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Alice Shalvi, Hailed as a Mother of Feminism in Israel, Dies at 96

Alice Shalvi, an innovative educator and social activist revered by many as a founding mother of modern Jewish feminism in Israel, died on Monday at her home in Jerusalem. She was 96.

Her daughter Pnina Shalvi-Vega confirmed the death.

Dr. Shalvi developed a brand of feminist activism that drew on her experiences as a mother and a teacher, along with her deep knowledge of Jewish text, to help galvanize the nascent women’s movement in Israel beginning in the mid-1970s.

She was best known for her leadership of Pelech, an experimental school in Jerusalem that provides an egalitarian secular and religious education for Orthodox girls, and for her work as the founding director of the Israel Women’s Network. The network, formed in 1984, lobbies the government to reform Israeli laws treating women differently from men — in the military, marriage, employment and the administration of health care.

A diminutive woman who retained the accent and bearing of her European childhood, Dr. Shalvi was showered with accolades and awards recognizing her contributions to education, scholarship, religious life and civil society. In 2007, she received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian award, for lifetime achievement.

Born in Germany and reared in England, Dr. Shalvi enjoyed influence beyond Israel, the country she called home for 74 years. She had devoted supporters in the United States — Friends of Alice, her husband called them — who considered her, in the words of the Ms. magazine co-founder and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, “the queen mother of Israeli second wave feminism.”

Dr. Shalvi charted her own path throughout her life, defying stereotypes and convention, sometimes at great professional cost and personal anguish. As a religiously observant mother of six children, she was not expected to challenge the authority of the Israeli rabbinate, but she forged ahead anyway, even burning restrictive religious marriage contracts in a dramatic demonstration to support women who were prevented from divorcing their husbands.

A devoted educator in secondary schools and universities, Dr. Shalvi jeopardized her career by speaking publicly to Palestinians and in support of the peace process. Her participation in dialogues between Israeli and Palestinian women was one reason she was forced to resign from Pelech in 1991.

The price she paid was personal, too. In the opening acknowledgments of her memoir “Never a Native” (2018), she apologized to her children for the suffering caused by what she called her “over-indulgence in public affairs.”

Dr. Shalvi said she chose the name of her memoir when she considered “the overarching metaphor of my life, which has been lived in three different countries, in all of which I was in fact an ‘alien.’”Credit…Halban Publishers

The home she shared with her husband, Moshe Shalvi, in the Beit HaKerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, was often abuzz with her extensive family and ever-expanding network of colleagues and friends. They would gather amid the white jasmine and giant fruit trees in her garden, the conversation flowing effortlessly between Hebrew and English.

It was there that she worked on her memoir, writing in long hand on a yellow legal pad. When asked in an email in 2018 why she chose “Never a Native” as its title, she replied, “It came to my mind when I considered the overarching metaphor of my life, which has been lived in three different countries, in all of which I was in fact an ‘alien.’”

Despite having lived in Israel since 1949, Dr. Shalvi often said that she felt closest to the Friends of Alice, the 10 Jewish feminists, mostly in the New York area, who supported her for decades and whom she considered her soul mates.

Dr. Shalvi demonstrating for women’s rights outside the Central Post Office Building in Jerusalem in an undated photograph. She the founding director of the Israel Women’s Network, a lobbying organization.Credit…via Halban Publishers

“She’s been a teacher, a role model, a fantastic oracle, a rhetorician,” Ms. Pogrebin, one of those friends, said in an interview. “She was a groundbreaking presence who was doing work that had not been done before, here or there. It was very hard to silence Alice.”

Alice Hildegard Margulies was born on Oct. 16, 1926, in Essen, the industrial city in western Germany, the youngest of three children of Benzion and Perl Margulies, who were first cousins. Her parents owned a wholesale business selling linens and cutlery. Theirs was a cultured home, filled with music and literature, infused by her father’s devotion to his synagogue and the religious Zionist movement. Alice was a solitary child, especially after her sister died of pleurisy when Alice was 2, leaving her with a much older brother with whom she had little in common.

As Hitler rose to power and Nazi harassment of Jews intensified, the family fled south to Mannheim, where they had relatives, and finally to London in 1934.

In Britain, where she was called “the little refugee girl” at school, Alice, a voracious reader, nurtured a passion for English literature. Although English was not her first language, she won numerous writing awards and was accepted to Newnham, one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge University.

She excelled in her studies and became immersed in Jewish life on campus. There, foreshadowing her later activist inclinations, she proposed one day that women, too, should lead the singing at Shabbat meals. To her surprise, the men agreed.

“And, the following Friday evening, I made history by being the first woman to lead,” Dr. Shalvi wrote in her memoir. “Unfortunately, the victory was marred. In my nervousness, I pitched my voice too high and, to my shame, had to readjust the key after the first two lines. But the precedent had been set.”

She moved to Israel in 1949 with a master’s degree in social work from the London School of Economics and Political Science, but was unable to find work there in her chosen field. By chance the following year, she was offered a teaching job at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and discovered her professional calling; she became a faculty member and earned her doctorate there in 1962. She eventually became head of the English departments at Hebrew University and Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Dr. Shalvi met her future husband, Moshe Shelkowitz, an immigrant from New York who later changed his surname to Shalvi, through mutual friends. He died in 2013 after 63 years of marriage.

In addition to their daughter Pnina, she is survived by two other daughters, Ditza Shmuel and Heftziba Kelner; two sons, Yoel and Micha Shalvi; 21 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren. Another son, Benzion, died in 2016.

Dr. Shalvi’s legacy as an educator is reflected most profoundly in Pelech, which she led for 15 years and which to this day is regarded as a model for enlightened religious education.

“She taught us as Jewish women to speak in an ethical Jewish language,” Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, a former student of hers who became Dr. Shalvi’s rabbi at Kehilat Zion, a progressive congregation in Jerusalem, said in an interview.

She credited Dr. Shalvi with instilling in her students a unique blend of social consciousness and religious faith, whether the class was on a Talmudic text or a Shakespeare play.

Dr. Shalvi at home in Jerusalem in 2016. Despite having lived in Israel since 1949, she often said that she felt closest to the Friends of Alice, the 10 Jewish feminists, mostly in the New York area, who supported her for decades.Credit…Yonatan Sindel/Flash90, via Halban Publishers

“She taught about feminism, human rights, human dignity as a religious woman,” Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum said.

Dr. Shalvi helped found the Israel Women’s Network in 1984 after serving on a special government commission on the status of women. Under her leadership, the network, among other things, sought to give women greater political representation by creating programs to increase the number of women running for office and to encourage those already in office to cross party lines.

“They created a tradition of left-wing and some right-wing feminists who collaborated on work they could agree on,” said Hamutal Gouri, a senior fellow at the Kiverstein Institute, an initiative promoting equality for women in Jerusalem.

Dr. Shalvi never lost her ability as an educator to connect across generations. When she was honored by the Kiverstein Institute with a lifetime achievement award in 2021, she captivated audience members younger than most of her granddaughters. “It’s not every feminist,” Ms. Gouri said, “certainly not into her 90s, who gets teenage girls, understands what they are going through and can serve as an inspiration.”

In her memoir, Dr. Shalvi wrote with pride about her Pelech students — “my girls,” she called them — who had gone on to become judges, doctors, university lecturers, curators and business executives.

“They are bearing out my contention,” she wrote, “that no area in life should be closed to you just because you are female.”

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