Changing the rules of Orthodox feminism

Three women have led Pelech Religious High School for Girls on a journey from a radical haredi mindset to mainstream modern Orthodoxy.

pelech 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
pelech 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Pnina Rosenbluth, a founder of Pelech Religious High School for Girls, posed for a picture with the school's former principal Prof. Alice Shalvi and current principal Shira Breuer, at its 40th anniversary celebration last month, the moment seemed representative of what the three had achieved together. A recipient of the 1993 Israel Education Prize for its ground-breaking educational work, and currently accredited with experimental status by the Education Ministry - thanks to its pioneering Tkufot program offering intensive, university-level study in a variety of subjects - Pelech has become a symbol of progressive learning. Though today Pelech is regarded by most as mainstream modern Orthodox, innovations such as encouraging girls to go to the army, teaching Talmud and conflict resolutions classes have earned the school its fair share of critics. Throughout its history, Pelech's innovative outlook has earned it critics as well as supporters. In 1963 Rosenbluth set up the school, in a Pardess Hanna clubhouse, together with her late husband, the school's first principal Rabbi Shalom Rosenbluth. The couple's intention was to establish a haredi alternative to the Beit Ya'acov school system. "We wanted to create a haredi school that offered the girls a broad and high-level secular education, something which was unheard of [then]," explains Rosenbluth. The Rosenbluths' open outlook and comprehensive secular knowledge distinguished them from many of their haredi counterparts. "For haredim, the Rosenbluths were unusual as they appreciated the importance of culture and education," observes current deputy principal Michal Irshai. "Although," she adds, "it was somewhat easier to combine the two worlds then. Israeli society was less polarized; people weren't as rigid in their categorization of each other." When the Rosenbluths moved to Jerusalem in 1965, Pelech relocated to an abandoned building on Mount Zion. The pair then hired a group of gifted young teachers from across the religious spectrum to embark on their endeavor with them. Their staff included Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who would go on to become head of Yeshivat Har Etzion and founder of the left-wing religious party Meimad, and Dr. Hananel Mack, a Talmud professor at Bar-Ilan University. Pelech offered an extensive curriculum, far beyond the usual scope of subjects available to religious girls at the time. Most revolutionary was the inclusion of Talmud in the syllabus, a subject considered forbidden to haredi girls. Even within the modern Orthodox world at the time, Talmud was generally taught only to boys. Ultimately, the school proved too radical for its intended population, only ever attracting a small number of girls from within the haredi community. "Our concept was alien to them and they were scared of it," explains Rosenbluth. Gradually, Pelech began to appeal to parents from within the modern Orthodox community who appreciated its original approach. "Because of the level and range of our curriculum, these parents would send us their daughters despite our strict religious rules," continues Rosenbluth. "The girls would turn up to school in the required modest uniform complete with stockings and you wouldn't hear any complaints." However, by 1975 the Rosenbluths decided to close the school. Pelech still hadn't received accreditation from the Education Ministry and they'd borne much of the financial burden of running the school themselves. This, combined with the fact that the school had never successfully appealed to its target community, convinced them that it was no longer viable to keep Pelech open. "The personal sacrifice became too much," admits Rosenbluth. It was at this point that Alice Shalvi stepped in. Determined not to see the closing of the school whose ethos she'd come to profoundly appreciate, the retired English literature professor, then a parent at Pelech, volunteered to fill in as principal until a more permanent solution was found. She went on to hold the position for the next 15 years, never once receiving a salary. Under the British-born-and-raised Shalvi, Pelech's reputation for innovation was cemented. She attained accreditation for the school and persuaded the Education Ministry to swap Pelech's base, a dilapidated Bayit Vagan apartment, for a three-story Baka building that the school renovated - in return for the municipality waiving its rent payments. Shalvi introduced a diverse range of new subjects into the curriculum, including theater studies, environmental studies and Yiddish. After the outbreak of the first intifada, a conflict resolution class became a mandatory part of the syllabus. Students visited teenagers from other sectors of society, such as secular Israelis and Palestinians, and discussed the divisions among their communities. "The idea behind these meetings was for the girls to develop an understanding of the importance of dialogue as a means of resolving differences," explains Breuer of the program which is still used today, although since the outbreak of the second intifada, without contact with Palestinians. At the time, however, the meetings with Palestinians were considered controversial and Shalvi faced opposition both within Pelech and from the wider modern Orthodox world. "There were teachers who thought I had gone too far and resigned," she recalls, "and among the parents, although many were supportive, there were those who disapproved." Her most vehement opponents proved to be the religious division of the Education Ministry, who were responsible for accrediting the school. "They didn't consider it an appropriate policy for a religious school, or any Jewish school