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Carrying Her Teacher’s Torch

Barbara Bensoussan

Seventy-nine years ago, a childless seamstress passed away on 26 Adar I, and the world mourned. In honor of Sarah Schenirer’s yahrtzeit, her student Mrs. Raizel Wolhendler shares the impact the founder of Bais Yaakov had upon her life — and upon generations.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

 For most of us, Sarah Schenirer seems the stuff of legends. We all know she created a revolution by spearheading Torah education for girls, but those efforts seem long ago and far away. We barely know what she looked like; the only surviving photo shows a rather fearsome-looking woman with a round face, wide mouth, heavy brows, and coal-black eyes.

But to Mrs. Raizel Wolhendler, now in her 90s, Sarah Schenirer was a warm, loving teacher, who kindled a fire for Judaism that warmed her even during her frozen nights in concentration camps. Although many years younger than Sarah Schenirer, Mrs. Wolhendler was also a native of Krakow, and was sent as a young girl to the original Bais Yaakov and then to the teachers’ seminary before war forced the school to close.

Mrs. Wolhendler is of short stature, but she holds herself erect and exudes a quiet dignity. The youngest of four children, Mrs. Wolhendler (née Dym) was born into a family of Belzer chassidim. During her school years in the 1920s and ’30s, when Bais Yaakov schools were still a new innovation, she attended a Bais Yaakov in the mornings, then a Polish school in afternoons.

“The Polish school ran from one to five or six, even on Fridays,” she relates. “We were young girls and sometimes we dawdled on the way home from school, window-shopping, and on some Fridays we arrived home after our mothers had already lit Shabbos candles.

“Frau Schenirer found out we were getting home after Shabbos, and she had tremendous tzaar from it. She went to the director of the Polish school and asked him, ‘Could you make the day a little shorter on Fridays for the girls?’” Mrs. Wolhendler smiles fondly. “Of course, we knew the problem was us, not the schedule! But by speaking up for us, Frau Schenirer gave us the feeling that she cared deeply about us, and cared deeply about Yiddishkeit.”

In the period after World War I, Jewish youth had been greatly weakened. While many of the chassidic boys were still strongly attached to Yiddishkeit — “some of them barely spoke Polish” — the girls got virtually no Jewish education.

“Frau Schenirer was very bothered by this,” she says. “She thought, ‘Who will those boys marry?’ She spoke to her brother about the problem, suggesting that maybe she should make a school to teach the girls.

“The Belzer Rebbe was in Krakowat that time, to see an eye doctor. Her brother offered to take her to him, to give a kvittel. He was the one who spoke for her. The Rebbe asked her, ‘What do you want to teach?’ She answered, ‘Parshah… tefillah… brachosYahadus.’ He gave no reply. Finally she added, ‘Yiddishkeit,’ and then he immediately responded, “Bruchah v’hatzluchah!’ ”


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