This is the lost legacy of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania
Photos: Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania; Central State Archive of Lithuania; Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People
While the heroism of hundreds of Lithuanian women trapped and ultimately murdered in the early days of the Holocaust is now part of the historical record, where were these brave heroines during the interwar period? Many of them harnessed their holy strengths and talents to promote the eternal values of Torah within the surrounding towns and villages. This is the lost legacy of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania
In the summer of 1941, weeks after the German invasion of Lithuania, the Nazis massacred the Jewish population of Telz and the surrounding hamlets. They then incarcerated the 500 remaining Jews — all of them women — in a ghetto in Telz for a period of five months, beginning in Elul. But instead of succumbing to despair after witnessing the brutal murder of their entire community, the women of the Telz ghetto came together to say Selichos, to pack the barren shul in order to daven together on Rosh Hashanah, to fast and do teshuvah on Yom Kippur, to live their final moments joined together in acts of kedushah and taharah.
The story of these forgotten voices was first recorded in these pages two years ago, soon after I first found the testimony of the women of Telz in the Koniuchowsky archives at the Center for Jewish History in New York in 2019. With tears in my eyes, I shared what I had read with Professor Estraikh of New York University, who happened to be right there at the time, and asked: “Where has this story been hiding? Why have I never heard of these women? Why has no one ever heard of them?”
The reply came with certainty: “They were waiting for you to find them and tell their story.”
Thus began what I view as a tremendous privilege and also a sacred obligation.
Just as readily as the heroism of our “Litvishe Ladies” (as I began to think of them) was discovered, enthusiasts emerged to facilitate their passage to the forefront of the historical record. I received a fellowship from the Center for Jewish History to continue researching and writing about these special women in the interwar period. I titled my project, “Still Small Voices: Religious Thought and Practice among ‘Lithuanian’ Jewish Women Between the World Wars,” because I felt that this terminology, of quiet and holy strength, reflected the spirit of these women in their efforts to promote eternal values. They steadfastly radiated their message in the midst of the fire and tumult of their time.
Perhaps, as the professor intuited, these women really were waiting all this time. At the beginning of August, to my complete surprise, I was notified that I was the recipient of the Raizi Chechik Endowment for Lithuanian Studies in Vilnius. Within weeks I was whisked away to Vilna in the company of Lara Lempertiene, director of the Judaica Research Center at the National Library of Lithuania, and researcher Audra Cepkauskaite.
At the Martynas Mažvydas National Library, I held the first printed statement of the founder of Bais Yaakov of Lita, Mina Henkin. Rebbetzin Henkin outlined the mission of Bais Yaakov and concluded her impassioned entreaty with words that continue to reverberate even over a 90-year divide: “The kol dmama daka (still small voice) of our private and holy efforts will find, with the help of Hashem, its opposite echo in the hearts of the Jewish daughters who are still far from us. And then all of us together from that ‘still small voice’ will be zocheh to hear the voice of Hashem with the Geulah Sheleimah.”
That statement encapsulated the lost legacy of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania, an independent society that aimed to bring together the talents and energies of Litvishe women and girls in service of rededication to Torah and Yiddishkeit, cultivating a society of spiritually energized women who would take pride in their heritage and continue to fiercely protect and joyfully sustain it.
ithuania had Bais Yaakov. But it wasn’t what you think.
A few short years after Sarah Schenirer invited school girls to attend afternoon classes in her Krakow apartment about the tenets of Yiddishkeit, Agudas Yisrael adapted her model and created a network that spanned the entirety of the greater Polish community. The movement spread to Israel, to the American continent, and today, wherever there is frum life, there is Bais Yaakov, or a similar school for girls that replicates its paradigm.
But that famed model never quite arrived in Lithuania. There, things were different. In the first decades of the 20th century, Lithuanian Yiddishkeit began to conceptualize an educational system to enable young girls to learn and grow under the auspices of Orthodox Judaism. With far less of an Orthodox Jewish population in comparison to their Polish counterparts, a larger-scale effort would require collaboration with all groups that fit under the umbrella of Orthodoxy.
