Professor Alice Shalvi, z"l, was everything I wanted to be when I grew up....
The world has lost a vibrant feminist trailblazer
Professor Alice Shalvi z"l was the mother of religious feminism in Israel, fighting 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 way back in the early 70s when there were only a handful of women doing this week -- 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 way before everyone else. She built Pelech, a religious feminist school, before orthodox feminism existed -- before Women of the Wall, before women's tefilla groups, way before JOFA and Kolech existed, before anyone even dared to put the words "feminist" and "religious" together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. She did it. She just did it. Everyone else is still catching up.
She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating 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 posnisht in the religious world -- and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially 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 zillion fronts, all at once. Education, academia, advocacy, politics, peace......
I met Professor Shalvi first in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years. I was in my mid-twenties, 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, Prof. Shalvi started to cry. "I am 72 years old I have been talking about this for so long," she said, "and nothing is changing." Cried. She was literally crying because the suffering of women didn't 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.
Prof Shalvi z"l was officially my mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows. We would meet regularly and talk feminism, politics, religion, Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. (And the one good thing to come out of my experience on that program, but that's a whole other story.) 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 -- Shira Chadasha, women in clergy-roles and others -- she had already moved on to the Conservative movement. I totally get that transition, why she needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She earned that right, and deserved to be in a place that brought comfort. But she was highly criticized for that, treated like a kind of traitor. And that was just wrong. Very wrong.
She had words of comfort for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in reform rabbinical school. I am deeply indebted to her for all that... and so much more. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and would not associate with reform in any meaningful way (also a story for another day), I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. Because she inspired me 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. 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.
With so much gratitude xo
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