A Woman of Principle

By NOA AMOUYAL

Alice Shalvi reflects on her multi-faceted life’s work as a pioneer of gender equality and education for all in the Holy Land.

By NOA AMOUYAL

An initial conversation with 92-year-old Professor Alice Shalvi leads one to believe that she’s a very lucky woman, in the right place at the right time. True – Lady Luck has always been in her favor. As a young girl, her parents had the foresight to leave Nazi Germany before the Third Reich’s reign of terror truly began. Then, as a new immigrant in the Holy Land, she landed her first job by making a fortunate acquaintance with someone who got her a position at The Hebrew University, one that would be the beginning of an illustrious career as an educator. And, yes, when she was asked to head the Israel Women’s Network, that extraordinary opportunity seemed to drop in her lap from out of nowhere.

But one doesn’t become a pioneer in education, promoting gender equality in Israel when the phrase “gender equality” didn’t even exist, by happenstance. Shalvi’s recently published memoir Never A Native portrays a woman born to a family of means, someone who, early on, had a keen mixture of empathy, strength of character, curiosity, and zeal for life. Clearly, the career of Alice Shalvi was no accident.

During a nearly 90-minute intimate conversation in her Beit Hakerem home promoting the new autobiography, Shalvi is warm, but matter-of-fact about her triumphs and regrets throughout the course of her storied life, a life that, as she tells it, was of an outsider looking in and hoping to be a force for change wherever she went.

Alice Shalvi (sitting), surrounded by Russian-speaking women from the “Kesher” program at Masorti Study Day in Kfar Saba on February 12, 2019, sponsored by Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Midreshet Schechter, and the Masorti Movement (Photo: Barbara Slater)

The Immigrant: Coming to Israel

Born in Germany, she began her intellectual journey at a grammar school in the English countryside, and later in Cambridge and the London School of Economics. Yet Shalvi really came into her own in Jerusalem, where her feminist principles coincided with her Zionist passion. But, while it took time for her to recognize society’s faults when it comes to gender equality, the Zionist spirit was imbued within her from an early age. From dancing the Hora around her kitchen table to attending a Zionist Congress meeting in Basel with her father, her passion and love for the Jewish state never wavered.

“Zionism is the essence of my life. I was a Zionist since I was four years old,” she said frankly, as if this aspect of her identity should be obvious. “I was brought up in a profoundly Zionist home. My father was active in the Zionist movement. We had the blue and white KKL-JNF box by the front door. I diligently put pennies in it. I would go on aliya eventually and I would live in Palestine. There was no doubt about it at all.”

In 1949, she took the plunge and made aliya. Driving through the streets of Jerusalem, a city that was a shell of its former self after withstanding the siege and the bitter War of Independence one year prior, she felt as if little looked or felt like the Promised Land. Her small apartment in Rehavia was a far cry from the more comfortable living conditions she was used to back in England.

But the spirit of the city, God’s holy presence and the potential of what it could become, made Shalvi resolute that it was here where she would build her future. “Never before had I experienced such a sense of belonging. This is where I wanted to make my home,” she wrote of the early days of the State. “At sunset, the Jerusalem stone turns golden pink. The city shines. True, a city divided, confined, immured – yet, in my eyes, perfect.”

The Educator & Activist

An avid reader with a vivid imagination, Alice Shalvi may have become an actress, had life taken her on a different path. But life had other plans. After working with underprivileged families in the United Kingdom while getting her degree in social work, Shalvi knew she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. When she arrived in Israel, she was determined to provide assistance to the many displaced Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab countries, who had arrived on Israel’s shores following the War of Independence.

Unfortunately, with little experience and no knowledge of the relevant languages, Shalvi was turned away from the only two social work agencies in Jerusalem. Like many new immigrants, she had to reinvent herself. A chance encounter with Leon Simon, then the Chairman of the Board of Governors at Hebrew University, led her to her first job in education. Evidence of serendipity at work, Shalvi quickly saw that teaching came naturally to her.

“I learned 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,” she wrote. “Both require empathy, the capacity to listen and communicate, the ability to feel and express sympathy and affection…there is no greater compliment than to be addressed as ‘Morati’ (my teacher), or greater satisfaction to then hear, as I have, a student say, ‘You changed my life.”

