Bais Yaakov (Hebrew: בית יעקב also Beis Yaakov, Beit Yaakov, Beth Jacob or Beys Yankev; lit., House [of] Jacob) is a genericized name for full-time Haredi 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.
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.
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.
Girls who were taught in the Bais Yaakov movement used their education as psychological support to survive World War II and the Holocaust.
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 expression "House of Jacob" is understood by Jewish commentaries on the Bible to refer to the female segment of the Jewish nation: Moses is instructed to "say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel", where the parallel expressions are interpreted as referring respectively to the female and male segments.
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 generally share much of 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 the instruction of religious subjects may be conducted in Yiddish, which is still the home language for some Hasidic families today. In Israel, nearly all of the Haredi schools for girls operate within one of two educational systems; these schools both utilize the Israeli Ministry of Education's core curriculum and take the requisite Bagrut high school matriculation exams.
Schools for young Hasidic girls which are not part of the Bais Yaakov movement take names such as:
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".
Several Hasidic groups, also, extend their program to the "Seminary" level, where women train for two years to certify as teachers, in parallel with further Torah study.