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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Up from Nogales Bina November 29, 2010

Title: Up From Nogales
Byline: Debbie Shapiro
Lead in:
The girls of Bais Yaakov Denver were Torah pioneers, creating a new reality in the spiritual wilderness of America's spiritually barren west. Many of today's flourishing Torah communities and Bais Yaakovs did not yet exist. The girls felt a sense of responsibility; they were the generation after the churban, it was their task to rebuild and create a vibrant Orthodoxy. This ideal was reflected in the school's song:

In an endless barren land
a dream of Yiddiskeit
thrives beneath the red sun.

A town with hopes so high
will reach their goal
before their lives will be done.

We girls with achdus
and spirits strong
must keep the Yahadus rolling along

Oh, glory to Denver
for with Bais Yaakov
a barren land no more!


The generation after the war; the children of the survivors: although they bore no scars from the endless beatings nor did they sport numbers on their arms, the Holocaust shadowed every step they took. They grew up knowing that they were the future, the fulfillment of their parents' dreams. Their parents had suffered unspeakable pain, and it was now their responsibility to give them joy and a future. It was an awesome responsibility.

When Bernie Cohl (Schwartz) entered Bais Yaakov Denver in 1970, she felt the weight of that responsibility. Her parents, both survivors, had struggled to carve out a new life for themselves. Health problems had forced them to move to the sunny south, to Nogales, Arizona, a small town on the Mexican border with a minuscule Jewish community. Both Mrs. and Mrs. Cohl were proud Jews with a deep belief in Hashem and — despite the indescribable suffering that they had gone through — a strong trust in the Almighty's ultimate goodness. Although Mr. Cohl was the most religious and knowledgeable Jew in the city, neither he nor his wife kept Shabbos. They weren't rebelling against Hashem and His Torah. They had been torn away from their heritage; another success for Hitler.

The Cohls’ strongest desire was that their children would never suffer the way they had. They thought the key lay in education and were willing to sacrifice everything to make sure their children received the best education possible. So when Mr. Cohl's boss and close friend suggested that he send his two daughters to one of the top college prep schools in the country, the Cohls jumped at the opportunity. Although they knew that the school was attached to the Episcopalian Church, they were told that it was non-sectarian. In their innocence, they assumed that meant it was “non-religious.”

They couldn't have been more wrong. The missionary school required its students to take classes in religion and to attend chapel ten times a week.

Although twelve-year-old Bernie spent her days studying another religion, in the evening, after classes, she studied Judaism on her own. She was the only student to fast on Yom Kippur. At the sight of three stars, she broke her fast on the school's non-kosher supper.

Bernie knew in her heart that a Jew must never kneel in a church, so although she attended chapel ten times a week, she never fully participated in the services. But just before school let out for the summer break, the administration — probably upset at Bernie's stubbornness — announced that the following September all students, without exception, would be required to kneel during chapel! So that summer, Bernie told her parents that she could not go back. “I spent the entire year learning about someone else's religion,” she explained. “Now I want to learn about my own.”


Just a few days before Bernie arrived home, one of Mr. Cohl's friends from the Phoenix Jewish community mentioned to him that the previous year, a Jewish high school — a Bais Yaakov — had just opened up in Denver, and that they were now accepting pupils for the ninth grade. The previous year, Rabbi Myer J. Schwab had left his positions as assistant principal of Torah V'Daas (presently Torah Temima) in Flatbush and teacher in Rika Breuer Teachers' Seminary in Washington Heights to move to Denver, Colorado to open a Jewish school there — the first Bais Yaakov west of Chicago.

"When I arrived in 1968," Rabbi Schwab recalls, "I didn't think the school would last more than one year, and I made sure to have a return ticket in my back pocket! Now, forty-three years later, I'm still here. We started off very small: eight local girls and two girls from out of town. By 1977, we had so many girls from out of town that we opened a dormitory."

That summer, thirteen-year-old Bernie flew to Denver for a few days to see if she would like to attend the school. “Rabbi Schwab picked me up at the airport and I spent three days in his home. His family tried to make me feel at home. I liked the people that I met — it was wonderful to be among other Yidden — and I decided to go there for ninth grade.

“But I was far from the ideal Bais Yaakov student. The modesty that I was raised with did not meet the halachos of tznius, and my Hebrew was so bad that I misspelled my own name on the application form!”

Although Bais Yaakov of Denver did not cater to baalei teshuvah — in those days before the baal teshuvah movement, the term was associated with Yom Kippur — its doors were open to any sincere girl desiring to grow in her Yiddishkeit. For girls like Bernie, being a part of a normal, frum community was a wonderful opportunity to experience Yiddishkeit from the inside.

That first year, Bernie, together with another girl, boarded with the Feder family. Shabbos, she appeared at the table wearing what she considered to be modest dress -- a sleeveless shell, pants, and her hair neatly pulled back into braids. No one batted an eye. They accepted her as a work in process and they had patience.

Bernie was astounded at Shabbos. Although at home her mother lit Shabbos candles and her father recited Kiddush, to Bernie Shabbos felt like any other day. "Mrs. Feder would make the brachah on the Shabbos candles and as if by magic the world was on a different plane. The difference was palpable. For me, believing in Hashem was like putting on the softest, silkiest sweater in the world. It enveloped me, and once it was on, I could never imagine being without it."