“And it all happened by chance,” she said.

But it was also in the halls of higher education where she saw the disparity between the genders, an observation that was further strengthened in her mind when Shalvi entered adulthood.

“I think my initial feminist outlook was derived from an awareness when I was quite young,” she said in the interview. “That awareness was sharpened when I went up to Cambridge at 18. At Cambridge at the time, not only were women not full members of the university, but there were only two women’s colleges in comparison with 20 colleges for men. And the women’s colleges were limited in the number of students they were allowed to accept. There was clear discrimination.”

Once in Israel, Shalvi had naively assumed that gender discrimination would be a non-issue, as she could not understand how one Jew could discriminate against another. “When I came to Israel, I assumed that I was in the land of total equality,” she said. She found, however, that matters were the same, if not worse, in the new Jewish state.

In her personal life, she saw blatant gender and ethnic discrimination. She remembers giving birth for the first time and sharing a hospital room with an immigrant from Kurdistan who was already a mother to six children. After giving birth to her seventh, a girl, Shalvi’s roommate pleaded with the nurses to stay one more night – so she could spend Shabbat in the hospital resting. Her husband would not hear of it – stressing that food needed to be prepared and the house needed to be put in order – and she was sent on her way, dejected and tired.

“I learned a great deal through this pathetic woman and her experience, of the overriding importance in some cultures of bearing sons, of the lowly state of females, the way they are despised and rejected even from infancy,” she wrote. “I learned, too, of the institutional complicity in this dismal scale of values, of discrimination that overcomes compassion – similar pressure would never have been brought on an Ashkenazi woman – [and] of the contempt in which new immigrants from the Arab countries were held by the European veterans.”

Facing the male leadership at Ben-Gurion University in 1973 proved to be a watershed moment for her. She recalls distinctly her candidacy for the deanship of the faculty of humanities at the University. Asking why she was being denied the position, she was greatly dismayed when the men who reviewed her application stared at her blankly and said, “But you’re a woman.”

“That experience in 1973 really had an impact on me. I started speaking to my female colleagues and discovered that almost without exception they had experienced some form of discrimination.” Rather than standing idly by, Shalvi got to work. Inspired by feminist writings like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, she demanded and ultimately arranged a meeting between her female colleagues and the University’s top administrative structure. Items on their agenda included combating the slower promotion of women up educational career ladder and eradicating the Nepotism Law, which stipulated that a husband and wife could not serve in the same department. “Since the husband was usually slightly older and women had babies while doing their doctorates, it was always the man who got appointed first, and then there was no room for her. It was ridiculous. Their response was interesting.”

Shalvi realized that they never knew and were not aware of the implications of the situation when she saw the astounded reaction of the University’s leadership, including the President, Rector and Director-General. “That meeting and the positive changes that followed really got the ball rolling” and led to the launching of the Israel Women’s Network in 1984.  

“At a meeting, all of a sudden, someone said, ‘We need a women’s lobby,’ and I said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ I was the one that called the initial meeting and de facto I became the chairwoman of the Israeli Women’s Network,” she recalled, amused. “You don’t always plan things and you have to seize the opportunity. If an opportunity arises to do something which you know needs to be done, then do it.” That organization is credited with promoting the status of women across the country. It helped to elect women to the Knesset and pass progressive legislation for women’s rights. Young women who serve in the IDF combat units and older women who receive full retirement benefits can thank Shalvi and the IWN’s tireless work for those changes.

Another crowning achievement in her efforts to promote equality was her work as the principal of the Pelech High School for Girls. Even though she only agreed to the position as principal on a “temporary” basis, once again, life had other plans, and she led the school for 15 years. Under her guidance, the school expanded from 60 to 240 students and became an officially recognized religious high school. To this day, teaching young girls from religious backgrounds that there is nothing they can’t do and nothing they shouldn’t learn, is the biggest source of pride for Shalvi. “Sometimes you need to come at the right moment in history. That was the right moment for Pelech,” she said of the school that encouraged young women to study Talmud and serve in the army. The school, located in Jerusalem, is still recognized as one of the best high schools in the country.

