One “Shocking” and “Permissive” High School for Girls Spawns More

It started as a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) girls’ high school: long stockings, long sleeves, and (surprise!) Talmud studies for all. The Pelech High School in Jerusalem, now in its 42nd year, has come a long way since then — and gone a long way, too, as new branches and offshoots of the school continue to open in a wide range of Israeli communities.

Despite its modest dress code and tradition-bound pupils, Pelech was revolutionary from the start. Conceived as an alternative to the Orthodox Beit Ya’acov girls’ schools, Pelech aimed to provide its pupils with a broader general education and a deeper Jewish education — starting with Talmud (Gemara) studies, unheard of at the time among Israel’s religious schools for girls. It was only a couple of years till haredi leaders — shocked by Pelech’s “permissive” curriculum — declared it off limits to their community. By this time, though, Pelech had been discovered by modern Orthodox parents in Jerusalem seeking a more open, egalitarian religious education for their daughters. Enter Alice Shalvi, Hebrew University professor and founder of the feminist Israel Women’s Network, whose daughter decided in 1973 that she wanted to leave her high school and transfer to Pelech. Shalvi followed her daughter there, and during her long tenure as its principal, turned it into one of Jerusalem’s leading educational facilities — an “experimental” religious secondary school characterized by creative and innovative teaching, democratic student government, social commitment, and the conviction that every field of knowledge and endeavor must be open to girls and women.

“Above all,” declares Shira Breuer, Shalvi’s successor and Pelech’s current principal, “we strive for excellence. In Jewish learning and commitment, in academics, in ethics, and in graduates’ contributions to Israeli society. “ No wonder, then, that Pelech-style institutions are proliferating, many of them initiated by Pelech graduates who are now parents and/or educators themselves. Some are independent branches patterned largely after the original Jerusalem facility, emphasizing the best training for the most select (and usually Ashkenazi) students. Others are more socially oriented, primarily serving religious Sephardi and Ethiopian populations.

Tami Ravitsky Biton, an ‘89 graduate of Pelech Jerusalem, lives in Yerucham and heads the town’s Midreshet Kama, a pluralistic community school not formally associated with Pelech, but clearly under its intellectual and pedagogic influence. She explains their differences: “We’re not elitist: we accept every girl who wants to study here. Kama wants to bring the best of Pelech — its values and educational opportunities — not only to our future leaders, but to the whole community — a diverse population of ethnic groups, each with its own traditions. We’re in an ongoing dialogue with them. And since we start at 7th grade [unlike Pelech’s 9th grade], we have six years to work with the girls.”

And what of the “F” word? The feminism for which Pelech High School has been famed — and at times blamed — for more than a generation? Biton sums up the situation facing Pelech grads in many places: “Unfortunately, traditional communities see feminism as something foreign, a rebellion against the world of their grandmothers. I want to educate our pupils, to see them grow confident and independent, and to give them the tools they need for coping with the world they inhabit. But I don’t call it feminism; I call it empowerment.”