woman who got this idea of educating our girls, then chas ve-chalilah the face of Am Yisroel would look very different today indeed.
What did this woman have? She didn't learn a blatt gemara like the men do. She didn't even go to a Bais Yaakov. What did she have that gave her the merit to be the force that did the most for Klal Yisroel in the last one hundred years? Nobody told her to do what she did. She had a lot of detractors, people who wanted to excommunicate her.
The story is told that they came to the Chofetz Chaim to complain about this woman who was doing something new under the sun. "For three thousand five hundred years we didn't have any school for girls. And who is she anyway?" They asked him to take action. The Chofetz Chaim was very agitated. He ran into his room. They thought he was getting his coat, to go out to do battle. Instead, he came out with some zlotys, coins, and said, "Such a tremendous mitzvah and I shouldn't have a part in it? Here, give her this money."
Baruch Hashem, the Chofetz Chaim backed her, the Gerrer Rebbe backed her, the Belzer Rebbe gave her his blessing. But what made her do it?
There is a famous story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos, who at the age of twenty-seven couldn't learn Torah, couldn't recite Birkas ha-Mazon, couldn't even say kerias Shema. He cried and cried until he reached Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was able to finally teach him Torah. So much so, that he became Rabban shel Yisroel.
Why did Reb Eliezer ben Hurkenos merit to become the Rebbe of Am Yisroel? Because he was able to cry for Torah. You have to be willing to cry. Sarah Schenirer cried for the Jewish girls who were getting lost. In her autobiography she writes that she cried for those children. That's why she merited to become the Mother of Bais Yaakov, the Matriarch of future generations of Klal Yisroel.
Rabbi Noach Weinberg
I LAY DOWN MY PEN. My handwritten manuscript is finished. The story, however, is not. It goes on, living and growing, each generation adding page after page to the history of a great movement, that of Bais Yaakov.
Bais Yaakov revolutionized the Eastern European Jewish world by applying a novel idea, chinuch ha-banos, traditional education for Jewish girls — an idea so crucial at the time, and at all times, for the survival of authentic Jewish nationhood.
Bais Yaakov educators and, especially, Yaakov Feldheim, the publisher of my first book, To Vanquish the Dragon, repeatedly urged me to write a book about Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement. I repeatedly declined, considering myself inadequate to iluminate the unique personality of my great teacher and to assume the vast responsibility of such a project.
On one of my many visits to my publisher, Mrs. Marsi Tabak, the company's editor-in-chief at the time, asked me again about writing the book. Having become a friend of Marsi's by that time, I tried to soften my refusal by telling her a little story about Sarah Schenirer:
"Frau Schenirer never allowed us to hang her picture on the wall," I related. '"Don't hang it on the wall,' she used to say. 'Carry it in your heart.'"
This brought Marsi to her feet in excitement.
"Mrs. Benisch!" she exclaimed. "You have a book and you have a title: Carry Me in Your Heart. No more excuses," she added with finality. "Go ahead and write."
Thus, unable to disappoint my friend, I decided to write this story under the title she gave it. The result, I warned Marsi, would be not a biography but a book of reminiscences about my exceptional teacher and her great talmidos, who so excellently followed in her footsteps.
With that, I began to write. The ink in my pen flowed freely. So did the memories, flashing by in succession. I wrote about the great idea behind Sarah Schenirer's Bais Yaakov initiative and her vision of a worldwide movement. I recalled her struggles, unsuccessful at first, to realize the idea. I documented her powerful determination, her resolve to carry on against all odds and to bring her towering idea, that of Bais Yaakov, to fruition.
I recalled Frau Schenirer's wonderful lessons, her meaningful sayings, her sensible advice, and her inspirational discourses that influenced her students so profoundly — the everlasting impact we derived just from listening to her soul speaking, as we used to say.
How intently we pupils observed Frau Schenirer's behavior and her sublime attributes of mercy, love, and respect for every human being. Her willingness to help the needy and the distressed knew no limit. She gave and gave until her very last breath. And she is still giving....
No tribute to Sarah Schenirer, however, can be complete without mention of her great followers, the girls and women who emulated her ways in the most trying times ever known, who risked their lives, and who subjected themselves to torture, to help, sustain, and rescue others. Their story is also told here — before and during World War II and, especially, in the period shortly following the liberation. It was then that those talmidos, although hardly able to stand, bolstered others' morale, shared their time and their scanty resources with them, and helped them to reconstruct their lives.
Afterwards, finding the Bais Yaakov schools in Europe in ruins, those great students of Sarah Schenirer's followed her path of self-denial and established new Bais Yaakov schools in Europe, Israel, Australia, and the Americas. With hard work and determination, they surmounted all obstacles to build up Jewish communities in the post-war wilderness that was Yiddishkeit in the New World. With the enthusiasm and spirit that Bais Yaakov and its founder had invested in them, they turned the wastelands into blooming Jewish oases.