The first flourishing of frum education for girls in Lithuania was spearheaded by rabbanim of the Hirschean school, who found themselves stationed in Kovno (Kaunas) during World War I. As early as 1915, Rabbis Joseph Carlebach and his brother-in-law Leopold Rosenak founded and directed the Jüdische Realgymnasium in Kovno, which taught separate divisions of boys and girls, schooling them in the substance and spirit of frum Yiddishkeit imported from Germany. This school eventually was overtaken by the Tarbut movement, but its initial form set the stage for what would become the Yavne network, established in 1920 in Kovno. Yavne became the gold standard of Orthodox primary schools, numbering 44 schools all over Lithuania by 1934.
While the heightened intellectual climate of Lithuania bred the fabled yeshivos and nurtured the giants of lamdanus, it wasn’t always enough to support and promote fealty to halachah and mesorah. Not only was the larger literary world of the Haskalah a threat to frumkeit, youth groups with Zionist and socialist aims that blurred the lines of tradition established themselves all across Lita in an attempt to indoctrinate the young with ideals that ran counter to Yiddishkeit. The sheen of modernity was represented by the assimilated literati of the time. This charged Litvishe atmosphere necessitated a solution that harnessed the power of learning as well as the strength of the written word, one that would be grounded in acts of tzedakah and chesed.
This was the Litvishe Bais Yaakov.
And while it borrowed its name and its inspiration from the famous Bais Yaakov school network in Poland, Bais Yaakov of Lithuania was its own brand. It was not a school system, but rather a women’s movement that attracted young married women as well as girls. Instead of formal classes, each Bais Yaakov branch created its own weekly schedule, studying Chumash, Navi, Pirkei Avos, Ein Yaakov, and other topics. Shabbos gatherings were a staple, and events would take place to celebrate achievements, with guest lecturers and sometimes even representation from the Central Bais Yaakov headquarters in Kovno. Bais Yaakov groups would also use their talents to create objects of kedushah — in Alshad, for example, the women used their talents to create a new paroches for their local shul.
av Avraham Dov Ber Kahane Shapira, known as the Dvar Avraham, was a scion of the Kahane-Shapira family and a great-grandson of Rav Chaim Volozhiner. At age 18, when drafted into the Russian army, he was stationed in Minsk, where he would slip into the beis medrash of Rav Yerucham Yitzchak Perelman, known as the “gadol of Minsk.” Not only did Rav Perelman orchestrate Rav Shapira’s release from the army, he also chose him to marry his daughter Rochel.
Like most rebbetzins of her time, her role was not immediately discernible to the public eye. However, we now know that Rebbetzin Shapira was at the forefront of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania. On March 26, 1934, Rebbetzin Shapira held the role of president on the official government document that allowed Bais Yaakov of Lithuania to function as a legal entity. She writes “housewife” as her occupation, yet her presence on the masthead of Bais Yaakov journals and as honored president at the Bais Yaakov conference bespeaks the strength and power of Rebbetzin Shapira’s commitment to the spiritual well-being of her generation.
We would be unaware of this strength if not for her sole written legacy, which demonstrates her dedication to the cause of Bais Yaakov Lithuania. Here are her words in her “Missive to Jewish Youth,” celebrating the first year of Bais Yaakov as she calls to the Litvishe world to participate in this fledgling project:
In these difficult times for the Jewish collective and the Jewish individual, in times when the skies above grow ever heavier with clouds and our surroundings ever more desolate, we establish our group of Bais Yaakov. Its goal is to carry the light of Torah and the promise of Yiddishkeit to the remote legions of Jewish daughters today, tomorrow, and generations to come.
In deep appreciation of this unified effort, with the legacy of our glorious Yiddishe past and with hope toward our Yiddishe future, we join together hand in hand, determined to raise the flag of Yiddishkeit upon which is etched the eternal truth of our humanity, our nation. We have waited! The time has come for the Jewish woman and Jewish daughters to align themselves in action for the sake of Torah and mesorah. Both have upheld us throughout our long galus, and have constantly provided courage to carry on throughout sorrow and persecution, providing comfort in the hardest hours, forever awakening hope. They must continue as a pillar of fire, to venture forth before us in these new deserts of our lives, lighting our burdensome path.
Torah and emunah! Those eternal souls of Yiddishkeit! May they once again carry our nation and lead the way to a truly bright future for the generations to come…. Stand up as one in service of this holy ideal. May the spirit of generations long past, that were moser nefesh for Torah and Yiddishkeit, rise up again in you. May the holy fire of our gedolim inspire you from within and lead you to great deeds.
