Profile: Alice Shalvi

    Alice Shalvi, was awarded the 2007 Israel Prize for Life Achievement for work on gender in education. Prof. Shalvi, a vibrant educator, feminist activist and social entrepreneur, initiated a number of institutions in Israel, including The Pelech School for Girls in Jerusalem, The Israel Women’s Network, The International Coalition for Agunah Rights, and the English Department at Ben Gurion University. She served as the rector of The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies and then as its president. Most recently, she and her husband, Moshe Shalvi, created a digital Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, the only one of its kind. JEL Contributing Editor Elana Maryles Sztokman interviews Professor Shalvi.

    How did it feel to win the Israel Prize?

    It felt very good. I was of course very gratified on a personal level, but very promptly realized that this was an extraordinary event for women, because I think even as recently as five years ago, it would have been considered unthinkable that a woman would get the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement primarily, though not exclusively, on the basis of her activity on behalf of women, and especially in the field of education. I felt that through the work we had done on behalf of women, an enormous change had occurred in the status of women, in the self-image of women, in the self-assurance of women, and most importantly – because that’s what the prize recognized – in the awareness of the importance and centrality of the subject of the status of women in society at large.

    You have been involved in so many issues. What are you most proud of?

    As far as achievements go, I would say that both The Pelech School for Girls and the Israel Women’s Network. Especially with the school, which has created a generation of young modern Orthodox women who are changing that entire social system within modern Orthodoxy. I’m glad that that’s happening, because it’s very important.

    The other thing I’m proud of is the fifteen years at the Network, which saw the largest number of legislative changes and reforms in women’s status, mainly because for quite a while, certainly from 1992 on, what I call the “alumnae” of the Network were so prominent in the Knesset. Even though they weren’t very many in number, they were totally dedicated to issues related to equality between the sexes, including the establishment of a Knesset committee on the advancement of the status of women, which had not existed before.

    The other thing that was extremely gratifying and rather overwhelming when I received the prize, was the number of letters I received from former students at the university, and former pupils at Pelech telling me what an impact my teaching had had on their lives and opinions. It has made me increasingly aware of what I’ve always believed: there is nothing like teaching as a profession. One can have such a profound impact, for good and for bad. Knowing that I’ve had an impact really makes me very happy…

    We were so ahead of our time. For example, we initiated the study of ecology in 1977. Most people had never heard the word ecology. In fact, I had to explain to my science teachers what I meant by it, because they didn’t realize. Today we would call it environmental studies, but at the time I called it ecology. And it was only because there was one science teacher who suddenly realized what I meant, that we were able to implement such a program.

    Or for example, the issue of multiple intelligences, for which I didn’t even have the word, because that was in 1989.But I remember trying to explain to my teachers that we shouldn’t be developing only the intellectual aspect of our students, and also that we shouldn’t judge our students just by their cognitive achievements. In fact, in our work, I would say, “Find out what a student is really good at, and let her work from that into whatever else we’re teaching.”

    So for example, we had a wonderful course, “Total History” which we called, Madaei HaRuah Clali’im [General Humanities], where we brought together history in its accepted sense of sociopolitical developments, along with literature, sociology, the arts and music of a particular period, to see what we mean when we say “The Renaissance,” or “The Enlightenment.” What determines and defines what we refer to as a historical period? We had some pupils who were particularly interested in art and weren’t considered the best students by some of their teachers because they were being judged cognitively. So I urged them to allow pupils to become acquainted with the period via art and dance. Let her think in terms of how dance reflects the Zeitgeist of a particular period. I think we were very innovative. I don’t think there are many schools that do that today, practice pupil-centeredness in the fullest, most positive sense of the term. And of the course the idea of letting the students develop their autonomy and their autonomy as a student body by making the school democratic – in this I think we were really ahead of our time.

    We were very much criticized for being too permissive, too open, not insistent enough on halakhic issues. We didn’t judge the length of the sleeves or the length of the skirt. Indeed, I always thought that the entire issue of modesty, of tzniut, which has become such a focal point in the more conservative religious circles, was something that had to do with the innate qualities of a person, not expressed only in dress. It’s how you behave in general, how you relate to yourself and to others, a certain degree of humility about yourself, which is the true test of modesty. So we were too far out at the time but, as so often happens, what was at one point considered extreme suddenly becomes middle of the road, and I think that’s what happened with a lot of things that we did and stood for at Pelech.

    What have been your greatest influences?

    Home, it’s all about the home. I more and more realize the impact my parents had on me, not by preaching but by example. What I saw at home was an open attitude, observance but openness. Hakhnasat orhim, for example. Our home was always open. My mother always used to set an extra place at the table on Shabbat in case my father brought home a stranger from synagogue, as was the custom in those days. All strangers who came to synagogues knew that they could rely on there being someone who would do that. And in my family I learned about tzedaka in the very best sense – always a readiness to help others, not only from my father who did it on a both public and personal level, but also from my mother. My childhood was during the Depression when beggars came knocking at the door, and she never sent anyone away empty handed. We weren’t wealthy at all, but she always had some soup and she would always invite them in. These were not Jews, but my mother always offered them a bowl of soup, a word of encouragement. And I think what a child sees in the home has a tremendous impact, subconsciously. I wasn’t aware that I was absorbing it.