The memories in this volume sometimes overlap or leap from one era to the next. They do so because the story they tell, that of a unique, indestructible historical movement, defies rigid periodization.
Nevertheless, it all traces to one moment. As Dr. Judith Grunfeld often said, "Frau Schenirer threw a large stone into the waters of Jewish history, and that stone continues to ripple in ever-widening circles."
What a powerful throw that must have been. Indeed, its impact on Jewish history continues to grow, and so it will until the great day of Redemption.
Then Sarah Schenirer's dream of Bais Yaakov — "House of Jacob, let us walk in the light of Hashem" — will be fulfilled in its entirety. At the End of Days, Frau Schenirer will look on as her Bais Yaakov — the House of Jacob — strides forward, followed by all mankind, in Hashem's glorious light.
It was 1883. Poland lay stricken, torn into three pieces by the greatest powers in Europe. Germany had grabbed the country's northern section, her pride — the two seaports of Gdansk and Gdynia, her gateways to the world, so crucial to her national and economic survival. Russia had savaged Poland's midriff— her capital, Warsaw, and the industrial city of Lodz. Austria had annexed the southern part of Poland, the area known as Galicia, with its lovely city of Krakow.
Kaiser Franz Josef, who ruled Austria at that time, was favorably disposed toward his Jewish minority. One may even say that the Jews of Galicia lived rather peacefully. They enjoyed freedom of trade and religion. Torah education flourished in Krakow. There were places of worship and study on every corner, as well as impressive synagogues such as the stately Alte Shul, the Kupper Shul, the Rema Shul, and a few others. In the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, one could hear the sound of Torah day and night wherever one went. No wonder Krakow was nicknamed Klayne Yerushalayim, Little Jerusalem.
That year, a little girl was born to a prestigious, well-established Krakowian family — to Reb Bezalel and Reizel Schenirer, followers of the famous Belzer Rebbe. The Schenirers were a typical Chassidic family in Krakow — Reb Bezalel a towering Torah scholar; his wife an authentic eishes chayil; their sons learning Torah vigorously, following the Chassidic way of life; imbibing the warmth of the Shabbos atmosphere, the zemiros, the divrei Torah, and the warm, loving family milieu. These were the surroundings in which little Surahleh grew up.
Krakow, like all cities in Poland, had no Jewish schools for girls. Jewish girls had to attend Polish public schools, sharing their classes with gentile girls. Schooling was compulsory until seventh or eighth grade; parents who were derelict in obeying the law were liable to heavy fines and, sometimes, imprisonment.
Surahleh Schenirer was a typical Krakowian girl — bright, intelligent, broad-minded, and graced with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. She was eager to start school, eager to learn. She was interested in every subject taught. Thus, she became a top student in her class, excelling in all subjects — especially "religion hour," which the school provided once a week for Christian and Jewish children separately. She knew all the answers there, and it was no wonder: she spent the entire Shabbos studying parashas ha-shavua from her mother's Tze'ena u-Re'ena and delving into her beloved seforim: Chok VYisroel in Yiddish, Beis Yehudah with its Yiddish translation of Rashi, and others with which her father fondly supplied her.
Surahleh's teachers admired her for her interest in learning and her painstakingly prepared homework. Her classmates loved and respected her for her unflagging willingness to help. With her keen perception, she understood their needs even before being told. No wonder she was beloved by all. Only one thing kept her apart from her friends: they could not accept her deep commitment to Jewish values, her strong faith and yiras Shamayim, her love of the Creator and the world He created, and her admiration for everything she encountered in that world. They could not follow her ideas, although they adored her for her devotion and caring. They lovingly nicknamed her "Chassidka." It was a well-chosen sobriquet.
When she became aware of her father's business hardships, she offered to work to augment his income and help support the household. Talented in handicrafts, she became a seamstress without ever attending a dressmaking course. Soon, she became known as a capable maker of children's dresses. Satisfied mothers admired her sense of perfection and the minute details that she sewed into the little dresses that she made for their young darlings. She was very busy and worked hard, sometimes into the late hours of the night.
Seeing her daughter tired and often exhausted, Sarah's mother made her an offer: "Surahleh, you work so hard. You need a rest badly. Your friends are going to either Zavoja or Krynica for their summer vacation and to Zakopane in the winter. Go join them. I know how you love the beauty of nature, and there you'll be surrounded by the towering Tatra Mountains — and I also know how badly you need the vacation to replenish your strength."
"Thank you for your offer, dear Mother," answered Sarah, "but times are hard. God will give me the strength I need without our having to spend the money." After much arguing, however, Sarah succumbed to her mother's urgent plea. From then on, she interrupted her hard work for brief respites twice a year.
