A Feminist in Modest Clothing

The principal of a girls' religious school by accident, Alice Shalvi moved on to organize advocacy of women's rights in Israel, while raising six children.

Professor Alice Shalvi, principal of the prestigious Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls in Jerusalem for 15 years and chair of the Israel Women's Network for 16 years, astounded her circle of friends seven years ago by announcing that she was joining the Conservative Movement.

Shalvi, long considered a prominent symbol of religious Zionism's liberal wing, said she made the move chiefly because of the status of women in Orthodox Judaism, including the Modern Orthodox variety. A few months after her change in affiliation, the change was so complete that she became the head of the Conservative Movement's theological seminary in Israel, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. (The Schechter Institute is an academic institution for Jewish studies and, in the context of a private organization operating under the same roof, there is a theological seminary that trains Conservative rabbis.)

Initially Shalvi served as the institute's rector ("This was a position that I really loved, because of its academic character") and then in the combined role of rector and president. During the last three years, she served in the purely public role as chair of the institute's executive committee. Last week, at age 77, she went into retirement.

Over the past seven years, a dramatic revolution has taken place in the status of women in modern Orthodox Judaism: the sprouting of women's congregations, congregations in which women are given an aliyah to the Torah (that is, they are called up to recite the blessings for the reading of the Torah; the practice has been given its first rabbinical sanction from Rabbi Daniel Sperber), and even a pioneering congregation (Kehilat Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem) where women serve as cantors for a portion of the prayer service.

Shalvi, of course, welcomes these developments and believes that she has played a role in their emergence: "Some of the women who are active in these congregations attended Pelech and are former students of mine, and I feel that I am now harvesting seeds that I myself have planted."

Do you feel that you may have missed an opportunity when you left the modern Orthodox Jewish community on the eve of the major revolution that has taken place there, and that you have therefore missed the opportunity of being a partner, or even a leader, of that revolution?

"Yes," she admits. "I do feel a little that I have missed an opportunity. When, for example, I first heard about Shira Hadasha, I said to myself, `Perhaps that is where I should have been.'"

However, the bottom line is that she does not regret her decision:

"Personally, I no longer felt a part of Orthodox Judaism. I could not pray in an Orthodox synagogue, where I had the feeling that I was being pushed into some obscure corner, particularly on Simhat Torah [on which, in Orthodox synagogues, it is only the men who are allowed to hold Torah scrolls in their arms as they dance in the chapel - Y.S.], which became one of the saddest holidays in the Jewish calendar for me.

"Nor could I any longer countenance the Orthodox attitude toward agunot (deserted wives) and women whose husbands refuse to give them a get (Jewish divorce decree). Even today, despite all the welcome changes that have occurred in the Orthodox world, egalitarianism does not exist, not even in the most open-minded synagogues. There are partitions to enforce separate gender seating, and there are certain things that women are prohibited from doing [such as serving as cantors in central liturgical passages - Y.S.]."

Neither a prayer shawl nor phylacteries

She clearly recalls the moment that made her change her viewpoint. It was when, for the first time in her life, she was given an aliyah to the Torah. That was in 1979, in a Conservative synagogue in the United States: "I had come to see a `women's congregation.' Suddenly, I was asked whether I would like to be given an aliyah to the Torah. I was very excited. This was the first time I had ever seen an open Torah scroll close up, and, alongside the joy I was privileged to have bestowed upon me when I was given the aliyah, I experienced an immense sadness - over the fact that I had been forced to wait until age 53 before participating in an experience that is shared by every male Jew from age 13 [the age of bar mitzvah when a Jewish male is recognized as an adult in terms of the performance of Jewish laws].

"From that moment, I began to look for any opportunity to participate in a women's congregation. I even raised the idea with my students at Pelech on more than one occasion; however, they were afraid: `People will say that we have become Reform Jews.'"

She senses that even the Conservative Movement has a long way to go before it can say that it has achieved true gender egalitarianism: "None of the female rabbis in our movement holds a full-time position.

"True, the economic situation is tough and, in general, it is hard for us to offer full-time positions to rabbis, irrespective of gender. Yet it is an inescapable fact that all those who hold down a full-time rabbinical position are men. In fact, there are even some congregations that do not allow women to enjoy equal status in the congregation.

"Even in my own congregation [in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem - Y.S.], we had a female rabbi who was a wonderful Torah reader; however, the men would not allow her under any circumstances to function as a cantor as well. At the same time, I do concede that, personally speaking, I find myself increasingly alienated by synagogues. I am much more comfortable praying in solitude - in my garden - and, in general, I feel closer to God in the bosom of nature or while listening to music."

Contrary to the practice of female rabbis in non-Orthodox Jewish movements, she does not wear a talit (prayer shawl) or tefillin (phylacteries): "I still feel that these articles belong to the category of `male attire.' In general, I am doubtful whether equal status for women has to articulate itself in the external expressions characteristically associated with men."

Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, in 1926. In 1934, after Hitler's rise to power, her family moved to England, where she obtained her B.A. in English literature. She moved to Israel on her own in 1950. Initially, she thought she would study social work. As things turned out, however, she joined the teaching staff in the departments of English language and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She married Moshe Shalvi and gave birth to and raised six children. Simultaneously, she completed her doctorate in English literature (she adores Shakespeare and admits "he has a greater influence on me than even the Bible has"). From 1969-1973, she chaired the department of English literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

How does one manage to raise six children and still proceed with a career?

"I always tried to work from my home in order to be available to my children, and it took me much longer than my male colleagues to complete my doctorate. Even when I had to travel, I tried to get back in time for dinner and to tuck my children in at night. But it was worth the effort."

Nothing would be off-limits

That is how her life proceeded until, in 1975, she began, without any prior experience, to manage the Pelech religious high school. "At the time, it was a school that was defined by its founder, Shalom Rosenblit (who recently passed away) as being in the tradition of German Jewry's concept of Torah im derekh eretz [Torah and observance of the ways of society at large]: On the one hand, a strict, almost ultra-Orthodox, perception of Jewish law and, on the other, an open-minded attitude toward a broad education.

Two of Shalvi's daughters were students at Pelech when Rosenblit decided to resign, and the school was in danger of closing down. Shalvi: "To prevent the school's closure, I decided to take upon myself the position of principal until a permanent principal could be found." This temporary appointment lasted 15 years.

During her years as principal, she turned Pelech into an avant-garde (at least, for that period) educational institution championing feminism in the Orthodox Jewish community. Besides the educational institutions of the Hakibbutz Hadati (religious kibbutz) movement, Pelech was the only school in Israel where young Jewish girls studied Talmud as an integral part of the curriculum: "The school's approach was that there was no area that could be off-limits for women."

At a certain point, she recalls, Pelech attained recognition as an experimental school, one of the only three experimental schools that existed in Israel during that period. All three schools were in Jerusalem: She was the principal of one of them, her son Micha was the principal of the second (the Experimental School), and her daughter-in-law Yehudit was the principal of the third (a school operated in the tradition of the Labor Zionist movement).

However, Shalvi wanted something more. In 1984, she was one of the founders of the Israel Women's Network and became the organization's first chair, an unusual role for a religious Jewish woman, especially one who defined herself as Orthodox at the time. Because of her religious identity, she placed at the head of the Network's agenda the struggle for the status of women in the Jewish religious context, with special stress placed on the plight of deserted wives and women whose husbands refused to grant them a Jewish divorce.

This public position, she says, had an impact on her students: "I believe that the highest value in education is the personal example. When my students saw how active I was in the Israel Women's Network, my work certainly had a greater influence on their feminist awareness than any lecture or lesson could ever have had."