for that matter," she says. It was during the Shalvi period that Pelech's religious status moved to the Left. The critical approach to the study of Halacha (Jewish law) that she encouraged differed from her predecessors' typically haredi outlook. "Our aim was for the girls to follow Halacha unquestioningly," explains Rosenbluth, "whereas Alice considered it important for them to question every aspect of Halacha." A committed feminist, Shalvi's investigative stance toward Jewish law enabled her to find room for greater egalitarianism within Jewish practice, a viewpoint she instilled in her students. "My policies were directed by the principle that Jewish law could remain halachic even while changing in accordance with evolving social norms," Shalvi says. "In an age where women are emancipated I found it ridiculous that our roles in Judaism were still so limited." "But at the time," she continues, "my ideas had not yet been incorporated into Orthodox Judaism and I encountered a lot of resistance." Despite the opposition, the school's dedication to feminism remained steadfast. Today the ideology continues to be a fundamental part of its ethos. "We encourage the girls to be active in religious life wherever halachically permissible," says Breuer. "For example, students read from the Torah each week, but in accordance with Jewish law, do not recite blessings when doing so." She cites former pupils' involvement in establishing the egalitarian Orthodox synagogue Shira Hadasha and the many institutes devoted to women's Talmud learning. But these religious and scholarly activities are no longer met with the opposition they encountered in Shalvi's time, a reflection of the fact that Pelech is today regarded as being closer to the mainstream of modern Orthodoxy. Breuer considers this change of perception to be a result of "the greater significance placed on Halacha" under her leadership. Indeed, there are conspicuous differences between her approach and Shalvi's. While Breuer is careful to emphasize that the school's current policies remain within the boundaries of Halacha, Shalvi speaks candidly about her desire to facilitate halachic change. Shalvi attributes the change in attitude to factors beyond Pelech. "The natural order of things ensures that once-revolutionary ideas become more mainstream with the passing of time," she argues. Advocates of feminism in the modern Orthodox world testify to the movement's developing approach of recent years. "Over the past 15 years there has been a revolution in women's learning," says Rabbanit Chana Henkin, head of the Yoatzot Halacha, a panel of learned women who have studied sections of the Talmud to the level required to obtain rabbinic status. The panel, which answers women's halachic questions on matters of a sexual or hygienic nature, has received 50,000 calls since its inception in 1997. "There is an obvious need for the Yoatzot Halacha as women often don't feel comfortable addressing such personal questions to men, explains Henkin, who is also dean of Nishmat, an Orthodox women's institute devoted to the study of Talmud and other religious texts. Her sentiments are echoed by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the religious Zionist yeshiva Ateret Cohanim, and considered a major halachic authority within the modern Orthodox world. "It's necessary for there to be scholarly females who can answer women's questions," he explains, "as often the issues posed are delicate, and it's inappropriate for men to address them." Aviner's stance, according to Henkin, is typical of that of most national religious leaders, whose support, she claims, has been "overwhelming." "Women have become more scholarly," she declares, "and this is something that is increasingly being accepted in the modern Orthodox world." The establishment in recent years of Orthodox synagogues with many egalitarian features - the most revolutionary of these being Shira Hadasha - where women are called up to the Torah, lead certain prayers and recite the mourners' Kaddish is, according to religious feminist activist Chana Kahat, another example of modern Orthodoxy's growing acceptance of feminism. "When I first began campaigning, equality in the synagogue was a subject you were scared to bring up," say Kahat, who nine years ago founded Kolech, an Orthodox organization lobbying for the improved status of women in Judaism. "Today," she continues, "the concept is finding its place within Orthodox Judaism." She acknowledges, however, that unlike women's Talmud learning, which is almost universally accepted within the modern Orthodox world, egalitarianism in synagogue practice is met with resistance from certain sections of the community. "While it has become more mainstream, feminism in the synagogue is still not the norm," she explains, "and right-wing elements of modern Orthodoxy are vocally opposed to it." Aviner is among those in opposition, arguing that it is unnecessary to change standards that have been in place throughout Jewish history. "The desire to forgo it [the traditional role] appears to me to connote a wish to imitate men," he says. He is also skeptical of another of Shalvi's enduring legacies, the school's pre-army course that trains pupils interested in serving in the IDF instead of completing national service, the more conventional alternative for religious girls. "The army is an inappropriate place for women in general," Aviner asserts. "I would strongly discourage Orthodox girls in particular from joining." This view, according to Henkin, is adhered to by sections of the community. "Many in the national religious world would find it problematic to send their daughters to the army," she says. Her assertion is supported by a pupil at the right-wing modern Orthodox girls' school Horev's claim that before she joined the school her parents "were asked to sign a form stating that I wouldn't serve in the IDF." Henkin acknowledges, however, that conditions in the army have