The girls were excited to hear that Sarah would join them for their vacation. They ran to her house and happily described the arrangements they had already made. "We're going to Zakopane this winter," Leah, the most enthusiastic of the group, cried out. "Surahleh, you're always the life of the party. You give us all so much joy and laughter. We love to go hiking with you," she added excitedly. "You always show us the beauty of nature, the Glory of God's creation."
"We've rented a room for the five of us," added Gittel, "so we can make our own food and not depend on the hotels in Zakopane, with their questionable kashrus."
What a pleasure it was to leave the muggy air of Krakow behind and travel to Zakopane, where they inhaled pure, crisp winter air and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. As Sarah's mother had noted, this charming winter resort was surrounded by the Tatras, the highest mountains in Carpathia.
The other girls slept late after the exhausting trip from Krakow. Sarah, however, woke up early to heat the stove, put up a kettle of water for hot cocoa, buy fresh rolls, and make breakfast. The girls awakened to a warm room and a table set for an elaborate meal. "Oh, my!" they cried in appreciation.
"Surahleh, you shouldn't have gotten up so early. You're as tired as we are," Gittel said reproachfully. "Tomorrow," chimed in Leah with resolve, "I'll make sure to wake up early to make the preparations."
They spent the day pleasantly driving around in a beautiful horse-drawn carriage mounted on a large sled. The driver, dressed in a suit that bespoke prestige, led the vehicle up to the first stop on the mountain. From there the girls rented sleds to slide down the snowy slope. How pleasurable it was to feel the crisp mountain air and the sun's warm beams, protecting them from the cold wintry air. Up in the carriage, down on the sled — what a joy it was to spend the winter in Zakopane!
The next day, Sarah planned to hike up the mountain to see the sunrise. It was always a great experience to watch the sun fight the night, bringing light and warmth to the snowy moun-taintops below. "What a great day it will be tomorrow, God willing. Girls, don't forget to bundle up and wear your spiked winter hiking shoes," Sarah cautioned.
"And of course, bring your walking sticks to help you conquer the heights," added Sheindele with excitement. With great joy they looked forward to the next day's experiences.
They had to get up before dawn to reach the summit in time for sunrise. Leah woke up even earlier to make her friends hot drinks. How disappointed she was to discover that Sarah had beaten her to it again! This happened for the rest of that vacation, and during all the vacations that followed. In Zakopane in the winter, in Zavoja or Krynica in the summer, nobody could beat Sarah to those chores.
The girls admired and respected Sarah's distinctive personality, her special love for people, her middos (character traits), and her way of seeing only the good in others. But there was no time for reflection that morning. They had to rush to get to the summit of the mountain on time. For hours they hiked in the deep snow, climbing higher and higher, until they finally reached their destination. But it was too late. The sun had climbed over the mountaintops. However, it was not too late to gaze down thousands of feet and enjoy a breathtaking view of the Morskie Oko, the Eye of the Sea, a round lake surrounded by the majestic mountains. It was a sight to behold.
Sarah couldn't get enough of the awe-inspiring spectacle; it could not satiate her soul. Her friends stared at and admired these wonders of nature that were spread out in front of their eyes. So did Sarah, except that her perspective was totally different. Her heart burst with awe for the Great Maker Who had created it all for one purpose only: for human beings to witness and enjoy Hashem's Glory. Sarah could not contain herself. She cried out in the words of King David:2 "How mighty, Hashem, is Your Name in the whole world.... When I see the beautiful sky, the work of Your Hands, and the moon and the stars You created, I have to cry out, 'Who am I that You remember me?' You gave a spark of Your Glory and splendor to man, so he could appreciate the loving-kindness that You have bestowed upon mankind."
Then she turned to her friends. "Don't you see Hashem's greatness in this wonder of nature? Don't you feel what I feel? Aren't you as awed as I am?"
They laughed. "Look, our Chassidka's preaching her old-fashioned ideas to us. We love you, Surahleh, but please stop exhorting us with your pious thoughts and ways."
Four girls went down the mountain happy, their faces flushed, their spirits high. "What a wonderful hike it was," they repeated to each other. Sarah went down heartbroken. She stayed awake all night, thinking. Even my own friends don't follow my ideas, she admitted sadly. The noxious atmosphere that has enveloped the young Jews of Krakow has infected them, too.
Sarah spent some summer vacations in Krynica, a renowned Polish health spa frequented by vacationers and, especially, people seeking relief from stomach problems and other maladies. People bathed in bubbly hot spring water, to which healing properties were attributed. Drinking fountains also dispensed the naturally bubbly fluid, which people found refreshing and relaxing. Other fountains offered a less delicious mineral water that was believed to help stomach patients.
