Alice Shalvi, trailblazing feminist and educator, dies at 97

The Israel Prize laureate, longtime principal of Jerusalem’s revered Pelech school for girls and founder of Israel Women’s Network, was an agent for change

Jessica Steinberg

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Alice Shalvi, Israeli professor and educator, at her home in Jerusalem on March 14, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Alice Shalvi, Israeli professor and educator, at her home in Jerusalem on March 14, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Professor Alice Shalvi, an intrepid feminist, revered educator and winner of multiple honors, including the Israel Prize, died Monday morning. She was weeks shy of her 97th birthday.

Shalvi, the longtime principal of Jerusalem’s vaunted Pelech school for girls and founder of the Israel Women’s Network, was a wife and mother of six. In some ways, she was an accidental feminist and educator.

She was born in Germany in 1926 to a well-to-do family, who took refuge in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1934, as the Nazis came to power.

While her family survived the war intact and in relative comfort, Shalvi was deeply affected by the Holocaust survivors she met in England after the war, as well as the genteel antisemitism she experienced in Great Britain.

She set out to earn a degree in social work from the London School of Economics, hoping to help with the survivors’ rehabilitation.

An ardent Zionist, Shalvi was sent to the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel in 1946, as a representative of British Jewish students.

But upon immigrating to Israel in 1949, she discovered that there was no professional social work profession established yet in Israel and instead turned to teaching, setting up her life trajectory.

“I learnt that teaching is a most gratifying profession and that, if one relates to and engages with one’s students as individuals, it is very similar to social work. Both require empathy, the capacity to listen and communicate, the ability to feel and express sympathy and affection,” wrote Shalvi in her 2018 memoir, “Never A Native.”

She taught in the English department of the Hebrew University and earned her PhD there. Shalvi eventually headed the English literature departments at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, overcoming deep-seated prejudice toward women, who were considered second-class in academic circles.

Shalvi moved from university to high school education, and took over as principal of Pelech in 1975, an experimental school for religious girls in Jerusalem that taught Talmud, a first for the religious education system.

At the time, Shalvi had two daughters studying at the school, and remained in the position until 1990.

Every situation in which Shalvi, an observant Jew throughout her entire life, found herself became an opportunity for pushing forward with different kinds of change.

She became the founding director (later chairwoman) of the Israel Women’s Network in 1984, after being inspired by a visit from US feminist icon Betty Friedan to Israel. The IWN tackled discrimination and disadvantages faced by women in Israeli society, from professional biases to the lower positions of women in politics, religion and education.

She wanted to establish a gender studies department at Ben-Gurion University and tackled that hurdle by first teaching women a course in drama, and then creating a gender studies concentration that later became an independent department.

Shalvi and her beloved husband Moshe Shalvi, who died in 2013, had six children, and she spoke frequently about the discussions that sometimes arose in her own family over not being a present mother for her children.

Moshe Shalvi, in fact, managed the household later in their marriage, Shalvi said in a Times of Israel interview, when his elderly parent moved into their home.

Finding the balance between work and home is a struggle, said Shalvi, and it shouldn’t be.

“Life should combine work, family and community,” she said. “One should be able to care for one’s family, to be able to earn an adequate living and be communally engaged. That means we need structural change — parenting must be recognized as a full-time job.”

Longer parental leaves and flexible work hours need to be part of that structural change, said Shalvi.

Even as she pushed women’s roles forward in Israel, she had her own moments of reckoning.

Shalvi wrote about having her first aliyah, saying a blessing over the Torah scroll on a Sabbath morning, while visiting as a guest speaker at a Conservative synagogue in Milwaukee, and seeing a Torah scroll up close for the first time in her life, at the age of 53.

“If I’d been a man, I would have had that experience 40 years earlier,” she said.

That experience changed Shalvi’s religious approach, and she began attending a Conservative synagogue where women had more equal roles to men. She eventually served as rector of the Conservative Movement’s Schechter Institute for four years.

Despite the many changes and shifts that Shalvi pushed for in her long Israeli life, the then-94-year-old wrote in “Never a Native” that she “still didn’t feel she was labeled as an Israeli.”

Alice Hildegard Margulies was born in Essen, Germany to parents Benzion and Perl Margulies. Shalvi is survived by five of her six children (one deceased), 21 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.

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