Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Educating American Girls

When Vichna Kaplan (1913 - 1986) arrived in America in 1937, her experiences confirmed the country’s reputation as a place where Jewish tradition was in danger. This was particularly true for Jewish girls, who received no Jewish education after primary school. Kaplan, who had fought for her own advanced education, knew exactly what she needed to do.

Born in Slonim (Poland) and orphaned while still young, Kaplan had been raised by an aunt and uncle who believed a woman’s place was in the home and education beyond the basics was unnecessary. When Kaplan was 16 years old, she had her heart set on joining Sarah Schenirer’s new Beth Jacob  (Bais Yaakov) Seminary for women in Krakow. She went to Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, a leading rabbi of the time, and received his approval, which swayed her uncle to allow her to go.

Kaplan became a star student and close disciple of Sarah Schenirer. After graduation, Kaplan moved to Brisk to teach the daughters of the Brisker Rav. In the five years she lived in Brisk, Kaplan became a well respected teacher and popular public speaker. She left Brisk upon her marriage to Baruch Kaplan, an American who had been studying at European yeshivas.

Within a year of her arrival, Kaplan began her first Beth Jacob “school,” a night class that met after school and work. It began with the two daughters of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, founder of the first boys’ yeshiva high school in America, and five of their friends.

Kaplan’s student body grew each year, and, in 1944, she was able to open a full high school in Williamsburg (Brooklyn, NY). To serve as faculty, she hired fellow graduates of the original Beth Jacob Seminary in Krakow. A second high school was opened in Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood in 1958, and later an elementary school and a seminary. Through her work, Kaplan had an extraordinary impact on Jewish life in America. Her students followed in her educational footsteps and many girls from Orthodox Jewish homes were able to have a rich and full Jewish education.

Vichna Kaplan remained active in Jewish education throughout her life, even while raising her nine sons and four daughters. She passed away on August 20 (15 Av) 1986.

Today's Treat honors an extraordinary teacher in honor of Women's History Month and the yahrtzeit of the founder of Beth Jacob, Sarah Schenirer.

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