    The other thing I absorbed was Zionism. It was a strongly Zionist household, and my father was very active in the religious Zionist community. One of my earliest memories is that when I was about six, being taken to a “Palestine Exhibition” with halva and Jaffa oranges, and halutz-nik music being played over the loudspeaker. From very early on, I knew that I would come on Aliyah one day. I didn’t know when, but it was definitely there in the future. So the first and most important reference certainly became my home.

    I was also very lucky to have a couple of teachers very early on, one in primary school, who encouraged me enormously in my reading and my writing, and one in my first year in high school, a math teacher who was very involved in the Spanish civil war. She taught both math and Spanish and she saved Spanish refugee children by bringing them to England. Once she brought a group to the school. We knew that if we didn’t want to have a math lesson we just had to ask Mrs. Gee what was happening in Spain and immediately there would be no math lesson! But I learned from her about political involvement. I only came to realize it later on, but she taught me the importance of being absolutely committed to an issue, with a sort of burning passion. That is what led me to tell the teachers at Pelech – every teacher is an educator. It doesn’t matter what you teach, it can be biology, physical education, English, anything, no matter what it is, you are an educator – both as a model and the way in which you teach, the way in which you relate to your students and the way in which you show your love and commitment to the subject that you’re teaching.

    You believe that education has the greatest impact?

    For my last few years at the university, I was teaching women in drama, and drama by women, feminist drama by women. That was very exciting because it was something quite new to the students, and very interesting – I used to come home at the end of every class in a state of elation. One year, I had a very varied group of women students; they all spoke, they all participated in the class, they did all the reading, they all came regularly, and it was fascinating because everyone was responded in a heartfelt manner. I felt that what every teacher wants to feel – that on the one hand, the students were bringing their personal experience to the interpretation of the text, and on the other, that they were then using what they got from the text to understand their own lives. In other words, it was working in both directions. And I believe that, so far as studying literature is concerned, that is the ideal, that two way illumination as it were. It was wonderful.

    My last year of teaching, I had a couple of men in the class, one of them probably gay. In the first class, I asked them to relate an incident which could not have happened as it did had they not been women or men respectively. This young man said that he had been abroad over the summer, and he’d bought a pair of pink suede shoes. As he was walking on Jaffa Road wearing his pink suede shoes, he passed a couple of young women at a bus stop, and after he had walked on, they called back to him, “Hey you! Men don’t wear pink shoes!”

    In my last class, when I told the student that it was the last class of my teaching career, he came up to afterwards and said, “You can’t! You can’t stop teaching! You changed my life!” I think that for a teacher to hear that from an adult, “You changed my life”, is remarkably moving. I think teachers are not aware of the impact that they have and can have, voluntarily or involuntarily, consciously or unconsciously.

    Tell me about the Jewish women’s encyclopedia.

    My husband, Moshe first wanted to do a world encyclopedia on women. When he realized that would be too vast and too expensive, he limited himself to Jewish women, and that really became his dream. Finally, he received the necessary financial backing, he really dedicated five years of his life to it, with me greatly involved, certainly emotionally and also in terms of serving as the stylistic editor. I really felt that the fact that he wanted to do it, the fact that he did it, the fact that he created it with the help of two superb women editors, Professors Paula Hyman and Dalia Ofer, that he persisted with it, and put so much into it, makes it a kind of summation of our relationship. I feel that the Encyclopedia would never have become a reality had it not been for our life together, for his being so totally involved and supportive of everything that I was involved with and cared about. I see it as a kind of model of partnership.

    And the work itself is, I think, of tremendous importance, both because of the very fact that it exists, that there is now a Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, and of course in terms of its contents, which are really amazing, not only because one recognizes – perhaps for the first time – the tremendous contribution made by Jewish women, both to society at large and to Jewish society, to Jewish knowledge, but similarly the topical articles, which deal with various issues of women’s status in Judaism, women’s contributions to Judaism, etc., are original and enlightening. I think this work has the potential for changing many attitudes, inspiring young women and girls in particular, to try and emulate these role models who emerge from the work. So if you think in terms of ongoing mutual influence, I think this really is a wonderful coda to our life together.

    If you could convey one message to the next generation, what would it be?

    Reach for the sky and don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Even if you know you’ll never attain what you’re reaching for, persist. Keep at it. I like to quote Robert Browning’s, Andrea del Sarto, “Aye, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp/ Or what’s a heaven for.” Keep on striving, because even if you don’t attain that goal yourself, the chances are that for the next generation, it will be easier.

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