Bar-Ilan's New Dean: A Haredi Woman Who Left No Glass Ceiling Unsmashed

Ultra-Orthodox Malka Schaps, a world-renowned professor of mathematics and a grandmother of 17, has made a habit of pushing the envelope, though not all her friends know she has.

Malka Schaps has gone where few Haredi women have gone before. She’s a Harvard-educated professor of mathematics, a globetrotter who lectures at academic conferences around the world, a bestselling novelist who has also delved into non-fiction, and an ultra-Orthodox mother who actively encouraged her sons to serve in the Israeli army.

Last week, she pushed the envelope one notch further when she became the first ultra-Orthodox woman in Israel (and probably anywhere else in the world) to be appointed dean at a major university. As of the coming academic year, Schaps, who has until now headed Bar-Ilan University’s financial mathematics program, will serve as the dean of its faculty of exact sciences.

The fact that she didn’t grow up in the ultra-Orthodox world, says Schaps, could very well explain why she’s such an anomaly. “Let’s remember, I came from the outside,” noted the 65-year-old grandmother of 17 in an interview with Haaretz. “I got the academic push from my father, who had been a professor of American history but never got tenure. In a sense, I am fulfilling his unfulfilled ambitions.”

When Schaps refers to herself as an outsider, she doesn’t mean that she came from the non-Orthodox world or even from a home that was remotely Jewish. Born Mary Kramer, she grew up in a non-religious Protestant household in Cleveland, Ohio, the heart of the American Midwest, later moving to Washington D.C., when her father received a position at the National Science Foundation, and spending a bit of time in Texas along the way. When she was 19 years old and an undergraduate student at Swarthmore, an elite liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, Schaps underwent an Orthodox conversion to Judaism.

“I really felt that a person should be good, and in my original very secular upbringing, there wasn’t really a lot of motivation for that,” she says to explain her attraction to Judaism. Her decision to convert was ultimately taken as a foreign exchange student in Germany, when she became very affected by the Holocaust – the theme of her two non-fiction literary works.

Schaps met her husband, David, when they were both students at Swarthmore. Now a professor of classics at Bar-Ilan, he was a latecomer to Jewish Orthodoxy. Schaps followed her husband to Harvard, where the two of them received their doctoral degrees.

Many of her friends and neighbors in Bnei Brak, the ultra-Orthodox community where she has lived since immigrating to Israel with David in 1972, have absolutely no idea what she does when she’s not at home, doing errands in the neighborhood or attending synagogue, acknowledges Schaps. “Most of them don’t even know that I’m a professor at the university, and those of them who do really have no idea what research is,” she notes. “My friends in Bnei Brak are all women, rebbetzins [rabbis’ wives] and school principals. It would be very hard to explain to them the type of math I do because it’s dealing with the sort of theoretical concepts you don’t learn in high school.”

Her appointment to a top administrative position at Bar-Ilan, which made headlines locally, can be seen within the wider context of a concerted effort at Israel’s only religious university to move women into what was once almost exclusively male territory. Schaps is the latest in a rather long list of women named to high-level jobs at the university in recent years – a list that includes Professor Yaffa Zilbershats, the deputy president; Professor Miriam Faust, the vice rector; Professor Zemira Mevarech, dean of the faculty of social sciences; Professor Shulamit Michaeli, dean of the faculty of life sciences; and Judith Haimoff, vice president for external relations.

As difficult as it is for most women, especially mothers of small children to move up the ranks in the “publish or perish” world of academia, it is even more daunting, notes Schaps, for an ultra-Orthodox woman, and especially one like her who specializes in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. “I really can’t indulge in the type of two-week, three-week or four-week collaboration my colleagues can do,” she explains. “I just feel it’s not appropriate. So I do lot of work by email, and it has definitely made things harder for me.” On one paper that she co-authored, recounts Schaps, she only met her collaborator face-to-face when they were about to submit it for publication.

Schaps, whose area of specialization in mathematics is representation theory, has authored or co-authored more than 50 academic papers to date. She was promoted to full professor at Bar-Ilan in 2006. In addition to their two biological children, a daughter and a son, she and her husband have fostered four other children; two boys remained with them.

As a young woman, she says, one of her dreams was to become a writer. She waited until she had obtained tenure in 1979 to let that dream “come out of the closet,” as she puts it.

Under the pen name Rachel Pomerantz, Schaps has published seven novels, which address many of the conflicts and challenges she has confronted in her own personal life – taking in foster children, balancing a high-powered career with Orthodoxy, conversion, immigration, and Israel’s cultural divides. All her books, several of which have been translated into Hebrew, target Orthodox readers. Her decision to adopt a pseudonym as a writer, Schaps has said, was motivated by her fear that this form of moonlighting might harm her academic reputation.

In addition, Schaps has published two non-fiction works on the Holocaust as well as several academic papers on Orthodox fiction.

Non-academic writing, she says, is something she spends about an hour a day on. “It used to be 8:30 to 9:30 every evening, but now that my husband’s changed his schedule, I can start earlier. It takes me about three years to write a novel.”

In her spare time, she is also quite active in the Harvard Club of Israel, an alumni organization she co-chaired between 2002 and 2008.

Schaps says matter-of-factly that Zionism drove her and her husband to Israel. “It was the feeling that as far as Judaism is concerned, Israel had much more to offer than the Diaspora,” she says.

The children of many of her neighbors in Bnei Brak opted out of the army, preferring Yeshiva life instead. But when her own boys came of age, Schaps had a heart-to-heart talk with them, in which, as she recalls, she said: “If you want to eventually work, then you have to go do your army service.” Her husband served in the army reserves as a rabbi, until he was discharged at 58 with the rank of captain.

While she supports greater Haredi participation in the workforce, she believes the new government is not going about achieving this goal wisely. Citing the Aesop fable about the wind and the sun competing over whether forceful blows or gentle heat could get the man below to remove his coat first, she says: “What they were doing before, which was making it possible for a person to get a significant education in a user-friendly fashion, works much better. Not mixed classes and so forth. Right now, we’re going through the wind period, and I think it’s going to push things back a bit.”

Several days ago, when Schaps moved into her new dean’s office, one of the first things she hung on the wall was a large piece of fabric art made by her mother, today 99 years old and living in California. The hanging had previously decorated her late father’s office at the National Science Foundation. She is hoping it will bring her luck in obtaining new grants for the university – what she deems one of her top priorities in the coming years.

Tomer Appelbaum