The generations of Yiddishe kedoshim are calling you! Come join in this task! Isha yiras Hashem hi tis’halal!
Bais Yaakov Shtim, a journal published by Litvishe Bais Yaakov in Tishrei of 1935, featured Rebbetzin Shapira’s article on the front page, entitled “Hei’asfu (Gather)!” The Rebbetzin wrote the piece in Yiddish to promote the forthcoming Bais Yaakov conference, which was planned for the following Chanukah of 1936:
To you, dear sisters,
To you, dear Jewish woman,
To you, daughter of the chosen nation — we address our call.
Prepare yourselves for the Bais Yaakov conference! At a time of inner divisiveness, outer persecution, unusual suffering and oppression, our call to you is mighty:
Bring yourselves together! Gather your strength, convene with your sisters, take an account of what you have already created and what you still have to accomplish. Allow yourself a fresh reckoning of what is taking place before you and around you.
And then let your voice be heard, the voice of a mother who is stricken with sadness for her lost child. Pour out her merciful feelings toward all of your sisters who are wandering, lost, on strange paths, being led by foreign ideals. Gird yourself with energy and force to combat all that is wanton and far from the spirit of Torah. And then, unite to support all that is true and morally upright. Hearken to the cries of all the forlorn, abandoned, and unfortunate, and help them however you can.
Dear sisters! Remember that in your hands lies the future of our youth. As educators, you hold the complete responsibility for their good and bad deeds. Don’t stand removed. Don’t be passive!
At this time, when others are leading a concerted effort against everything that is Yiddish and holy, will you be silent? It’s time to stand up in service of Hashem and the nation!
Both of these pieces provide a window into the perspective of Litvishe leadership as they attempted to galvanize the talent and verve of the young generation to reverse the beleaguering trend toward spiritual decline. Bright young girls were drawn to the multiplicity of youth organizations promoting ideals of socialism and Zionism. Many Yavne graduates were attending university and surrounded by Jewish peers who were quick to define Orthodox practices as simplistic at best, and were threatening core tenets of Yiddishkeit, including shemiras Shabbos, taharas hamishpachah, and tzniyus. The urgency of the hour and the tone of the battle against the overwhelming secularization reveal just how precarious those times were.
For Rebbetzin Mina Henkin though, the beginning was different.
In 1909, at the age of 18, Mina Vulfovitz of Malat married the future rav of Shadova, Rav Mordechai David Morduch Henkin, 25, from Niezhinsky. In Shadova, Rebbetzin Henkin taught Yiddishkeit in the local secular school, which offered religious classes to members of different faiths. She continued to do this until the Soviet takeover terminated all faith employments, including her own.
While serving as a teacher and raising her five children, Rebbetzin Henkin took notice as her town’s branch of Tiferes Bochurim flourished. The organization, widespread throughout Lithuania, offered and encouraged regular learning sessions for young men, providing additional Torah study opportunities that would not otherwise be readily available to them. In 1930, Rebbetzin Henkin decided that young women would benefit from such opportunities as well. The overlap between the two organizations was evident not only in the support of Rav Hillel Bisko, but also in the sharing of lecturers — rabbanim who would address both Tiferes Bochurim and the fledgling Bais Yaakov movement.
Rebbetzin Henkin started a learning group in Shadova and eventually traveled to neighboring towns to encourage others to follow suit. She taught Chumash, Nach, aggadah, and dinim. Her eldest daughter, Sara, joined her as a Bais Yaakov teacher.
Rebbetzin Henkin’s idea gained enough traction to warrant participation from her fellow educators in Kovno and Telz. Within two years, her idea spread, and she became one of the most active voices of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania, alongside chairperson Ella Shmuelevitz of Kovno.
Rebbetzin Henkin’s articles were a staple in the Bais Yaakov journals; Ella Shmuelevitz produced and edited the journals, published articles on Bais Yaakov in a variety of Jewish newspapers, organized Bais Yaakov conferences and special lectures, and even edited and published a book of halachos on taharas hamishpachah based on the lectures of the Dvar Avraham, which were organized by Bais Yaakov of Lithuania.
hile the formal Bais Yaakov branch in Telz was established in 1932, an earlier iteration of the group was actually formed in 1930. Called Chevra Chumash, it was established by the daughters of Telz Rosh Yeshivah Rav Yosef Leib Bloch. The impetus for this chevra was the untimely petirah of their sister, Perel Leah Katz. Together, the bereaved sisters decided to take on regular Chumash study as a zechus for Perel Leah a”h. Rav Bloch himself was the inspiration for both the form and content of the group.