Observing the sparkling spring water as it burst forcefully from the earth and created a captivating geyser, Sarah described this experience in her personal diary: "I was fascinated by this natural phenomenon. Hashem created natural wonders and gave man a mind to search and explore these hidden treasures and to harness and use them for the benefit of mankind."
The young Sarah Schenirer was a was a typical broad-minded and inquisitive Krakowian girl. She was eager to learn, to know, to experience. As she wrote in her Gesamelte Schriften (Collected Writings), published in Yiddish:
I used to work hard to supplement my family's income, often staying up until late at night. Then I started to work on myself, on my own education. Chok I'Yisroel, which my father so lovingly bought for me, became the source of my Jewish knowledge. There in Yiddish translation I followed every night the daily portion of Chumash, Nevi 'im, Mishnah, and Gemara. I enjoyed it tremendously, as it enriched my understanding of the Jewish heritage and its beauty and depth of thought.
But I also took a great interest in secular knowledge: education, history, world literature, etc. I especially admired the classical works of Polish and German writers. I loved reading them. From time to time, to quench my thirst for knowledge, I attended lectures and speeches on various subjects at the Polish folk universities. When I was in Vienna shopping for fabrics for my sewing trade, I enjoyed listening to reviews of classic German authors' works in the great auditorium of the Bayerishes Hoff. All these lectures were well-attended by Jewish youth, who listened to them enthusiastically since this was the only interesting knowledge available.
I regretted going to those places, but unfortunately there was no Jewish environment to meet these needs of Jewish youth. I was happy to have my Jewish education, with which I could censor what I heard. But what about the other girls? If only I could communicate the subjects they were so eager to know and, at the same time, inspire them with Torah wisdom and the beauty of the Jewish heritage. If only I could!...
In the winter of 1908, I went to Vienna to attend the great celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Kaiser Franz Josefs coronation. It was a very impressive event, with all European dignitaries in attendance.
Great parades of military and home guard units marched through the streets of Vienna. Police troops protected the very distinguished entourage of the Kaiser and his esteemed guests, amidst music and song.
I thought about the immense glory and honor they give to this flesh-and-blood king, the enthusiasm and exaltation they shower upon the worldly ruler, who, like all human beings, will eventually turn into dust.
Why do our young people fail to understand and to give this honor and glory, this exaltation, to the Almighty, the King of kings? Instead, they pray to the Creator lethargically, as a burden, or just to please their parents.
If only I could explain to them how badly deceived they are. Instead of glorifying the Omnipotent Ruler, they render honor and pay tribute to the ruler of flesh and blood. Thus they substitute mere tinsel for true greatness and pure gold.
The end of the ninetheenth century found Europe in turmoil. All kinds of revolutionary ideas had been born and were spreading in the West. It did not take long for the strong winds of change to blow eastward — to Poland.
In the course of that century, the rising tide of assimilation in Germany, set in motion by the Haskalah, the so-called Jewish Enlightenment, lured young Jews and robbed them of their traditional values. They pronounced themselves equal to gentiles and free to mix with them, marry them, and become just like them. Unfortunately, these new ideas made inroads in the Polish cities.
The beautiful Reform temples that the maskilim built attracted a Jewish "intelligentsia" that was not worthy of the name — Jews who wanted to become Poles even if it sometimes ended up in conversion to Christianity, God forbid. None of it mattered as long as they had all the opportunities for advancement. Many Jews in the large cities fell victim to a gradual process of assimilation. In small towns, Jews still adhered to their tradition.
The great rabbis of Eastern Europe reacted to the onslaught of the Haskalah and launched a counteroffensive against it. They waged a continuous battle for many years.
The Torah giants of the time mounted a struggle against the influence of the Haskalah, the misnamed Jewish Enlightenment, each in his own way, each according to the conditions m his community. These warriors included Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, Rabbi of Kovno; the Ksav Sofer in Pressburg; Rabbi Shimon Sofer in Krakow; the Chiddushei ha-Rim, the Rebbe of Gur; Reb Yisroel Salanter in Vilna; and others.
Great yeshivos were founded in Poland and Lithuania. Reb Chaim of Volozhin founded the first yeshiva in the town of that name. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hakohen (the Chofetz Chaim) established the yeshiva in Radin. Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz founded the mussar yeshiva in Navardok. Other yeshivos operating in Eastern Europe were those of Slobodka, Telz, and Mir. In Germany, the cradle of assimilation, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch rose up to fight this dangerous affliction and cast his powerful influence not only across Germany but also in Poland and Russia. His world outlook and educational philosophy captivated young Jews and inspired them to follow the Jewish tradition. The Chassidic rebbes did their share, inspiring young Jewish men to embrace the Torah way of life and to study it with vigor and joy — thus sparing them from the claws of assimilation. The rabbi of Radomsk, Rav Shlomo Chanoch Rabinowitz, founded thirty-eight great yeshivos in Poland. The Torah-true world had any number of institutions on which it could rely: the Kesser Torah yeshivos, Talmud Torahs, Yesodei haTorah, the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva founded by the Lubavitch movement, and others.
