(JTA) — I first met Alice Shalvi, the mother of religious feminism in Israel, in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded to advocate for women denied a religious divorce by their husbands. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years.
I was in my mid-20s, and new to the cause. I was there as co-chair of Mavoi Satum, which a group of us founded in 1995. This coalition was meant to be advancing systemic solutions to this awful problem. But, of course, we were stuck. As stuck then as we are now.
At one point in the meeting, Professor Shalvi started to cry. “I am 72 years old. I have been talking about this for so long,” she said, “and nothing is changing.” She was crying because the suffering of women didn’t seem to matter to our people. Then she turned to me and said, “It’s up to you and your generation to fix this.”
At the time, I felt her passing the mantle, and I didn’t want to let her down. But I’m sure I did. At least on this front. On others, too, despite our best efforts.
Shalvi, who died Monday morning in Israel at age 96, fought crucial fights decades before the rest of the world caught up with her, before the religious community had any kind of language for what she was doing, before there was any kind of feminist movement to speak of in Israel.
She pioneered feminist ideas in Israel in the early 1970s when there were only a handful of women doing such work — Marcia Freedman, Naomi Chazan and a few others. And she was the only one coming from the religious world, and able to see the need and potential for change before everyone else.
Starting in 1975, Shalvi began running the Pelech School for Haredi Girls, a religious feminist school, before Orthodox feminism existed as a movement — before Women of the Wall, before women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, years before Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Kolech, Israel’s Religious Women’s Forum, existed, before anyone even dared to put the words “feminist” and “religious” together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. Everyone else is still catching up.
She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating, in 1984, the first feminist lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, which still pioneers on many fronts.
She also dared to work on issues of peace, taking positions that were considered pas nisht, or “unsuitable,” in the religious world — and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, as equal human beings. This was not a position that religious Israelis, or Israelis in general, were comfortable with. It’s still an uphill battle. She spoke and acted from a place of humanity first.
And she could remarkably work on a multitude of fronts, all at once, including education, academia, advocacy, politics and peace.
Alice Hildegard Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, on Oct. 16, 1926. She, her mother and brother joined their father in London in 1934, and she later earned degrees in literature and social work. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, taught at Hebrew University and led efforts to create an English department at Ben-Gurion University. Denied the deanship because she was a woman, she mobilized female faculty members in protest.
Professor Shalvi was my formal mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows, a program in Jewish education. We would meet regularly and talk about feminism, politics, religion and Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. Prof. Shalvi always talked to me with complete honesty, passion and belief in what she was working for. She entrusted me with her vision, and made me feel like she believed that I would hold it for her and continue to birth it in the world.
By the time changes started to take place in Orthodoxy for women — evidenced by Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem congregation dedicated to halachah (Jewish law) and feminism, and Orthodox women in clergy roles — she had already moved on to the Conservative movement, serving as rector of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school and seminary associated with the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She was highly criticized for that decision and was treated by some as a sort of traitor to the Orthodox feminist cause. But she deserved to be in a place that supported her and brought her comfort and respect, and she had earned that right.
She offered words of support for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in Reform rabbinical school. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and do not associate with the Reform movement in any meaningful way, I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. She inspired me and so many others to take leaps, be courageous, live from the heart and ignore the haters.
I am so glad that she found her well-deserved place in the world, and that she received many well-deserved honors and accolades along the way, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize in 1991 for teaching Talmud to girls and insisting that Pelech alumnae serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019 a National Jewish Book Award for her memoir, “Never a Native.”
She left an incredible legacy of activism that has birthed generations of change agents in Israel.
I have often thought over the years that I wanted to be Alice Shalvi when I grew up. I loved her unstoppable courage, her ability to wear many hats, her resilience in standing up to the haters and naysayers, and her constant belief that she could make a difference. I’ve tried to follow that kind of path, though I have not had nearly the kind of strength and fortitude — and successes — that she had. But her personality and vision continue to have a permanent resting place in my heart. And I will continue to endeavor to carry her torch in this world.