This initial incarnation was largely focused only on learning, and teachers from the Telz Yavne gymnasium would participate in these regular learning sessions as well. With time, a broader audience joined the effort, and from the Bais Yaakov literature it seems that the intensity of the learning was softened to add appeal to the wider membership. Eventually, this breadth lent the group the leeway to transform itself into a branch of the Bais Yaakov organization, which ran public lectures, outreach activities, and focused on publications and events, alongside regular topical learning sessions. In Telz Bais Yaakov, Chumash and Rashi were learned biweekly, as well as Nach, aggados, Chazal, and Pirkei Avos.
Another feature that distinguished Bais Yaakov of Lithuania from its Polish counterpart was its publications. The journals created by Bais Yaakov of Lithuania were produced, written, and distributed by women only. The journal articles were written either in flowery Hebrew or rich Yiddish and reflected the intelligence and sophistication of their authors. Their singular goal was, as their letterhead stated, “to bring the bas Yisrael back to her source of Yiddishkeit.”
In this, the women of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania sought to use their erudition as a springboard to increased observance, not a detriment to it. As Sara Chananovitz writes as she celebrates the debut of the Bais Yaakov Journal in Lithuania in 1933:
“We are accustomed to cloaking ourselves in superficial grandiosity. We think we have already achieved a great deal. But let us not fool ourselves, let us reflect.
What have we accomplished, what have we created for the sake of our people, as daughters of the Chosen Nation? The only thing we can show for ourselves is: We learn. We can listen and thoughtfully ponder the most difficult problems in Yiddishkeit. But this leaves us in the realm of rich thoughts alone; soaring in the heavens, we lose sight of the ground beneath our feet. We forget what is happening in this world; we forget the spiritual devastation that rules the Jewish street.
Even as Hashem calls out to us, we don’t always hear it… robbed of all that is holy, we sit with our arms folded near our books, doing nothing.
No, my dear friends. This is not the way. Our mothers never visited a gymnasium, nor a university. But how great is the divide between us! Can we even compare?… Do we hear of the mesirus nefesh for Torah and Yiddishkeit as there once was? How much did a Jewish mother sacrifice so her child could learn Torah, to live as a Jew should? Do we have their instinctive Torah-sense, their natural Yiddishe sensibility?
In January of 1932, the Kovno weekly newspaper Yiddisher Velt featured three articles about the official opening of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania. In “Tsu Der Yiddisher Tochter,” Ella Shmuelevitz addressed the ostensible temerity that impelled frum women to create an organization:
Do Jewish daughters of Lita need to organize? “Certainly!” we will reply. Have we not sufficiently considered and concluded that frum daughters must also have an appropriate environment where they might find a spiritual home? Have we not recognized that our young sisters have, in great numbers, become captivated by foreign ideologies simply because they did not have a proper outlet to be proactive within our ranks?
Yes! But as yet we have done nothing. We have contented ourselves with our good intentions, but nothing more.
And, at the time when our sisters in Polish Bais Yaakov have yielded wonders in this self-same effort, we are sitting with our hands folded… We have much to learn from our sisters in Bais Yaakov as we envisage the prospect of organizing as well, here in Lita.
The direct inspiration from the Polisher example clearly stood as the impetus for this groundbreaking effort: a frum women’s organization, an active society dedicated to the enhancement of Lithuanian Yiddishkeit.
The backing of gedolei hador is the greatest testament to the value of Bais Yaakov of Lithuania. In 1932, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav himself, initiated the establishment of Bais Yaakov in his town. Rav Kahaneman also often served as lecturer for the women of Ponevezh. While the Rav’s sacrifice for chinuch is well known, few are aware of his efforts for chinuch habanos in the pre-war milieu. The success of Yavne girls frum gymnasium (an eight-year combination of junior high and high school) was due primarily to his fierce battle against the secular educational system in Ponevezh.
As was noted in the local newspaper of the time, Rav Kahaneman managed to extricate a full half of the student body from the secular Jewish high school for girls and transplanted them to Yavne, where they received an exemplary education — and entirely in Hebrew. But despite the Rav’s influence, the Bais Yakov of Ponevezh floundered; after many attempts, it was finally reestablished under Rebbetzin Kahaneman’s active leadership in 1937.
