O Pioneers!

by Sharon Weiss-Greenberg

“You are pioneers. You are taking the first steps just as the students of Sarah Schneirer did. Be proud. You are brave and leading this school by blazing unknown trails.” These words marked the beginning of my career as a Bais Yaakov student. Although my family identified as Modern Orthodox, Minneapolis—or, for that matter, the state of Minnesota—was able to offer only one opportunity for a high school Jewish education, that of Twin Cities’ Bais Yaakov. My class was dubbed the “Pioneer Class.”

What made us pioneers? I was the sixth student to join the school, which was, in its first year, only the ninth grade. The school was thrilled because only then could we play three-on-three basketball. As a small, upstart school, every day was in a sort of limbo. How would we get to the pool this week for gym class? What was the microwave policy for lunchtime? What was considered “acceptable” reading material for English class? For example, approximately halfway through I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, our books were confiscated. 

Most of these questions fell on the administration—although, as a student, I also had risked a lot to join the school. I did not know if I would become good friends with any of the other five students. I was not sure if I would be prepared for college. I could not align myself with all the values and even halakhot being taught in the classroom.

Many questions hang over one’s head when one is the first. 

In February of my freshman year, an elderly man with a white beard shuffled into the room. He was barely five feet tall and had a sweet, calm demeanor. Our principal walked in behind him and interrupted the class. This elderly man had been a young boy when Sarah Schenirer started her school in the back of a tailor shop. He told us how crazy everyone thought she and her students were. He explained the stigma attached to her students and followers and the gossip that ensued on a regular basis. This was pretty jarring, as I had found Bais Yaakov to be fairly conservative and traditional. I noticed my principal’s and classmates’ eyes light up as this man shared the revolution of the Bais Yaakov movement. He told us to be proud of our founder and to persevere as she had.

Not all revolutionaries or pioneers are legendary as is Sarah Schenirer. Most fail. Most often, that is because change is met with resistance. In Orthodoxy, when change is not in dialogue and compliance with halakhah, additions or alterations in observance cannot even be considered. Tradition is an important element of our belief and practice. Nonetheless, change has happened and traditions and minhagim (customs) will be added and/or adapted over time. Change is also a rich part of our tradition. If we had not allowed minhagim to develop over time, we would not drink white wine on Pesach, celebrate a bat mitzvah, or say prayers for the State of Israel and for our hayalim and hayalot. We would not prioritize and support our daughters’ Jewish education as Sarah Schenirer did. We would not be living and practicing ideals close to our hearts. 

In reflecting on the radicalism of the Bais Yaakov movement, a little less than a century later, the landscape has changed dramatically. It is in this spirit that we present this edition of our JOFA Journal. It would be difficult to envision an Orthodox world today without women’s learning and scholarship. In this issue, women and men have shared rituals that have brought great meaning to their lives and the lives of others. Although some of these may seem more radical than others, this issue was meant to share experiences and models of Jewish engagement that others have found to be meaningful and within the framework of Orthodox halakhah. Will every ritual depicted in this issue become normative and mainstream within the next century? Maybe not. Will reading this issue and considering innovation in practice enrich our communities? That is our hope. 

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is the executive director of JOFA. She earned her doctorate in education and Jewish studies from New York University. She was formerly codirector of the OU Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Harvard Hillel and director of online engagement for the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education.


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