become more hospitable to religious girls in recent years and that "today it is not uncommon for Orthodox girls to serve." Shalvi considers this, like the gradual acceptance of her other "once revolutionary" policies, to be due to the fact that societal norms change over time. In 1990 Shalvi's volatile relationship with the Department of Religious Education in the Education Ministry finally came to a head, precipitating her resignation. "They gave me an ultimatum," she says. "I was told that if I did not desist from my political activities, they would withdraw accreditation from the school." As founder of the Israel Women's Network, a leading advocacy group for women's rights, Shalvi campaigned against the rabbinate on behalf of agunot, women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce. This, along with her meetings with Palestinian women - considered particularly controversial at a time when meeting PLO members was illegal (although the women were not affiliated with the PLO) - proved to be the final straw for the ministry. "For me the choice was clear," Shalvi declares. "I had devoted 15 years to Pelech and felt it was firmly established." Since resigning, Shalvi has abandoned Orthodoxy, moving to the Conservative movement in 1997. She cites two reasons for her decision. "Firstly, I grew tired of being a second-class citizen in synagogue practice, unable to read from the Torah or give a sermon," she says. "I was attracted by the egalitarianism of Conservative Judaism which... recognizes that Halacha must develop, as social norms do." She considers Shira Hadasha to be "a very welcome development," but stresses that had the synagogue existed at the time, her decision would not have been different. "It is still too far from total egalitarianism to satisfy my own needs," she argues. "I like the spirit and the singing but can't stand the mehitza [division between men and women]." The second factor behind Shalvi's move was what she considers to be the Orthodox establishment's "failure to respond to the plight of agunot." "I could no longer bear their foot-dragging and sheer inhumanity regarding the topic," she asserts, contrasting this to the attitude of Conservative Judaism, which she claims has found "humane solutions to the problem." Current principal, American-born, Israeli-educated Shira Breuer, acknowledges her predecessor's ongoing role in shaping the school's outlook. "In keeping with the analytical approach to Halacha initiated by Alice, today's students are taught to examine the complexities of Jewish law, to appreciate its richness and the scope it allows for individual expression," she says. Breuer views Pelech's encouragement of its pupils "to think for themselves rather than blindly accepting social norms" as another enduring legacy of the Shalvi period. "At the time of the disengagement, for example," she says, "ours was probably the only religious high school where there was more than one right way to think. While many girls were against the pullout, there were those who were for it, and we enjoyed the diversity." She cites another of Shalvi's policies that is still in effect today, the allocation of responsibility to students with regard to certain aspects of school life, as further evidence of the school's promotion of original thinking. The most significant example of this principle is the student council, a democratic institution enabling pupils to vote on a variety of issues, with the goal of encouraging them to take responsibility for their surroundings. "Any student could put forward a motion, although teachers had the right to veto decisions," remembers one former pupil. "Sometimes the proposals were quite controversial," she continues, "such as one suggesting that we be allowed to wear pants, which was unheard of at Orthodox girls' schools." The idea was vetoed. Another former student recalls the vote authorizing the pupils' Torah readings which have become an integral part of Pelech life. "It was a very emotionally-charged debate with both sides passionately convinced of the validity of their arguments," she says. "The tension it generated could be felt around the school for quite some time afterwards." Other initiatives aimed at assigning students responsibility include take-home examinations that rely on pupils' personal integrity and the incorporation of two 12th graders onto the school's admissions committee. When selecting future pupils, Breuer stresses that the school looks for girls who have been involved in voluntary work, rather than those who are "tied to their study desks." "Our girls are involved in a variety of causes, among them the plight of agunot, social justice projects and work with underprivileged children." However, a high academic level is also a requirement and with three applicants for every place, Pelech can afford to be picky. An annual fee of NIS 10,800, with some scholarships available, also facilitates the school's exclusivity. Ashkenazim have traditionally made up and continue to constitute the majority of Pelech's student body. Sephardim are becoming increasingly well represented, although the school has not instituted measures to actively address the imbalance. English speakers make up a significant majority of the student body, with Anglo parents often possessing both the means and the motivation to enroll their daughters. "Our educational outlook bears similarities to those of Anglo Jewish schools," says Breuer. Today Pelech occupies a renovated school building on Baka's Rehov Yehuda, granted to it by the Jerusalem Municipality in 1998. "The improved facilities, including a dance studio and an auditorium, provide even more educational opportunities," says Breuer. Students and former students interviewed were for the most part positive about their experiences at the school. "They ingrained in us the belief that nothing was out of bounds," recalls one former pupil. "We were taught that we could be whatever we wanted to be."