Nobody, however, thought about protecting an especially vulnerable part of the Jewish population — the girls — from the onslaught of the Haskalah.
Then a new storm roared in from the West: the idea of national liberation and self-determination for all. Jews found it alluring, of course, and later developed their own liberation doctrine, Zionism. The Zionist idea spread quickly, resulting in the establishment of all kinds of organizations with different ideological shadings. "We lovers of Zion wish to 'make aliyah' — to settle in Eretz Yisroel and build our homeland and our children's future there." Zionist organizations mushroomed under such slogans.
Who joined them first? Our Orthodox youth, of course. Who else had been nurtured at home with love of Zion? Who else yearned for Eretz ha-Kedushah, the land of sanctity? Our girls were among the first to be caught up with the Zionist idea, and they flocked to join the movement's various organizations.
Young Sarah loved Eretz Yisroel so deeply. It possessed her thoughts and dreams. She longed to be there — to behold its beauty, to feel its sanctity, to walk on the ground where our prophets and prophetesses lived and prophesied, to listen to the whisper of history, to hear every stone, every blade of grass telling us about the glorious past of this land, the splendor of the times of Beis ha-Mikdash. She could never speak of Eretz Yisroel dispassionately.
Years later, when I was in the Bnos youth movement, Frau Schenirer occasionally visited us for shalosh se'udos, the third Shabbos meal, or spent a special evening with us. Each visit was an experience that engraved itself in our minds and hearts forever. One such visit occurred on Tu bi-Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the new year of fruit trees. Following the custom, the girls had brought fruits from Eretz Yisroel to celebrate the occasion and to recite the appropriate blessings over the fruit of our land. The girls were singing when Frau Schenirer walked in, a smile on her face and a spark of joy in her eyes. Soon, she joined us in song with her usual vigor and enthusiasm.
She loved to hear the girls sing solo, especially when they sang her favorite songs. She turned to one of the younger girls: "Nu, Mirale [Schwartzmer], it's Tu bi-Shevat, we're eating the fruits of Eretz Yisroel. Sing your favorite song."
An almond, a carob, a fig Bring us regards from our land Which we received From God's Hand.
But we don't have it anymore, Strangers now occupy its shores.
But soon will come the time When Hashem will restore The Land to His children. And they will return home With joy once more.
Frau Schenirer joined in the last verse with passion and then turned to Bertha Horowitz. "Now please sing your favorite song, 'Yerushalayim, Mayn Mamme [Jerusalem, My Mother].'" Bertha complied as well, with deep emotion:
Yerushalayim, my mother
My body and my soul,
Who has destroyed and disgraced you, Mother?
We are so far away, longing
And crying out our hearts to you
And Mother weeps
Praying for her children's return.
Then, we all sang together. It was Frau Schenirer's profound emotion that created that unforgettable mood of longing, pining, waiting, and hoping to be reunited with our beloved mother, Yerushalayim, soon.
One Friday night, a dear cousin of Sarah Schenirer's visited with her and suggested that she come along and enjoy a beautiful oneg Shabbos at the "Ruth" organization, to which she belonged. Unsurprisingly, Sarah gladly consented. She wanted to see how and what they were doing to promote aliyah — settlement of Eretz Yisroel. Maybe, she thought, I can be of help.
How disappointed she was when, instead of an oneg Shabbos, she found chilul Shabbos — desecration of the holy day — as the leaders unashamedly turned the lights in the hall on and off. Heartbroken, she turned to her cousin. "Please, let's leave. I cannot stay here a minute longer. How can this organization really love Zion, Eretz ha-Kodesh [the Holy Land], if everything they do destroys its kedushah?"
It had always pained Sarah to watch girls stray from the Jewish tradition. Now, however, it hurt her even more as she saw where these Zionist organizations were leading them. Oh! she thought. If only I could go out there and open their eyes to true love of Zion, love of the Ribono shel Olam, love of the Jewish tradition.
"But I am shy," she wrote in her diary. "Oh! If only I had the courage to run in the streets and scream, 'There is a Master Who created this world and leads it, Who with His lovingkindness nourishes us and bestows upon us all the goodness and beauty in this world!' If only I had the courage," she lamented.
Thus, even as a young girl Frau Schenirer had to battle against the influence of her own friends and cousins. She constantly struggled to combat their foreign concepts and to keep her inner self true to her lofty ideals.
Her diary, for instance, describes a happy event in her life that her friends wished to celebrate with her. They suggested that she and they go see a popular play at the theater.
