Knowledge is power'If you know what you're talking about it helps'

Dr. Alice Shalvi: Equal education of Orthodox women is changing Israeli society

The fight for parity in Israel is only just getting started, says the 91-year-old champion of religious feminism

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)

Dr. Alice Shalvi, author of the encyclopedia of Jewish women, is a bit of an encyclopedia herself.

Sharing stories from her many years fighting for the equality of women in Israel, the 91-year-old professor spoke at a panel discussion at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, discussing the progress that’s been made and the important work yet to be done.

The session was a part of the institute’s annual one-day conference on “The Jewish State and the Jewish People” and was focused on the influence of Jewish American culture in Israel. The event brought together a diverse mix of close to 500 Israelis and Anglos, community members and academics, politicians, religious leaders and high school students to engage with the pressing issues facing the Jewish people.

Overhead view from the opening remarks of the Shalom Hartman Institute conference on February 14, 2018 (Netanel Tobias)

Joining Shalvi on the panel was Barak Loozon, the Israel-based director of Jewish and global initiatives for the Jewish Federation of San Francisco, and Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

Dr. Ruth Calderon of the Shalom Hartman Institute moderated the discussion.

Thanks, America

The panel was conceived to highlight concepts not fully embraced within Israel: the ways in which Jewish American ideals of pluralism, egalitarianism and feminism influenced, and can still impact Israeli society.

Shalvi discussed how she herself brought certain egalitarian customs to Israel and the trajectory of women adapting certain religious practices, such as wearing a prayer shawl or praying in a separate service.

An example of a feminist religious innovation is the zeved or simchat bat, the naming ceremony for newborn girls.

After having a set of twins, one girl and one boy,  Shalvi and her husband decided they would have a baby naming for their daughter after their son’s brit milah. Shalvi said that at the time, such a ceremony was groundbreaking.

“It was the first time that something like this happened,” Shalvi said. “After this, there was a moment of awakening. No one had ever thought about how there was no ceremony for girls.”

Prof. Alice Shalvi (far left), believes that women are the key to solving Israel’s religious problems (Netanel Tobias)

While Shalvi focused on the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movement’s American influence, Jerusalem-native Amir shared the unique set of challenges facing the Reform movement in Israel today.

Comparable to the standard in the US, Israel’s Reform movement is updating their prayer book to incorporate more gender-neutral language. As Hebrew is a language of gender-specific words, this has been a great challenge, he said.

“In English, it’s easy. You can say ‘Sovereign’ instead of ‘King of the World’ because it’s a neutral language… in Hebrew, it’s either ‘him’ or ‘her,'” said Amir.

Loozon rounded out the conversation by speaking on Diaspora-Israel relations as perceived through his experience with the San Francisco Jewish community. Loozon also shared the Federation’s takeaways from the publication of recent study revealing that the San Francisco Jewish community is growing but increasingly unaffiliated.

Loozon said that understanding how the community has evolved will allow the Federation to better respond to the community’s current needs.

Loozon has worked on a “reverse Birthright” initiative bringing Israelis to American Jewish communities for them to gain a better understanding and appreciation of Jewish-American notions of pluralism.

While these trips, he said, have created amazing new opportunities in bringing the communities together, in more recent years, they’ve brought out more serious conversations between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.

“In the last few years, these trips switched into being more like a Shabbat table of a family that sits together, having conversations that aren’t easy on ‘Who are we together?’” he said.

This, he claimed, is due to American concerns over Israeli policy-making shifting farther from Jewish American community’s pluralistic values.

A panel discussion on the effect of Jewish American religious culture in Israel (Netanel Tobias)

Indeed, the gap in religious lifestyle and thought between Israel and the Diaspora has been a popular topic lately both in Israel and abroad.  Both communities are working to deal with the repercussions of arbitration of Jewish life in Israel being driven by the Ultra-Orthodox sector.

Particular concerns surround the stalled creation of a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall and Jewish conversion laws in Israel, both of which are seen as delegitimizing policies by the Reform and Conservative movements in the US.

According to Shalvi, empowerment of women within the religious space can impact ultra-Orthodoxy’s hold over religion in Israel.

A pioneering Israeli feminist

In an interview with The Times of Israel after the panel discussion, an energetic Shalvi elaborated on the issues and progress she sees today regarding women’s status in Israel.

Born in Germany to Orthodox parents, Shalvi grew up in London before making Aliyah in 1949 where she went on to pursue a PhD at Hebrew University, eventually joining the Department of English Literature.

In 1950, Shalvi met and married her husband, Moshe Shelkowitz (later Shalvi), who died in 2013. They had six children together.

One of Shalvi’s greatest accomplishments was the establishment of the Pelech School for Girls, which she headed from 1975 to 1990. The experimental religious female high school in Jerusalem has become a model for women’s Orthodox education across the country.

Renowned educator Alice Shalvi headed the Pelech (Spindle) High School. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Among her many accolades, Shalvi was a recipient of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, and last year, the retired Hebrew University professor received the Bonei Zion lifetime achievement award from Nefesh B’Nefesh for her contribution to furthering the status of women through her education and advocacy work.

