Bais Yaakov (Hebrew: בית יעקב also Beis Yaakov, Beit Yaakov, or Beth Jacob; lit., House [of] Jacob) is a genericized name for full-time ultra-Orthodox Jewish elementary and secondary schools for Jewish girls throughout the world.
Bais Yaakov, started by Sarah Schenirer in post-World War I Kraków, was at the time a revolutionary approach to Jewish women's education. It has since achieved mainstream status within Orthodox Judaism, with branches located worldwide in every Jewish community with a significant population.
While many of these schools carry the Bais Yaakov name, they are not necessarily affiliated, though they may be for other reasons.
Schenirer saw that there was a high rate of assimilation among girls due to the vast 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 Yisrael Meir Kagan (author of 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. Additionally, Schenirer sought and received approbation from Hasidic rabbis as well, most notably the Belzer Rebbe and the Gerrer Rebbe. Judith Grunfeld was persuaded to assist Schenirer. The original Bais Yaakov was a seminary of sorts, intended to train girls to themselves become teachers and spread the Bais Yaakov movement. Grunfeld would lead the seminary from 1924 to 1929.
Besides elementary and high schools, there are also post-secondary schools in the Bais Yaakov system, usually referred to as "seminaries". These run various courses, generally lasting between one and three years.
The name Bais Yaakov comes from a verse in the Book of Exodus in which the term "House of Jacob" is understood by Jewish commentaries on the Bible to refer to the female segment of the Jewish nation.
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 contributors to family and community, as good Jews, wives, professionals, and mothers.
Secular studies sometimes reflect government proficiency requirements in such subjects as math, science, literature, and history in their respective countries.
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 Chumash (Pentateuch), Nevi'im (Prophets), and other parts of the Hebrew Bible; and instruction in the Hebrew language, in Jewish history, and the study of practical halakha (Jewish law), sometimes directly from the text, and other times as a summary of classic halakha sources.
One of the tenets of Orthodox Judaism is that it is impossible to fully understand the written Torah without the Jewish commentaries; so, Bais Yaakov girls are taught the Tanakh through this approach. A major focus is on Rashi, considered the foremost Torah commentator.
The curriculum of Bais Yaakov differs from that of male-only yeshivas, where the core component of study 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 (homiletics). 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 City, Montreal, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis, Toronto, Lakewood, Passaic, Monsey, and in most Israeli cities. Bais Yaakov-type schools are also found in major Jewish centers in Europe, such as London, Manchester, Antwerp, Paris, Aix-les-Bains and Moscow, and in other Jewish centers around the world, including Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Melbourne.
Pre-war locations included over 260 towns and cities in Poland, with its central teachers' seminary in Kraków.
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 today. Also, in many Hasidic Beis Yaakov schools in Israel, English is often not taught, which is not the case in other Bais Yaakov schools.
Schools for young Hasidic girls which are not part of the Bais Yaakov movement take names such as:
- Bais Rivkah, Bnos Menachem, Bnos Rabbeinu, 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.
- Bnos Frima for Munkacs
- Beis Rochel schools for girls of the Satmar community, as well as some girls' schools of related Hasidic groups (often of Hungarian background).
These schools (excepting Chabad) 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".
- Mesivta: a Boys' Yeshiva high school
- Ulpana: a Religious Zionist girls' high school in Israel
- Midrasha/Seminary: a women's' institute of Torah study
- Benisch, Pearl (2003). Carry Me In Your Heart. Feldheim.
- "From Sarah to Sarah" by S. Feldbrand1976
- "Grunfeld [née Rosenbaum], Judith (1902–1998), headmistress". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/75144. Retrieved 2020-08-20.
- Benisch, Pearl (1991). To Vanquish the Dragon. Feldheim.
- Exodus 19:3