She deflected their well-meant offer by recalling a midrash she had read on Shabbos: "When King David tried to get up at midnight and sing praises to Hashem, his yetzer ha-ra, evil inclination, taunted him: 'Are you out of your mind? All other kings sleep late into the day, and you want to rise at midnight?' King David replied cunningly, 'Very well, I'll spend my night at the theater.'
'"That makes more sense,' the yetzer ha-ra replied in satisfaction, and he left the scene.
"As soon as his despised foe left, King David arose and composed the Tehillim, the beautiful Psalms that we recite to this very day.
"How right he was," Sarah Schenirer continued. "Isn't our world likened to a theater, in which one actor wears a regal crown and another carries a beggar's cane? When the curtain descends after the earthly show, don't the king and the beggar go to the same grave?
"Isn't it better, instead of wasting time in this theater of life, to learn Torah and follow Hashem's commandments? We should remember that every day brings us closer to the moment of truth, when we will have to account for our deeds. Whether we wear a regal crown or carry a beggar's cane in this earthly theater, we all face the World of Truth when the curtain falls. We will have to account to the Eternal Judge for all our performances on this earthly stage."
On August 4, 1911, the 10th of Av, Sarah Schenirer wrote the following entry in her diary:
Just yesterday, on Tishah b'Av, I mourned the tragedy of the destruction of the Beis ha-Mikdash, the loss of the Holy of Holies, where God's Shechinah rested.
Today, Friday, my personal happiness was destroyed. I lost my dear father, my teacher, my leader. I am left without his presence, his advice, his encouragement.
I suffered two disasters, both a national and a personal tragedy, in one stroke. Who will comfort me? Who will comfort us? Then I remembered: a week ago [erev Rosh Chodesh Av, after her usual Yom Kippur Katan prayers at the Rema Shul] I went to pray at the grave of the saintly Rema. Interestingly, I realized for the first time that this great sage lived only thirty-three years, wrote thirty-three seforim, and passed away on Lag ba-Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer. In his short lifetime, he attained such great heights.
Suddenly I understood: Hashem gives man as much time as is needed to accomplish his purpose in life. My father too, in his short lifetime, achieved the goal for which he was destined.
She was comforted.
Her memory was correct. The Rema passed away on Lag ba-Omer. On his yahrtzeit, thousands of Jews from all over Poland would come to Krakow to visit the saintly grave of this holy man and to pray there.
One of the great rabbis who eulogized the Rema at his funeral said, among other things, that the saintly Rema had lived thirty-three years, published thirty-three seforim, and had thirty-three ma'alos (virtues). In admiration, the rabbi started to count them — but arrived at only thirty-two. There must be another one, he thought, racking his mind in distress. There must be another one.
"I know his thirty-third virtue," one of the mourners cried out. "On Purim night, when the Jews get together, eat and drink, sing and dance, and get drunk Ad de-lo yada in their merriment, they sometimes forget to daven Ma'ariv. At precisely that time the saintly Rema would leave his own Purim se'udah and knock on the doors of other Purim celebrants. As each door was opened, he would ask, 'May I have a little water to wash my hands? I have to daven Ma'ariv.'
'"Oh, my goodness!' the hosts would exclaim. And turning to their guests, they would say, 'Let's daven Ma'ariv. In all the excitement, we forgot to daven.'"
The Rema understood that amidst all the festivities people might forget to daven Ma'ariv, so he reminded them in a caring and inoffensive manner.
Sarah Schenirer herself passed away at the young age of fifty-two. Overcoming many difficulties, she brought to fruition her novel idea of educating Jewish girls in the spirit of Torah. By establishing the Bais Yaakov movement she saved not only the girls who enrolled in these schools but the entire Jewish generation of her time and all generations to come. In the eulogy at her funeral, the title Gedol ha-Dor was bestowed upon her. This was an unprecedented honor for a Jewish woman.
I bought myself a sewing machine," Sarah Schenirer wrote in her diary. "I purchased it with my hard-earned money. Now I had my own treasured possession! I took seriously to sewing. It's a tough profession, but one has to work," she philosophized. "We were placed in God's creation le-ovdah u'le-shomrah, to cultivate and protect it, both physically and spiritually. Idleness, laziness, is the mother of all evil. If man would only understand that he is here to contribute to the well-being of humanity, we would have a better world.
"I like to work," she continued. "It gives me time to think. Thoughts fly — thoughts of dreams, desires, and intentions, thoughts that make demands of me: muster your courage, go out into the world, speak to your sisters, the girls you love. Open their eyes and their minds. Show them what it means to be a Jewish daughter, a daughter of the King.
"Again, thoughts, thoughts. Don't delay, they urge me. Act, work, and perform. God will help you to accomplish your goal. Then come conflicting thoughts: You can't face an audience. True, you can speak one-on-one. But you're too shy to speak in public. You'll never do it!