What makes Bais Yaakov of Lithuania unique is that at no other time in history did a band of women, highly learned in Torah, with vast expertise in worldly knowledge as well, join together not for progressive aims, not to change the status quo, nor for personal or collective advancement. Instead, they advocated a return to the age-old values of modesty, simplicity, and truth. They did not act as individuals, but as a society of peers, facing their shortcomings according to the teachings of mussar, and leaning in to the power of Torah and the sagacity of gedolei Yisrael to lead their way forward. Reading the words of Ella Shmuelevitz and Sara Chananovitz reminds us of the responsibility of leadership: not just of those in official capacities, but of every member of Klal Yisrael for every member of Klal Yisrael.
valiant as the efforts of these leaders were in life, each met a tragic end. Rebbetzin Mina Henkin was killed in the infamous massacre in Shadova in 1941; she was 50 years old. Her daughter Sara Braude, a new kallah, was murdered there as well, together with her husband. Rebbetzin Kahane-Shapira was killed with her son Chaim Nachman, his wife Raya, and their son Isamar in Kovno on 21 Kislev, 1940. Sara Chanonovitz Ratelman had followed her husband to Libau, where he led the Beis Yosef yeshivah. They, together with their baby Rachel, were murdered there in 1941.
Perhaps most heartrending of all is the story of the leader of Bais Yaakov, Ella Shmuelevitz.
In 1934, as editor and publisher of Bais Yaakov in Lita, it was undoubtedly Ella who penned the anonymous, lyric editorial on the front page of the journal, “Upon Lighting the Shabbos Candles,” in which she begs readers to remember, when they light their candles each Erev Shabbos, all of the terrible times throughout history when lighting Shabbos candles was forbidden, an impossibility. But women lit their candles anyway.
“Remember the times when, for keeping Shabbos, they slaughtered, hanged, and threw one in fire. And yet! Yet there were hundreds and thousands of heroic Jewish women, who passed away in cellars and caves, lighting their Shabbos candles. Light and light were then united — the light of the Jewish soul and the light of Shabbos. Both created a G-dly fire, that illuminates and glows, without end, for all time.”
Ella Shmuelevitz was taken to the infamous Ninth Fort outside Kovno on Friday evening. She brought her candlesticks with her, and reminded her fellow Jews that as Jews, they all had to sanctify Shabbos before being killed al kiddush Hashem, and more: that in the sanctity of Shabbos they too will sanctify the Name of Hashem Yisbarach.
Ella was killed after lighting her Shabbos candles, Erev Shabbos Shuvah, 1941. She was 42 years old.
None of the journal contributors or branch leaders survived to inform us of their efforts, of their contribution to history. Yet their words, have remained… for us to discover, internalize, and emulate.
As Sara Chananovitz wrote eight years before she and her young family were murdered, “Now is the moment for cheshbon hanefesh, to let go of that false perspective that true growth lies in learning for its own sake… if we imagine that dry, theoretical Judaism will enable the Jewish nation to remain, then we are living in pitiful naiveté….
“Just as a woman (Chava) had brought death to the world, so can she bring life. She can destroy worlds and can also build worlds….
“It’s time to radiate the example of a true bas Yisrael, who acts according to the Torah laws, performs good deeds, and strives for truth.”
No Longer Hidden
My first step in publicly conveying the unfathomable moments of kiddush Hashem expressed by these women was the piece “Last Neilah in Telz” (Mishpacha Issue 876, Rosh Hashanah 2021). Writing about the valor of these women resulted in correspondence from Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, and France. Blog posts were spurred by the article, as were heated discussions about the various aspects of its content. Later, when I took my Bais Malka-Belz Holocaust class to the Shiras Devorah Holocaust Museum in Lakewood, I scanned the playbill and viewed — could it be? Indeed, it was. The women of Telz were featured prominently as an exhibit, in live reenactment of their last Yamim Noraim as performed by Shiras Devorah high school students. It was clear to me then that the story of the women of Telz was no longer hidden, having emerged into the wide and welcoming embrace of parents and children, our mechanchos and their talmidos. Just where it belongs.
Still, like many apparent endings, this moment was only the beginning.
Tzipora Weinberg is an educator, lecturer, and historian residing in North Woodmere, New York, where she is rebbetzin of Kahal Lev Avos.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 978)
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