On June 9 and 10, a conference celebrating the 160th anniversary of the Evelina de Rothschild School’s establishment in Jerusalem took place.

The longevity of this school, created for Jewish girls during a period when the Yishuv was struggling with serious issues of poverty, is noteworthy.

The reputation of this institution has benefited from the presence of a few outstanding headmistresses. The life of one of them is highlighted in Laura S. Schor’s recently published book The Best School in Jerusalem: Annie Landau’s School for Girls, 1900-1960 (Brandeis University Press, 2013).

In the conference’s opening session, Schor described the uniqueness of Annie Landau, the devoted headmistress who shaped the school and its policies as of 1900.

Five years after the Rothschild family turned management of the school over to the Anglo-Jewish Association, Landau was hired as an English teacher and sent to Jerusalem. The choice was apt, for despite this teacher’s aristocratic bearing, she had realistic, intelligent and assertive means of dealing with real issues. When the none-too-successful principal who was in charge when Landau arrived was unable to continue in her role, the association passed the baton to the young and talented teacher, which turned out to be a wise decision.

The new headmistress had many challenges to overcome: a crowded and non-hygienic building, poor attendance rates, no clear system of grading or promotion from grade to grade, apathetic teachers, disorganized school financial accounts and nonexistent discipline, among other things. One marvels that she did not despair and return to England. Instead, this young woman decided to win the support of her teachers and invented her own methods to carry out her plans. Landau bombarded them with her criticism of the situation while explaining her vision and goals. She emphasized the importance of lesson plans and disciplining the girls while educating them; self-improvement was to be encouraged. Once she had a cadre of capable educators on her staff, she was able to professionalize them.

At the same time, the faculty had to work with the families of these girls, encouraging them to delay their daughters’ marriage age and stressing the importance of attending school daily. Classes for the girls included arithmetic, literature, history, geography, sewing and housekeeping. For a number of years, there was a kindergarten that promoted learning by means of play, a new notion at the time; later, the school provided a full high-school education with matriculation exams. Activities after school were also offered for the first time, such as the “Guides” (Scouts), which included sports as well as the option of singing in a choir.

This principal was anxious to engage the teaching staff and for them to function as a unit. For 30 years, the majority of the single teachers even lived together. Monthly get-togethers for interreligious cultural meetings took place in their apartment. The makeup of her staff included British Jewish women like herself, other Europeans, and Canadians; the faculty eventually included Evelina graduates.

Needless to say, because of the impoverished state of the Yishuv, the school was funded mostly by donors, beginning with the aforementioned Rothschilds and Anglo-Jewish Association; aid also came from the Ladies Committee, the Department of Education of the Mandate and the Public Health Department. Fees became a necessity and were even increased in order to cover ever-growing expenses. Her annual reports concerning the significant progress that occurred surely helped her receive steadfast support. Schor noted that Landau traveled to London almost every year during the summer to guarantee the continuation of philanthropy, and said that The Jewish Chronicle always interviewed her.

The school she first entered at the age of 26 was nothing like the one she left behind with her death in January 1945. She had taken a barely functioning institution with no vision whatsoever and completely overhauled it. Landau was fortunate to have the backing, both financial and moral, of the Anglo-Jewish Association, but mostly she had amazing foresight. She was able to adapt her British sensibilities to a new environment.

Her ability to negotiate within such a different cultural milieu, albeit within the more familiar bounds of the Jewish world, was remarkable. Her academic background and previous experience as a teacher proved invaluable, yet this was not enough to guarantee success as an administrator. Annie Landau knew how to organize and how to communicate: to the students, to her teachers, to the girls’ parents, and to the philanthropists who supported her laudable endeavors. She devoted her life to these girls, giving them a religious framework that provided a well-rounded education and helped them modernize and face the 20th century. She was indeed a headmistress to remember.

■ The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the academic editor of the journal Nashim. Her most recent publication, An Ode to Salonika, was just awarded a Canadian Jewish Book Award.

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