"Never? Oh, God Almighty, I still hope to do it — maybe tomorrow, maybe some day, maybe soon."
* * *
Sarah Schenirer, whose heavy workload often forced her to toil until late at night, took a vacation twice a year at her mother's insistence. To carry the dual burdens of work and self-education, she had to relax and replenish her strength at regular intervals.
She vacationed at various spas and summer and winter resorts. As an ardent observer of God's nature, she was delighted to have those opportunities to observe and admire the beautiful country scenery. She was awed by the breathtaking views and considered it a zechus, a great privilege, to behold them.
She was also interested in meeting young girls in these places, or at weddings and other happy events that she frequently attended around Galicia. She discussed life with them and tried to interest them in her ideas. Some of the girls she spoke with were concerned with fashion, hairstyles, jewelry, and the like, to the exclusion of everything else.
"Other girls would come up to me," Sarah wrote in her diary, "and ask which organization I belonged to. These were intelligent, idealistic young people who strove to find meaning in life, who searched for an ideal. I tried to explain to them what the true ideal is. However, their minds were already made up. They had all joined various organizations that stood for the popular "isms" of our time, innocently believing that they could lead to the true goal in life.
"Oh!" the diary cried out. "If only I could establish an organization that would rebuff all those false ideas — an organization in which I could inspire young girls to embrace the Torah ideal and teach them how to love the Ribono shel Olam, to emulate His ways of loving-kindness, and to reach the true goal in life. Hashem," Sarah Schenirer implored the Almighty, "help me realize my dream!"
It is Yom Kippur. Sarah Schenirer prays. She begs her merciful Father to forgive all her sins and those of Klal Yisroel. "Father in Heaven," she entreats, "even the sinners are all Your children. Help them return to You. Especially forgive those misguided, estranged daughters of Yours who do not know how to pray. Help me show them how to serve You in joy and bring them closer to You."
She continues to pray with love and devotion. She follows the chazan during the Ma'ariv service. She imbibes his powerful tones: Chazak ve-ya'ameitz libecha ve-kavei el Hashem — "strengthen and encourage your heart and have hope in Hashem." The words give her strength and encouragement. She resolves, "I will put aside my sewing and start planning and working actively to bring my ideals to realization at long last. Kavei el Hashem — with courage, I hope for siyata di-Shemaya, Hashem's help."
In 1914, the world was dragged into the Great War (World War I), disrupting Sarah Schenirer's plans and ideas. Panic gripped Poland. Young men were drafted. Women and children fled from Galicia to Vienna, where they felt more secure. Sarah Schenirer and her family were among them. It was a daunting experience. Masses of people descended on the city; housing was scarce. After much searching, the Schenirers found an apartment on the outskirts of the city. Sarah was heartbroken. Where would she find an Orthodox shul to attend on Shabbos? Her landlady put her at ease, "Don't worry, Sarah, there's a nice Orthodox synagogue within walking distance; you'll enjoy praying there." When she visited the shul on Shabbos, she was amazed to see that women did not carry their siddurim or Chumashim (as there was no eiruv in this, the Seventh District of Vienna). Everything had been prepared for them in advance.
After Shacharis, she heard Rabbi Moshe Flesch, rabbi of the congregation, speak about the parashah and current events. Rabbi Flesch was a student of Rabbi Salomon Breuer, and a passionate teacher of the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. It was Shabbos Chanukah. Rabbi Flesch spoke with enthusiasm and warmth about Yehudis and how she had sacrificed her life to save her people.
Sarah, greatly excited, thought about the girls in Krakow. If only they could hear this message and share the inspiration she derived from Rabbi Flesch's oratorical skills. She resolved not to miss any of his Shabbos talks and, immediately after Shabbos, to take notes on what she had learned. The most memorable part of his Shabbos Chanukah message, she felt, was his elaboration on the sacrifice of Jewish women in all generations to save their people.
At this time she made her first acquaintance with the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. She was inspired by his idea of Torah im derech eretz, his courageous stance against the Reform movement, and his struggle against the Haskalah, which he waged with Torah-true values. How amazing it was, she thought, that in Germany, the citadel of assimilation, one man stood up and tackled a movement that had already become firmly entrenched by then. However, Rabbi Hirsch's remarkable influence spread far beyond Germany: his creative thinking and the unique style of his seforim captured the imaginations and minds of young people in many countries. Fascinated and intrigued by his novel approach toward Jewish tradition, they followed his ideas of Torah-true observance.
Young Sarah returned with her family to her beloved Krakow and the people for whom she cared so much. A distressing spectacle greeted her: organized youth who were following all those powerfully influential new "isms."
