Baruch Dayan Emet

Alice Shalvi, award-winning educator and religious feminist, dies at 96

Born to Zionist parents in Germany, Shalvi immigrated to Israel in 1949, helping create one of its top religious schools for girls and found one of the country’s leading women’s rights groups

Alice Shalvi, an Israel Prize-winning educator and pioneering religious feminist, died on Monday, two weeks shy of her 97th birthday.

Shalvi created the English department at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva in 1969. Six years later, she became the principal of the Pelech High School in Jerusalem, a religious girls school that — breaking with convention — taught its students Talmud. In 1984, she co-founded the Israel Women’s Network, which remains one of the leading lobbies for women’s rights and gender equality in Israel. 

Until her death, Shalvi also served on the board of directors of the New Israel Fund and on the board of the Israeli Shocharei G.I.L.A.T. nonprofit, which works with infants and children from at-risk families. In 2007, Shalvi was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, one of the highest honors that a person can receive in Israel.

“She did so many things. She was, up until the end, an incredible, inspiring woman,” Einat Fischer Lalo, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “She was a real feminist, in every bone in her body, in years when that was not an easy thing to do.”

Organizations of all types from Israel and around the world released statements mourning Shalvi, including the National Library of Israel, which recalled how Shalvi not only donated her entire personal collection in 2018 but helped the staff catalogue it; the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which called her “a great visionary, activist and thought leader”; Israel’s Masorti/Conservative Movement, which referred to her as “one of the gdolot hador,” a feminine version of a title used to denote top rabbis; and the Hebrew University of Jerusael, which said that her “actions, lifestyle, unwavering belief in the inherent goodness of humanity, and zest for life served as an inspiring example to us all.”

Born Alice Hildegard Margulies in Germany to religious Zionist parents, Shalvi fled with her family to the United Kingdom in the 1930s. She studied English at Cambridge, traveling to Basel in 1946 as a representative of British Jewish students at that year’s Zionist Congress. After earning a bachelor’s degree, she went on to study social work at the London School of Economics. In 1949, she emigrated to Israel, where she met her husband, Moshe Shelkowitz (who later Hebraicized his last name to Shalvi).

As the field of social work was still in its infancy in Israel, Shalvi shifted her career focus to higher education, teaching English at Hebrew University and helping create the English department at what is now Ben-Gurion University. Much of Shalvi’s academic work focused on Shakespeare’s writings, about which she continued lecturing until recently.

In 1975, Shalvi took over as principal of the Pelech school, which was founded nine years prior and was on the brink of dissolution when she came on board. Under her tenure, the school became the highly regarded academic institution that it is today, regularly topping lists of Israel’s best high schools. First based solely in Jerusalem, Pelech now has schools in Tel Aviv, Zichron Yaakov and outside Rehovot. There is also now a boy’s Pelech school in Jerusalem. In 1991, shortly after retiring as principal, the Israeli Education Ministry awarded her its top Education Prize.

In a statement, Pelech schools remembered Shalvi as a “great woman who managed and crafted the direction of the school. May her soul be bound with the binding of life [God].”

In 1984, following a conference of U.S. and Israeli women organized by the American Jewish Congress and led by feminist activist Betty Friedan, Shalvi co-founded the Israel Women’s Network along with a number of other academics, Knesset members and activists. Shalvi served as the organization’s chair twice before retiring in 2000.

“Two years ago, she came back to serve on the board of the Israel Women’s Network,” Fischer Lalo said. “It was important for us to have her back.”

During its nearly 40 years of activities, the Israel Women’s Network has worked to combat sex trafficking and sexual harassment in Israel, as well as fighting gender-based wage inequalities.

“Our most significant achievement,” Shalvi told Hadassah Magazine earlier this year, “was in drawing women’s attention to the anomalies in pay between women and men and other forms of discrimination. And the fact that women no longer felt ashamed of the term ‘feminist.’ They no longer believed we already had equality.”

In 1988, the organization also helped spark the ongoing controversy over female prayer at the Western Wall. During a conference organized by IWN, Hadassah and the American Jewish Committee, a group of women visited the Western Wall with the intention of holding a Torah reading at the site, which met fierce opposition from many of the other worshippers. This led to the creation of the Women of the Wall, which continues to hold monthly female-led prayer services at the Western Wall and is still actively fighting in Israel’s High Court of Justice for the right to read Torah at the site.

Shalvi was sharply critical of the mixing of religion and state in Israel, particularly the role of the Chief Rabbinate.

“There’s still a lot more to be done—look at the few women in the government today,” Shalvi told Hadassah. “There’s been enormous progress, all over the world, with women doing significant work from which they were excluded in the past. But we are still very much professionally divided along gender roles. As long as women are the ones who bear the children, that’s not going to change. Unfortunately, society doesn’t sufficiently value the child carers and how much they are contributing to the economy by raising the children.”

Shalvi is also a staunch opponent to Israel’s continued rule in the West Bank, saying the country’s control over the Palestinians is “morally corrupting.” 

In 1997, Shalvi became the rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, creating a number of programs that still exist today, including a master’s program combining art and Judaism.

“She was very, very active at Schechter from 1998 to 2004,” David Golinkin, president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and president emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, told eJP. He added that Shalvi continued to serve on the institute’s board until her death.

Golinkin, who worked with Shalvi for some 25 years, said what always stood out to him about Shalvi were her sense of wonder, her lack of fear and her dedication to her ideals.

“She never deserted her ideals: One was Judaism, the second was Zionism and the third was feminism,” he said. “She not only believed in those three things but advocated for them.”

At Schechter, Shalvi helped create and raise money for the center of women and Jewish law, which provided academic support to “chained women,” whose husbands denied them a religious divorce, or get. “I was the [Jewish law] expert, but this was her idea,” Golinkin said. “She also found the funding for the center.”

Shalvi also contributed significantly to Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, which was published by her husband, who died in 2010. Shalvi continued writing articles for the encyclopedia, which is available online through the Jewish Women’s Archive, through 2021.

In 2017, Shalvi received Bonei Zion (Builders of Zion) Prize Lifetime Achievement Award by a Nefesh B’Nefesh. That year, Paula Weiman-Kelman also created a documentary about Shalvi’s life, “The Re-Annotated Alice.” A year later, Shalvi published her memoir, Never a Native, winning the 2019 National Jewish Book Council Award for Women’s Writing. She continued speaking to organizations and at public events until her death.

Asked what she hoped for Israel in its next 75 years, Shalvi said in May: “I’m distressed that there is so much internal division. If I were a fairy godmother and could do one positive thing, it would be to eliminate sinat chinam (baseless hatred) among Israelis.”

Shalvi is survived by five of her six children — Joel, Micha, Ditza, Hephzibah and Pnina (her son Benzion died in 2016) — along with 21 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.