Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Impact of Education on Women’s Assimilation

Many Jewish women in Russia who assimilated left the religious community because they had received an extensive and formal secular education, but only a limited and informal Jewish education. Religious instruction for Jewish girls was subpar to the education that boys received; even the most preliminary form of Jewish education, the heder, was solely open to boys. As the Russian government required children to attend school, Jewish parents who sent their sons to heder or public Jewish schools sent their daughters to public secular schools or hired private secular tutors for them. As a result, Jewish girls only received the religious instruction that their parents deemed worthy to impart to them, usually learning little beyond Yiddish language and how to read the Hebrew prayers. Girls’ disparate secular and Judaic schooling gave them knowledge of the positives of the secular world, but no parallel understanding of the Jewish religion. Consequently, they had little desire to practice Jewish observance and preferred to assimilate.

Members of the Orthodox community noticed this phenomenon while it was occurring. Puah Rakovsky, an assimilated Jewish girls’ education activist who lived in Russian-controlled Poland during the late nineteenth century, wrote in her memoirs: “If both Jewish girls and boys had studied our Torah, culture, and customs; then how many thousands of Jewish mothers would have been saved from assimilation." 

To combat this acculturation, a rabbi at a Polish rabbinical conference in 1903 suggested that a religious school system for girls should be established, but nothing was done to realize this idea. Finally, over a decade later, an Orthodox woman named Sarah Schenirer established the Bais Yaakov system of schools for girls in Krakow in 1917. The Jewish community rallied behind her, finally agreeing as a whole that Jewish girls needed formal religious education. A major rabbi of the early twentieth century, the Chofetz Chaim, said of the Bais Yaakov movement shortly after its creation: “It is surely a great mitzvah [commandment] to teach girls….Because if not, the girls are likely to stray completely from the path of the Lord and transgress the foundations of our religion, God forbid.”

Interestingly, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that Russian Jewish women of the latter half of the nineteenth century had more secular education than Jewish men, part of what led them to assimilate was the desire for even more of this education. Many Jewish girls, seeing the extensive learning that their brothers did, wanted more of an education and went out of their way to obtain it. In order to enroll in gymnasia or study privately for the exams that would allow them entry into universities, girls assimilated and left the Jewish community. Despite the anti-Semitism that barred many Jews from the institutions of higher learning in Europe, Jewish women had a huge presence at the universities, constituting a disproportionately large percentage of female students.

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