For all of her past accomplishments, Shalvi remains a present force in advancing the interests of women in Israel.

Prof. Alice Shalvi giving a history of religious feminism at the Shalom Hartman Institute on February 14,
2018. (Netanel Tobias)

Modern Orthodoxy over misogyny

The greatest threat to the religious establishment today is the politicization of ultra-Orthodoxy, said Shalvi.

“The fact that the religious establishment is now dominated by the ultra-Orthodox who are totally misogynist, this, I think, is the main thing that is preventing a greater degree of equality between the sexes,” she said.

Listing her concerns, Shalvi continued, “The very serious issue of divorce and marriage, the fact that there is neither civil marriage nor civil divorce, that everything has to go through the rabbinate is definitely having a very, very negative effect on women being seen as inferior.”

“[Because the ultra-Orthodox] have so much political power, they are impacting the total population, the majority of whom are not ultra-Orthodox. So it becomes a political issue.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews stand in front of a sign in Beit Shemesh asking women not to loiter there, on December 26, 2011. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Where Shalvi does see progress is in the empowerment of women within Modern Orthodoxy.

“I think the major revolution now is taking place in Modern Orthodoxy where a new generation, even already two generations of women, have had as much Jewish education, in the deepest sense — equal educational opportunities with men. They’re the ones now really changing the very nature of Modern Orthodox society with a different approach,” she said.

“In many senses, this is affecting the very status of women within that community.”

One pioneer of note, said Shalvi, is Malka Piotrkowsky, a female leader within the Orthodox community who, Shalvi said, has been working quietly to change the rabbinical attitude towards women within ultra-Orthodoxy.

Another woman breaking new ground is Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum,  the founder of Kehillat Zion, a new and inclusive congregation in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem whose motto, “Come as you are,” attracts a mix of Anglos and Israelis, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Shalvi said.

“That mixture is reflected also in our liturgy which really combines in a wonderful way the various traditions,” Shalvi said.

“And she is a scholar, she is a social leader. She is, for me, a model of what Judaism, true Judaism, should be in the sense of ‘kol Yisrael haverim’ [all Jews are comrades],” Shalvi said of Elad-Appelbaum and her work.

Shalvi also mentioned Kolech, an organization founded in 1998 by Chana Kehat, a leading voice in modern Orthodox feminism. The organization, Shalvi said, has had a tremendous impact in elevating religious women and their level of education.

As Shalvi pointed out, her own Pelech school, which gives females the same Jewish educational opportunities as males, was founded in that same vein.

“The major point is that women in [the Modern Orthodox] community are now getting the same degree, the same level of Jewish education as the men. Knowledge is power. If you know what you’re talking about, then it helps,” she said.

Orthodox Jewish women read the Book of Esther for the Jewish holiday of Purim, at the synagogue in Efrat, on March 11, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

On her first brush with the patriarchy

As Shalvi made her way to the taxi that was waiting for her outside the building, she shared a final story on her first experience with discrimination as a woman and how that went on to impact her later work.

“I only noticed [sexism in Israel] when I suffered my first real experience of gender discrimination at the Hebrew University. I had lived blissfully under the impression that I was living in an egalitarian society,” she said.

“I discovered when I was denied a position — I say it in all modesty, that I was perfectly suited for — on the grounds that every one of the men to whom I had to present my candidacy said, ‘But, you’re a woman.’ And that ‘But, you’re a woman’ was unbelievable. I started speaking to other female colleagues and discovered that every single one of them had experienced some kind of discrimination because she was a woman,” said Shalvi.

“By the way, that included sexual harassment, but nobody mentioned it. Nobody was prepared to speak out but we did speak on other issues,” she said.

Every one of the men to whom I had to present my candidacy said, ‘But, you’re a woman’

At this point in the leisurely walk out of the building, panel moderator Calderon came up to Shalvi. “It might not be very feminist to say, but you’re so beautiful!” Calderon said.

“As long as you tell men they’re very handsome, it’s fine,” Shalvi chuckled in response.

Indeed, as participants continued to walk up to Shalvi with a compliment or a hug, the great respect and adoration of Shalvi among the crowd was apparent.

In between greetings and good-byes, Shalvi finished her story: “As a result of experiences [of gender discrimination], we began a sort of feminist caucus in the university in 1973 and we started introducing women’s and feminist studies. This was met with enormous mockery from the men, [saying things such as], ‘We don’t have men’s studies, why should we have women’s studies?’”

“I had to explain to them that almost all of the studies were male-focused. From that eventually grew in 1984 the Israel Women’s Network which was founded primarily by women in academia. It rapidly became the major advocacy group for the rights of women by working through consciousness-raising because there was still a lot of denial of inequality,” Shalvi said.

Fighting through litigation and for legislation during her 15 years heading the organization, “we were able to totally change the status, the legal status, of women in Israel, and certainly, that was an achievement,” Shalvi concluded with a note of evident satisfaction before reaching the taxi door.

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