Pelech Marks 40 Years of Progressive Women's Education

Renowned Jerusalem religious girls' high school preserves a decidedly Anglo support base.

On Sunday, Pelech will mark its 40th anniversary with festivities for the school's teachers, alumni and the wider community. While the school now has mostly native Israeli staff and students, long-time activists insist that its roots run deep among the city's English-speaking immigrant community, which helped ensure its early success.

"Many Anglo-Saxon parents came to Israel in order to upgrade their Jewish quality of life, and Pelech was part of that," said Rabbi Pesach Schindler, a former board member who is also headmaster of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. "At the time, Anglos were doing a lot of original pioneering in Jerusalem and this was just one example. A lot of immigrants came and felt that we wanted to do something for Jerusalem and for the State of Israel and when we thought of our own children, Pelech fit the bill."

Though it was founded by Rabbi Shalom Rosenbluth and his wife Penina as an ultra-Orthodox alternative to the Beit Yaacov girls' educational system, Pelech was excommunicated by the Haredi leadership soon after its inception.

Radical concept

Still, it quickly became a popular alternative for more modern religious parents who were keen to teach their daughters Talmud - then a radical concept in the religious world. Originally located in a clubhouse of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Pardes Hanna, it soon relocated to Jerusalem, where the school quickly picked up momentum, especially among liberal Anglo families.

But the founders, disillusioned because the school had not received accreditation and was not serving its intended community - pulled out in 1975. Pelech was in danger of closing until a group of parents, led by Prof. Alice Shalvi, who was raised and educated in the U.K., intervened. Shalvi, whose daughters attended the school and has since retired as a professor of English literature at Hebrew University, volunteered to serve as principal until another solution was found. But she stayed on, without salary, for another 15 years, and it was under her leadership, many parents agree, that the school flourished.

"Volunteers can't be dictated to as easily, which enabled me to implement my ideas," Shalvi said this week.

Spindle with a point

The name of the school, which literally means spindle, takes a jab at the Talmudic saying, "A woman's wisdom is limited to the spindle." In an alternative reading of the Talmudic saying, though, "a woman's wisdom is limited to Pelech," and so the age-old insult to women's intelligence took on a new meaning.

Under Shalvi, the school became accredited and was soon after recognized as an experimental high school. Women continued to study Talmud, an egalitarian education was part of the curriculum, and graduates were encouraged to enlist in the army, as opposed to performing national service as most religious girls did at the time. The school also encouraged high levels of secular study alongside traditional religious classes, with the aim of creating a curriculum for modern young Jewish women.

Anglo parents were more open

"Anglo-Saxon parents were more open to the kind of education we were giving, which was not yet common in Israel," Shalvi explained. "The British parents and the American parents also didn't come in with the attitude that the state will provide. They were active from the beginning and understood how important it was to raise money.

"I remember that some of the new immigrant girls went around speaking English to each other, which I didn't like and which upset the non-English speakers. In a class of 25, we would have about three or four immigrants, but by the time they finished high school, they would be fluent [in Hebrew]," she recalled.

Today, more than half of Pelech board members are native English speakers, who continue to ensure the school's economic viability. "The Anglos came with more of a sense of communal activity and charity," said board chairman Michael Hochstein, who was born in the U.S.

Pelech, which is now headed by Shira Breuer, is regarded as one of the country's best modern religious high schools for girls. It received the Israel Prize for its pioneering work in 1993. Its alumni are especially active in women's religious issues, such as the struggle on behalf of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant a get, decree of divorce) and Pelech graduates are also among the leaders of Shira Hadasha, the increasingly popular egalitarian Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.

Critics say that the school is a bastion of elitism - and indeed, annual tuition is NIS 10,800, with some scholarships available. But Shalvi insists that elitism, as long as it is not based on economic considerations alone, is not altogether a bad thing. "This country needs an elite," she said. "We need an educated cadre of women who feel it is their duty and function to become a progressive element in ensuring the good of the country."