In order to spare the boys, our rabbis, the giants of the Torah, put up a great fight to repel the foreign currents that were flooding Poland. Nobody, however, cared about the Jewish girls. They believed that girls should be educated at home by their mothers. In agony, Sarah confronted our leaders' indifference to the tragic situation of the girls, who were left prey to these alien ideas.
Time and again she turned to the influential leaders of the Orthodox community and explained the need for traditional Jewish education for girls. She urged them to open their eyes and behold the disastrous plight of the Jewish daughters, the broken Jewish homes, and the tragic consequences this situation might, God forbid, bring upon the entire Orthodox way of life. With vigor and enthusiasm, she tried to inspire them with her vision of an educational system for girls that would mend the riven Jewish family.
It was all to no avail. Her entreaties and sincere reasoning fell on deaf ears. Nothing could convince the powers-that-be in the Jewish community that such a school was desperately needed. They denied the reality of the disintegrating Jewish family and, perforce, could not comprehend it. How it hurt Sarah to observe the beautiful tapestry of Jewish tradition, spun with love through ages by women of valor, suddenly torn and disgraced! The cold disinterest that our own people displayed toward her idea caused her untold anguish and disappointment, which she endured in silence.
How pitifully the situation compared with the warm concern for women's education that she had felt in Vienna. Here there was no Rabbi Flesch, let alone a Rabbi Hirsch, to breathe new life into the Jewish population. Thinking about Rabbi Flesch's lectures, Sarah felt with growing conviction that destiny had placed her in this world, at this particular time, to become the Yehudis of her generation — to save the Jewish girl, and with her the Jewish people at large, from destruction.
For young Sarah Schenirer, however, the going was tough. She met hostile opposition from left and right. Even her own friends ignored her ideas. Young people, hardened to the beauty of the Jewish heritage by the toxic atmosphere surrounding them, paid her no heed.
Mothers, however, shared their tragic stories with her. "My oldest daughter," one mother confided, "is a beautiful, charming, talented, smart girl. We all love her. She loves us too and respects us. But a terrible thing has happened," the mother continued, sobbing heavily. "She has joined the Communist party, which is outlawed in Poland, and has become a leading personality in it. She lectures in different towns and cities. But she won't speak in Krakow, so as not to hurt her parents. I fear for her life and safety because the government is hunting for Communist leaders to arrest them. My daughter doesn't care. She's fighting for her ideal — to bring justice to the world — and defends herself by saying, 'Wasn't it loving-kindness that you always taught us?'
"I have a younger daughter," she continued, wiping her tears. "I don't want her to follow her sister's lead."
Other mothers poured their hearts out to Frau Schenirer in the same way. One cried that her daughter was leaving home to join a nonreligious kibbutz in Palestine. Another lamented,
"Our daughters go to the movies after the Friday night Shabbos meal, which we eat early during the winter Friday nights. They just try to hide it from us."
Frau Schenirer listened to these heartbroken mothers' accounts of their daughters' irreligious and improper behavior. She armed herself with her notes from Rabbi Flesch's speeches and the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The collected writings of the latter became her inseparable companons, his translations of Chumash and Tehillim her favorite reading material. Realizing that she could not depend on the community leaders for any help, she resolved, "I shall break through my shyness once and for all and gird myself with courage to go out into the world and bring God's truth to the Jewish daughter."
On one occasion she mentioned to a few older students the passage in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers),3 Be-makom she-ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyos ish — "In a place where there are no men, try to be a man." "There are times, there are communities," she said, "where there are no men to care. Then you must stand up and be the 'man' who takes responsibility into his own hands," she added apologetically. Yes, she became a Torah giant who revolutionized the Jewish world with the novel idea of Torah education for girls.
Before she started to realize her plans, however, she consulted with her older brother in Czechoslovakia, with whom she was very close. She wrote him a letter explaining her plans. He discouraged her, saying, "Why do you need to get into fights with all those Leftist organizations?"
But when he saw her determination, he suggested that she visit Marienbad, where she could ask the Belzer Rebbe, Reb Yissachar Ber, for his advice.
"My happiness knew no limits when I received this answer," Frau Schenirer wrote later on. "Although I could hardly afford it, I immediately made arrangements to travel to Marienbad and meet up with my brother there. He was a familiar figure in Belz, and we were given an audience with the Rebbe right away.
"My brother wrote the kvitl, the note to the Rebbe: 'My sister has decided to educate Jewish girls in the spirit of our tradition.'
Fortunately, I was present in the room when the Rebbe pronounced the blessing, "Brachah VeHatzlachah!" – "Blessing and Success!"
This meant that she had carte blanche to go ahead with her idea.
"Those words, from the mouth of this great tzaddik, gave me courage and certainty that, with Hashem's help, I would succeed."
Online book sample chapters from - Carry Me in your Heart
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