For a girl coming from public school, Bais Yaakov was a completely different world. “Mrs. Schwab entered the classroom and all the girls stood up as a sign of respect,” reminisces another student who had come from public school. "I was flabbergasted — respect a teacher? That was unheard of! And then, during the break, the girls sat around the classroom and — this was unbelievable — they started singing. Could you imagine? Singing! A few girls showed us the steps to a popular Jewish melody and by the time the bell rang for us to go back to class, we were all dancing. I felt as if I had landed on another planet: a beautiful, warm and wonderful planet!”


"I was bowled over at the idea of na'aseh v'nishmah," Bernie recalls. "An entire generation of Jews — every single one of them! — accepted Hashem and His Torah! For me, this was a real eye opener. It was also a source of strength for me. When I came home to Nogales for a visit, I felt so isolated and alone. I was the only shomer Shabbos Jew within a 70 mile radius. I had this precious legacy, but everyone around me assumed that it was nothing more than a passing fad. My mom felt that she had a moral obligation to stop me from becoming what she viewed as a religious fanatic. The fact that an entire generation of Jews chose to accept the Torah empowered me. It gave me the courage to continue.

"I loved the davening. It was sweet, innocent, and musical — Adon Olam, Mah Tovu, and other tefillos were each sung to their own upbeat tune. Several amazingly warm families opened their homes every Shabbos afternoon for us girls to get together to schmooze, sing, dance, and, of course, eat."

In those pre-computer days, one of the twelfth grade girls was charged with manually pressing a red button located just outside the secretary's office to ring the school bell and signal the beginning and end of recess. If she found class boring, the entire school was rewarded with a few extra minutes of recess; but if the teacher was fascinating, well, everyone suffered!

One afternoon, all thirty-five girls in the school played a practical joke on the teachers. In the middle of math class, the official bell ringer left the classroom and pressed the button on and off for about one minute. In each class one girl stood up and shouted over the racket, "Fire alarm," and then the entire class proceeded to quickly exit the building. The teachers, positive that it really was a fire drill, urged the girls not to panic. Once outside, the girls began marching around the school singing “We Shall Overcome.” Everyone — teachers, principals, and most of all, the students — had a good laugh.

Because the school was so small and so many of the students were from out of town, the girls were like one family. Before Pesach, the school presented each student with three hand-made shmurah matzos for the Seder. On Shavuos, those girls who succeeded in counting sefirah with a brachah were rewarded with a piece of Mrs. Schwab's homemade cheesecake.

"Bais Yaakov really was my family," Sara* reminisces. "At home, everyone thought I was strange. They had no idea what it meant to be frum. During the summer, my parents made an extended family get-together in my honor, and would you believe it? — they served pastrami and cheese with the bagels. They couldn't understand why I was so upset; after all, they argued, no one was forcing me to eat it. But in Bais Yaakov, I was part of something larger than myself. I was accepted for who I was, while at the same time I was expected to grow."

Rabbi Schwab had a great sense of humor, and used it to make the girls feel comfortable. "One day," Bernie recalls, "I went to the lost and found, to search for my Nach. Rabbi Schwab came out to help me sift through the pile of sefarim. He opened a Nach that had the letters BC — my initials — written on it, and, looking very disappointed, said, 'We try so hard to educate the girls that it's BCE — Before the Common Era — and not BC!'"

Mrs. Schwab was one of the girls' favorite teachers. She often told the stories about growing up in Tel Aviv, and of her parents' mesirus nefesh for Torah. Bernie remembers, "Those stories were a peek into another world, a world that was normal and yet steeped in Torah. Hearing about real people who lived up to such high ideals gave me what to strive for.

"Looking back," Bernie continues, "I really don't know how Mrs. Schwab did it. She was a young woman with small children and her family lived so far away. She was solid in her belief in Hashem, which she succeeded in conveying to us daily."

"My first Shabbos in Denver, I was a guest at the Schwabs," remembered Naomi*. "Although I had been keeping Shabbos for about a year before coming to Bais Yaakov, there was a lot I didn't know, both halachically as well as practically. Although forty years have gone by since then, two things stand out in my memory. Erev Shabbos, Rabbi Schwab asked me if I could help polish the children's shoes. I had never, ever polished a shoe in my life, and I spent a lot of time shining one poor pair of shoes, trying to make sure that it would be perfect. Although I probably used up half a bottle of polish, Rabbi Schwab was lavish in his thanks. My second memory was of the chulent. As Mrs. Schwab brought it in from the kitchen, Rabbi Schwab made some comment about how great his wife's chulent is — a real Shabbos delicacy. I obliviously asked, 'What's chulent?' I don't remember the answer, but I do remember that after that, I realized that chulent was an integral part of oneg Shabbos, and one that I enjoy tremendously."

What ever happened to the girls who attended Bais Yaakov during those first few years? Among the graduates are nurses, doctors, teachers, even a Chassidic Rebbetzin. One became a well-known editor, another, a writer. Bernie became a social worker and active outreach worker. Their education formed the foundation of the frum homes which they built, where a second and now third generation receives a true Torah chinuch. Although the original students live in a dozen cities throughout the world, they all think of Denver as their second home.

* Names changed.


  1. Replies
    1. Debbie, I don't know if you would remember me. My name is Rochel Hoffman Schwartz. I was one of those first 10 girls to go to BYD. I was very interested to read your story as I was a friend of Bernie and I wondered where she lives nowadays. I would love to hear from you. You can write me at rschwartz122@gmail.com