Bar Ilan University in Israel has named Professor Malka Schaps dean of the university’s Faculty of Exact Sciences, making her the first ultra-Orthodox woman ever appointed to such a high academic position, simultaneously granting her the distinction of being the only ultra-Orthodox female professor in Israel.
My readers may recall a column about this extraordinary woman some eight years ago, focusing on her rare accomplishments at that point in time. Now, however that she achieved a historic “first,” I wish to mark additional aspects of her remarkable life.
Prof. Malka Schaps was born Mary Kramer, a Protestant, in Cleveland, Ohio. When she was sixteen, she started questioning the rationale of moral conduct: Why be good? She did not find the answer in her religious education or in the writings of great philosophers. At eighteen, as a counselor in a mathematics summer camp, Mary befriended an Orthodox Jewish girl “who taught me the aleph-bet from a Telma soup poster and showed me how to keep kosher,” Malka recalls. “We fasted together on Shiva Assar b’Tammuz and she hand-lettered a Hebrew Scrabble set for my birthday.” This was followed by a semester doing research in mathematics in Germany where she found out about the Holocaust. Under its horrendous impact Mary Kramer took a momentous step: “That summer I converted to Judaism,” she declares simply.
Now a Jewish student at Harvard, she met David Schapps, who shared her keen interest in Orthodox Judaism. The two got married, and while they worked towards their Ph.Ds, they davened at the Harvard Hillel, and David learned part-time in a yeshiva for college students run by Rav Meir Horowitz, now Bostoner Rebbe in Har Nof. “By the time we left we were among the macherim and were pretty close to being ultra-Orthodox,” Malka recalled.
“When we got our degrees, we managed to get academic positions in Israel” and after making aliyah in 1972, established a family in Bnei Brak. The children of many of their neighbors preferred yeshiva life rather than enlisting in the army, but when her own boys came of age, Professor Schaps told them: “If you want to eventually work, then you have to go do your army service.” Their own father served in the army reserves as a rabbi until he was discharged at 58 with the rank of captain.
The story of her life is relayed in a number of best-selling novels. You see, this remarkable scientist is a fabulous novelist as well, under the nome de plume Rachel Pomeranz. Although fiction, Malka Schaps’ novels are to some extent autobiographical. A Time to Rend and Mountains Around Jerusalem tell the story of her conversion process. The Inheritance of Our Fathers reveals the tale of their aliyah to Israel, and Wildflower is about the heart-wrenching experience of a couple whose foster child was taken from them. Similarly, parts of the long court case to protect two of their foster children are recorded in Cactus Blossoms. Out of her exposure to the history of the Holocaust Rings Above the Flames was born.
So, who is Professor Malka Schaps?
Bar Ilan University has been gifted a unique personality, one whose life is synonymous with an embrace of Judaism – its history, its philosophy, its values, its ethics, its eternal heritage.