(Photo: Mizrachi Girls School, Jerusalem 1950)
Answering the Call: Nechama Leibowitz and the Mizrachi Girls School of Jerusalem
On October 17, 1933 (27 Tishrei 5694), the Mizrachi Girls School of Jerusalem began providing education and vocational training to religious girls between the ages of fifteen and seventeen who were born in the Land of Israel. The girls, who had primary school diplomas, were initially admitted for a month-long trial period; only after proving themselves in their studies did they go on to spend two years at the school.
The historical events of the early 1930s brought change to the institution’s mission. With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the need arose to help Jewish teenagers leave Europe, make their way to the Land of Israel, and integrate there. For these teenagers, the Jewish Agency established a program called Youth Aliyah, the brainchild and creation of Recha Frier (a German Zionist leader, poet, and author). Youth Aliyah was managed by Henrietta Szold, an educator and Zionist activist originally from the United States and one of the founders of the Zionist women’s organization Hadassah.
Through Youth Aliyah, children arrived in the Land of Israel without their parents and were absorbed by kibbutzim in small groups. However, the religious kibbutzim of those days were small in number and unable to take in all of the religious children. And so the Mizrachi Girls School stepped in to absorb religious girls who had arrived alone from Germany through Youth Aliyah.
Answering the call of the hour: taking in girls from Germany
In 1938, there were sixty-five boarding students at the Mizrachi Girls School of Jerusalem, from Germany, Palestine, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. The grounds of the institution extended over an area of one acre, on which were a vegetable and flower garden, a nursery, and a chicken coop. The building’s main floor included a cafeteria, kitchen, sewing hall, library, club room, and office. On the two upper floors there were dormitories, and on the roof was an “electric laundry”, then considered a state-of-the-art amenity.
Bessie Gotsfeld recalled the early years of the school in an article published in HaTzofeh on October 12, 1943: “A short time after the opening of the Mizrachi Girls School of Jerusalem, the initial Youth Aliyah groups began arriving in the Land of Israel. Young men and women in their adolescent years were taken from Germany to be educated in the Land of Israel in the spirit of pioneering Zionism. Nearly one-third came from religious homes and demanded religious education and a religious environment.
“However, at that juncture it was scarcely possible to find kibbutzim or institutions where these youths might be absorbed.
“Amid these circumstances, we saw fit to place the new institution at the service of Religious Youth Aliyah as a vocational education center. Accordingly, eligibility for admission was broadened and the curriculum was slightly changed. Two hundred and fifty girls who arrived through Youth Aliyah went through the Girls School, where they studied gardening, sewing, and various disciplines. Concurrently, they received instruction from teachers of note in Hebrew, Tanach, and history.”
Nechama Leibowitz: bringing Judaism and Zionism to life
One of the best-known teachers to work at the school was Nechama Leibowitz, a biblical commentator who would go on to become a professor of Tanach and an Israel Prize laureate in education. Born in Latvia, she received her doctorate from the University of Marburg in Germany. She immigrated in 1930 to the Land of Israel, where she lived with her husband in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood and worked at the Mizrachi Girls School and later the Mizrachi Teachers’ Seminary, where she taught literature, Tanach, and Jewish history.
In her book Nechama, Chayuta Deutsch writes: “In 1938, Mrs. Lotte Pinczower, director of the Mizrachi Girls School of Jerusalem, asked Nechama Leibowitz to join the school’s instructional staff. The Mizrachi Girls School then was a vocational high school for girls, most of them new immigrants from Germany without family. The encounter with these girls was a true challenge for Nechama Leibowitz. Nechama’s knowledge of German helped her form a connection with them and enabled her to help them interpret and understand Hebrew words.”
In a 1947 article by Professor Leibowitz, she describes the girls who arrived at the institution in its early days, during the years that preceded the Second World War: “Every suitcase, every bag, every pressed collar, every leather belt matched to the color of the dress attested to the parents’ care.” Professor Leibowitz added that the girls who came in those years with attractive clothing from their comfortable homes in Germany knew not a word of Hebrew when they arrived in the country. Professor Leibowitz lamented the fact that a large part of the two years they were afforded to study at the institution was dedicated to learning rudimentary Hebrew vocabulary instead of engaging in study that would enrich the intellect and the soul.
Upon completing their studies, the girls were assimilated in the workforce in various places in the country. Some joined the kibbutzim of Tirat Tzvi, Ein HaNatziv, Yavneh, and those of Gush Etzion. The goal was to train them as pioneers who would help build new religious communities.
After the war
In the same HaTzofeh article, Professor Nechama Leibowitz described how different the students who arrived from Europe in the two years after the war were from those who had come in the early days of the school. The girls who came after the Holocaust knew Hebrew better and were thirsty for knowledge, despite the atrocities they had endured.
“You might have thought that girls who had spent five or six years – one-third of their lives! – in such horrific surroundings, in places where every trapping of humanity had failed, where every moral law had been annulled, where all values had been trampled, would not be able to receive the words of the living G-d; that the Torah and the Prophets would no longer find inroads to their hearts due to apathy or cynicism.
“You stand there in wonder and amazement… because the very same reactions we saw from the best of the youth all through the years… the same discussions, the same joy from a newly introduced idea, from a beautiful and stirring literary expression, you find among these girls as well… Apparently such is the soul of a young man or woman of Israel: its purity withstands the gates of defilement and is unmarred. Fortunate is the home that takes in such youth to educate them, to guide them, to teach them Torah. How great is its task, and how grave its responsibility!” (Nechama Leibowitz, HaTzofeh, “The Immigrant Girls”, October 21, 1947)
Expansion of the Mizrachi Girls School of Jerusalem
In 1945, a cornerstone was laid on the grounds of the school for the construction of an additional building that would house Holocaust survivors of elementary school age. The assumption was that the girls attending the high school would be able to help the younger children and assist the existing staff while gaining experience in childcare. Construction ended in June 1946, and the institution then opened its doors.
In August 1951, a cornerstone was laid on the grounds for the construction of the Esther Shapiro Vocational High School, named after a member of Mizrachi Women of America. Present at the cornerstone laying ceremony was Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who noted in his remarks that “many daughters have done great things”, but the Mizrachi Women of America have surpassed them all by founding establishments dedicated to the glory of education.
● Originally published in Hebrew at ReshetAmit.org.il