Skip to main content

Senda Berenson: Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month

By May 23, 2024No Comments

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, we recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of notable immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape America’s vibrant tapestry. Today, we spotlight women’s basketball pioneer and Basketball Hall of Fame member Senda Berenson.

Senda Valvrojenski was born in 1868 in Butrimonys (in present-day Lithuania). At 7 years old, Senda and her family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Boston. Soon after, the family changed their surname to Berenson. She gained her U.S. citizenship in 1880. Senda was frail throughout her youth. Home-schooled by her father, her health prohibited her from finishing her studies at the Boston Conservatory of Music. To improve her health, she enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1890. Two years later, she was hired at Smith College to teach physical training; her teachings emphasized Swedish gymnastics and fencing. 

Considered “the mother of women’s basketball,” Berenson is most known for her contributions to launching and organizing the sport for women to participate in. After observing a group of boys playing at a local YMCA, she began studying inventor James Naismith’s work creating the game and soon developed her own modified version at her college. Berenson’s rules focused more on passing and positional responsibility over ball possession while also limiting dribbling. Naismith himself encouraged her vision at a time when women were not allowed to participate in team sports. 

On March 22, 1892, Senda conducted the first official game of women’s basketball at Smith College – pitting sophomores versus freshmen. Her version of the game quickly percolated through schools and by 1895, hundreds of women’s basketball teams had been established throughout the U.S. The success also created subsequent opportunities in other sports for women. 

Senda Berenson served as chairperson of the basketball rules committee of the American Association for the Advent of Physical Education, the forerunner of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports through 1917. Though she passed in 1954, she posthumously became the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

Others we are celebrating in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month: