Profile: Leading Israeli Feminist Embraces Conservative Judaism
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Profile: Leading Israeli Feminist Embraces Conservative Judaism

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Most people are contemplating retirement at the age of 70, but Alice Shalvi isn’t most people.

Just shy of her 71st birthday, Shalvi has become the rector of the Beit Midrash, the Conservative/Masorti movement’s seminary of Judaic studies in Israel.

Honored numerous times for her achievements in the fields of feminism and religious education, Shalvi, who describes herself as “religiously observant,” has been perceived as a maverick in Orthodox circles.

Her latest career move is viewed as a powerful endorsement of the Conservative movement at a time when the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are fighting for recognition in Israel.

Rabbi Benjamin Segal, director of the Beit Midrash, says Shalvi “brings a combination of academic excellence and religious sensitivity that uniquely qualify her to help us achieve our goals. She is a proven leader.”

Many would say a rebellious leader.

Known as a pioneer of the Israeli feminist movement, Shalvi has been blazing trails for nearly five decades. A university professor for most of her career, she co-founded the Israel Women’s Network in 1984, and has been battling the male-dominated political and religious establishments ever since.

It was Shalvi who first organized protests in front of the Chief Rabbinate’s office demanding a solution to the problem of agunot — women whose husbands cannot or will not grant their wives a religious divorce, or get.

Under her leadership, the network has fought for greater women’s representation in the Knesset, the Israel Defense Force, and at the highest rungs of the business ladder.

Working on the principle that “no area should be closed to you because you are a female,” Shalvi has also fought for better Jewish education for Orthodox girls and women.

In 1975, while working as an English professor at the Hebrew University, Shalvi became the volunteer principal of the Pelech High School in Jerusalem, a progressive school for Orthodox girls.

At Shalvi’s initiative, the school introduced a controversial curriculum that included Talmud study and a three-year course on family studies that addressed such sensitive issues as birth control and premarital sex.

The curriculum and Shalvi’s political activism — among other things, she invited Palestinian teens to meet their Jewish counterparts — angered members of the National Religious Party which, through the Council for State Religious Education, exercises significant control over the state religious school system.

In 1990, after years of threats, the state religious system promised to withdraw its support and accreditation of the Pelech school if Shalvi did not quit.

She reluctantly stepped down and began to devote even more time to the network and its causes.

Despite her avowed intention to reduce her schedule and spend more time with her husband, Moshe, and 18 grandchildren, Shalvi says she couldn’t pass up the offer to join the Beit Midrash.

“I hadn’t expected to take on more work responsibilities at this late stage of my life, but I believe in what the Beit Midrash is doing,” she says in an interview.

“I’m in favor of choice, of alternatives, and the Masorti movement offers the possibility of [women’s] personal involvement in ritual and study.”

Raised in England in a religiously observant home — her parents moved from Germany to Britain in 1934 — Shalvi first encountered non-Orthodox Jewish ritual in the late 1970s.

“I first attended a Bat Mitzvah in the Masorti movement in America in 1977 and witnessed a most beautiful ceremony,” she says. “The mother and grandmother had an aliyah and read a portion of the Torah. I was intensely moved and felt how right and beautiful it was.”

In was not until 1979, during another trip to the United States, however, that Shalvi took an active part in a women’s prayer service.

“I was at a Masorti Sisterhood Shabbat and the women asked if I’d like an aliyah, and since it was an all-women’s group and there were no halachic prohibitions, I said the bracha and looked — for the first time in my life, at the age of 53 — directly at a Torah scroll.

“I burst into tears. It was an overwhelming experience that still moves me,” she recalls.

Shalvi, after many years of religious exploration, now defines herself as a “Masorti Jew who keeps the mitzvot.”

She believes that the Conservative movement, with its evolving interpretation of halachah, plays the role once played by the Orthodox movement.

In the past, she says, “the great rabbis, the poskim who gave responsa, engaged in a reinterpretation in light of changing social norms. The trouble with the Orthodox establishment in Israel, and many of the Orthodox rabbis, is that they have ceased to a very large extent to engage in this process.

“The result has been that halachah has been frozen and is, in many cases, irrelevant to Jewish life.”

By refusing to bend, Shalvi asserts, the Orthodox movement is doing an injustice to women.

“Perhaps the greatest revolution of the last century has been the emancipation of women,” she says. “In a country where there are three women on the Supreme Court, it’s ridiculous that we can’t have women sitting on religious courts.”

In her new role as rector of the Beit Midrash, Shalvi intends to devote most of her energies to outreach.

“The Israeli public doesn’t realize that the Masorti movement is continuing the tradition of ongoing halachic interpretation in the light of modernity,” she says. “I will try to share this message.”

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