Life took another interesting turn when, by chance again, Shalvi found herself in a central leadership role at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. In 1997, with plans of retirement on her mind, she was approached to oversee a selection committee looking for a new Rector, the academic head of the Institute. “The then-chairman of the Board asked, ‘Would you be interested?’ I burst out laughing. My husband came into the room to see what was the matter and I said, ‘They want me to be Rector of Schechter!’ And he said, ‘Why not?’”

The Schechter Institute, established in 1984, is an egalitarian and pluralistic Israeli institution of higher education. In over a decade of leadership roles at Schechter, Shalvi recruited faculty to enhance the M.A. in Jewish Women’s Studies, helped set up and obtain funding for the Center for Women in Jewish Law, co-founded Nashim, the Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies, and established the Center for Judaism and the Arts. Today, Shalvi continues to support the annual Women’s Studies Conference at Schechter in memory of her life partner Moshe Shalvi, z”l.

While at Schechter, Shalvi also encouraged the establishment of the Masorti Women’s Study Days, sponsored by Schechter and Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, in cooperation with the Masorti Movement, where women convene twice a year for multi-lingual study sessions. Coordinated by Diane Friedgut, a Board member of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and a prominent voice in the Israeli Masorti Movement, the study days offer classes in Hebrew, English, Spanish, and Russian. The February 2019 Study Day focused on “Women’s Voices Changing the Discourse: Bible for Today.” Of course, Shalvi was there doing what she loves – teaching.

The Wife & Mother

While Shalvi juggled these multiple jobs, she also cared for six children at home. Looking back, though, she believes that, when it came to her job as a mother, she fell short. “You’re not always at home when you’re needed,” she wrote, recalling her son Micha complaining to her at a young age. Her eldest daughter, Ditza, almost three years Micha’s junior, replied, “But when you are here, you’re much more interesting than those mothers who were always cleaning windows!’” “I welcomed Ditza’s reassurance, but in time I came to realize that I should have paid more attention to Micha’s reproach. In retrospect, I’m painfully aware that, while I attained renown for my professional and public activities, I was a failure as a mother,” she revealed.

“One thing that emerges from my life and is reflected in the book is the need and importance of being involved. To seize opportunities to further the ideals to which you’re committed,” she mused. “But on the other hand, what about the need to be a good mother? I think another message is you can’t have everything.”

The Legacy

Shalvi’s diverse life certainly points to a productive and fruitful impact, at home and elsewhere. She is the recipient of many prestigious prizes, such as the Israel Prize, the Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize, and the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for her work in the Israel Women’s Network.

But what is the future of feminism in Israel? According to Shalvi, subsequent generations have become complacent and have accepted resting on the laurels of those who came before them. “I think things have gone better, but not enough. Look at politics. We have more women members of Knesset, but many of them would not refer to themselves as feminists and they are not,” she said. “Women still earn less, and there are still few women in high positions anywhere. Some women head big companies – the tycoons. But that doesn’t mean anything, since, in many cases, they inherited their wealth.” For Shalvi, as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, she believes feminism around the world has hit a standstill – the #MeToo movement notwithstanding. “I see the feminist cause as going sort of two steps forward, but then sliding back. We’re not going all the way back, but we’re faltering. There’s still a lot to do.”

So, what must be done? As Shalvi sees it, the first step is to get involved and then set a path to make one’s mark toward recognizable change. “I think it’s any citizen’s duty to repair from within; to contribute to the country, your society, to be socially involved,” she said firmly. “Thankfully, all my children are.” Throughout her long career, Professor Alice Shalvi’s legacy is not only resonating within her home, but throughout the Jewish State that means so much to her, and beyond.

Noa Amouyal is the Managing Digital Editor of Israel Hayom’s English News desk. The Jerusalem-based editor and writer’s work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report, The Jewish Chronicle, and Forbes. Follow her on Twitter at @noaamouyal.

One thought on “A Woman of Principle”

  1. diane friedgut says:

    A beautifully written article which has captured the spirit, dedication, wisdom, power and humility of a woman who has set an example for us all.

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