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- For the neighborhood in Jerusalem, see Beit Ya'akov.
Bais Yaakov (בית יעקב also written Beit Yaakov, Beth Jacob, or Beis Yaakov -- literally "House [of] Jacob" in Hebrew) is a common name for Orthodox full-time Jewish elementary and secondary schools throughout the world for Jewish girls from religious families. While these schools share the Bais Yaakov name, they are not necessarily affiliated, though some are, for other reasons.
The Bais Yaakov movement was started by seamstress Sarah Schenirer in 1917 in Kraków, Poland. The first school building survives as apartments and is marked with a bronze plaque. While boys attended cheder and Talmud Torah schools (and in some cases yeshivas), at that time there was no formalized system of Jewish education for girls and young Jewish women. Sarah Schenirer saw that there was a high rate of assimilation among girls due to the secular influences of the non-Jewish schools that the girls were then attending. Sarah Schenirer concluded that only providing young Jewish women with a thorough, school-based Jewish education would effectively combat this phenomenon. She started a school of her own, trained other women to teach, and set up similar schools in other cities throughout Europe. She obtained the approval of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim), who issued a responsum holding that contemporary conditions required departing from traditional prohibitions on teaching women Torah and accepting the view that it was permitted. Following the Chofetz Chaim's approbation, the Bais Yaakov Movement in Poland was taken under the wing of Agudath Israel. The original Bais Yaakov was a seminary of sorts, intended to train girls to themselves become teachers and spread the Bais Yaakov movement.
After World War II, Jews who came to North America, Israel, and other places established girls' schools of the same name, although some claim that the educational philosophy differs slightly from that of the original Bais Yaakov schools.
Besides elementary and high schools, there are also post-secondary schools in the Bais Yaakov system, usually referred to as seminaries. The seminaries run various courses generally lasting between one to three years. There are also post-secondary schools that combine Torah education with practical workforce skills, such as computer programming, education, and graphic arts.
The educational policies of most Bais Yaakov schools worldwide is generally that of Haredi Judaism and the Agudath Israel movement. In accordance with the differences between the Israeli and Diaspora Haredi communities, there are slight variations in outlook and philosophy between Israeli, American and European Bais Yaakov schools. Israeli Bais Yaakov schools tend to de-emphasize the secular content of the curriculum, whereas in North America and Europe the girls frequently receive a more diverse secular education. Large cities may have several Bais Yaakov schools, each with small variations in philosophy, typically over the importance placed on secular studies and/or accommodations made to secular values.
Students are required to uphold a dress code or wear uniforms which conform to the rules of tznius (modesty). Uniforms differ from school to school but typically consist of a long pleated skirt, oxford shirt, and sweater or sweatshirt.
The schools' primary purpose is to prepare students to be good Jews, mothers, and wives, and contributors to family and community. Secular studies are often secondary, though still considered important.
Most non-Hasidic Bais Yaakov schools in America teach Judaic studies in the mornings and a college preparatory program of secular studies in the afternoons. Judaic studies usually include study of Torah (commonly referred to as Chumash), Nevi'im (Prophets), and other parts of the Hebrew Bible; instruction in Hebrew language; Jewish history; and study of practical Halacha (Jewish law), sometimes directly from the text, and sometimes as a summary of classic Halacha sources.
The Tanach is studied through the lens of commentaries. Orthodox Judaism teaches that it is impossible to fully understand the written Torah without the commentaries, so Bais Yaakov girls are taught to read commentary, especially Rashi when they begin to learn Torah.
The curriculum of Bais Yaakov differs from that of (male) yeshivas, in that a core component of study for males is the Talmud. Girls in Bais Yaakov schools do not learn law from the text of the Talmud itself, but may study its non-legal portions of aggadah. This contrasts with the approach of many Modern Orthodox Jewish day schools, which increasingly teach Talmud to women.
Branches exist in most North American cities with large populations of Orthodox Jews such as New York, Montreal, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis, Toronto, Lakewood, Passaic, Monsey, and in most Israeli cities. Beis Yaakov-type schools are also found in major Jewish centers in Europe, such as London, Manchester, Antwerp and Moscow, and in other Jewish centers around the world, Including Johannesburg, South Africa.
Schools for girls within the Hasidic world share the same values, outlook, methodology, and aims of the non-Hasidic Haredi schools. However, they may place a greater emphasis on the teachings of their individual Hasidic Rebbes and much of the instruction may be conducted in Yiddish, which is still the home language for most Hasidic families in the world today. Also, in many Hasidic Beis Yaakov schools in Israel, English is often not taught, unlike in regular Bais Yaakov schools, where English is taught.
Schools for young Hasidic girls which are not part of the Bais Yaakov movement take names such as:
- Bais Rivka or Bais Chaya Mushka or Bais Chana for the Chabad Lubavitch girls' schools.
- Bnos Zion for the Bobov girls' schools.
- Bnos Belz or Beis Malka for Belz girls' schools.
- Bnos Vizhnitz for Vizhnitz girls' schools.
- Beis Rochel schools for girls of the Satmar community, as well as some girls' schools of related Hasidic groups (often of Hungarian background) follow a different curriculum of Judaic studies, which is less text-based and more focused on practical knowledge than the curriculum in other schools. Within their communities, these schools are usually referred to as offering education al pi taharas kodesh, roughly translating as "holy, pure education".
Schools of this type
- Sarah Schenirer: The Mother of Generations article from The Jewish Observer
- The Contribution of German Chareidim to the New Yishuv article from Yated Ne'eman
- Remembering Soroh Schenirer — Her Seventieth Yahrtzeit article from Yated Ne'eman