Mrs. Betty (Cohn) Mandelbaum (currently living in Philadelphia, PA) has the distinction of being part of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore on its very first day. When I called to request an interview with her, she graciously said, “Of course, anything for Bais Yaakov!” Our conversation gave me a glimpse into how much deeper our hakaras hatov must extend when we think about the people who built it—in her words—with “blood, sweat, and tears.”
Can you tell us about the very first day of Bais Yaakov?
I remember coming into my grandfather’s shul—where Bais Yaakov began—and meeting my morah, Morah Hess. I had just turned 5 years old, and the school began with me and one other girl in the month of June in 1942! It didn’t stay that small for long. Once we began, other girls began to join, and by the time September came, we had enough girls to divide into different age levels.
Wow! Why did the school start in June?
I don’t remember realizing it was supposed to be summer vacation; I was only 5 years old! My mother told me that Rabbi Schwab, who was one of the primary movers and shakers behind Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, was very particular about who would be teaching the students. He did not want the school to start until he had a teacher with hashkafos that would befit Bais Yaakov. June 1942 was the middle of the second World War, and
Mrs. Leisel Hess has just immigrated from Germany. Rabbi Schwab called my father and said, “We can start Bais Yaakov.” And so we did!
You mentioned that the school started in your grandfather’s shul.
What shul was that?
My grandfather was Rabbi Jacob-Yaakov Cohen. He did not have smicha, but he was a very learned man. I only knew him as someone who sat and learned all day because he had to retire early from business due to a heart condition. He started a shul with German minhagim. It was called Anshe Emes Synagogue, located at 2241 Linden Avenue. That’s where Bais Yaakov began. It didn’t stay there for long, though.
So the school began with Mrs. Hess as the teacher.
Do you remember any other teachers that you had?
I’m not sure where they found the other teachers! I remember that Rabbi Davis was one of the original ones. I also remember that when I was in about second grade, we had a teacher, Rabbi Igla, who was a Holocaust survivor. He only spoke Yiddish, and I only spoke English, but he was a great teacher and somehow taught us. They served lunch in school because they did not want the students to eat non-kosher, but I didn\’t like the food. I remember Rabbi Igla sitting next to me on the bench at recess trying to persuade me to eat the lunch. It was only when I grew older and learned where he was coming from that I realized why: he had lost all of his family in the camps.
I remember another teacher- Miss Sklar. I think she taught me in 8th grade. She was our first young, (unmarried) charismatic, exciting, teacher. She was a Bais Yaakov graduate from New York.
At one point we had a secular principal, Mrs. Rosenberg, a non-Jewish lady, who used to make sure the girls were dressed properly—and would ask the girls if they made a bracha when they ate!
What was the student & parent body like?
Very diverse! And very non-judgmental. The school was open to everyone. In fact, most of the women who started Bais Yaakov Baltimore—my mother was one of them—were not frum when they started!! Once the school was started, they put in their blood, sweat and tears to keep it going. You have to understand where people were coming from at that time. The idea of frum girls’ education was still not accepted across the board. It was just after a big war, after the Depression—earning a parnassah was a very major consideration in everything that people did. My parents were two of the few American-born parents. Most of the girls were from European families. Although some of them were not shomer Shabbos at the time, they were from a European background and wanted their children to have a Jewish education. Many of them worked in neighborhoods with public schools that had students with whom they did not want their children hanging around, so they sent their daughters to Bais Yaakov.
What year did you graduate? And what did most girls do after that?
At the time, Bais Yaakov only went through junior high—so I graduated from Bais Yaakov in 9th grade in 1955. In those days, even very frum parents would send their children to public school after 6th grade because they were worried that the education would not be good enough for their daughter to be accepted into college. There were four girls in my graduating class in 9th grade. I went on to Western High School, which was an all-girls public school. After one year there, my parents sent me to New York, and I went to a small high school in Washington Heights for a year. For 12th grade, I went to Williamsburg and then stayed for a half year of seminary. But I really wanted to go back to Baltimore!
What were you planning to do back in Baltimore?
Look, even nowadays, Baltimore and New York are different. But back then—they were like different planets! For me, Baltimore was a cozy place where I knew everyone and everyone knew me. I had protekzia, so was hired to teach in Bais Yaakov! I taught kindergarten and then 5th grade, even with no experience! My class had around 30 girls, all from different backgrounds. By the time I taught, the school was much more established, and the students were mostly from frum homes. Still, they would come in wearing sleeveless shirts sometimes—there was no uniform or real dress code. I remember that when I taught 5th grade, sometimes I would tell them that for Limudei Kodesh if they weren’t dressed properly, they would have to grab a sweater or something—and they listened and understood.
What would you say is one of the main differences between Bais Yaakov then and now?
I always tell my kids—I lived in a do-it-yourself world, and you live in a world where everything is there for you. We did not take things for granted. You saw how hard your parents worked. My father had a regular job, but he used to spend a lot of his day doing Bais Yaakov work, raising money and going to people when they needed to meet the payroll. He would do his work at 2:00 in the morning—and I thought everyone’s fathers did that! My father was president for a large part of his life, and he took the job very seriously.
Now when a school starts, you have an infrastructure, a board, students…but then, it was just ideals! Baruch Hashem, people listened to Rabbi Schwab and respected him.
As a child, growing up in a very accepting community is very nice. I always remind my kids—thank Hashem for what you have because people literally started our community and Bais Yaakov and worked very hard to do so. There was really nothing much—but look where those visions and ideals took us, and how beautiful Bais Yaakov is today.
Thank you so much for your time, Mrs. Mandelbaum! It is so inspiring for us to hear a little “drop in the bucket” of your experiences and everything that went into making our Bais Yaakov what it is today.