Changing the Equation for Orthodox Women Studying Math and Science
As Israel’s first female Haredi dean, mathematician Malka Schaps is helping other religious women follow in her footsteps
As a theoretical mathematician, Malka Schaps stands out as one of the few women in her academic field. And within that small group of female mathematicians, she stands out because she is Haredi.
Last year, Schaps became Israel’s first female Haredi dean when she was appointed dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Math and Natural Sciences Department. Since then, she’s gotten more media attention than most mathematicians expect; she even appeared on Haaretz’s list of 66 Israeli women you should know, published last month to mark Israel’s 66th anniversary. And now that she’s a dean, she is using her position to help others like her: She’s working with the Ministry of Education to offer supplementary education to Israeli math teachers, and developing programs to improve math education in Israel—including among Haredi women who want to pursue careers in math and science. “I’m interested in helping Haredi girls succeed,” she told me in an interview at her home earlier this month. “At the moment I have a platform for it, which I didn’t have before.”
Today Schaps lives in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a few miles east of Tel Aviv, and talks excitedly about the famous rabbis that live in the area. She dresses modestly, keeps a kosher home, and follows the mitzvot closely. But despite feeling at home in Bnei Brak, she comes from a very different place: Schaps grew up in America with the name Mary Kramer—in a Christian home.
Schaps was born in 1948, in Cleveland, although her family didn’t stay put for long. Both her parents were Ph.D.s—her father in American history, and her mother in economics. When Schaps was 4, her dad received a Fulbright to study in India, and the family moved to Madras; when the year was up, they moved back to Cleveland and then to San Antonio, where her father took a job teaching at the Air Force Academy. She skipped a grade and soon felt that her academic precocity set her apart from the other students. “It made me a social outcast,” she said. Her dad continued chasing jobs until eventually the family settled in Washington, D.C.
She was raised Presbyterian, but when she was in 7th grade her family switched to Unitarian Universalism. Religion wasn’t an important part of her life, however, and she said she was “basically an atheist” when she started high school in Washington. Many of her friends were Jewish, although they weren’t particularly observant. Several of them went to the same math camp that she did and, like her, took the school science fair seriously. “Assimilated Jews,” she said, “were very much a part of my life.”
It was because of these friends that she starting exploring Judaism in college. When Schaps first arrived at Swarthmore College, she was still an atheist. She had taken to reading books on philosophy to answer her fundamental questions about why humans had an obligation to be good. She didn’t find the ancient philosophers’ answers to the question very satisfying and said she remained determined to find “something to bolster up the moral values to which I was very committed.”
Lightning struck when some Jewish friends visited her during her sophomore year. She wasn’t allowed to bring guests into the dining hall, so she cooked them her standard breakfast in the morning: bacon and eggs. Neither of the friends was strictly kosher, but first one and then the other asked to skip the bacon. This surprised Schaps, who wasn’t used to seeing religion affect people’s day-to-day decisions. “What really interested me about Judaism,” she told me, “was that keeping the mitzvot seemed to have a lasting effect on people.”
Schaps became fascinated by the mitzvot and the order that Judaism imposes on life. She started learning how to read Hebrew from an Orthodox Jewish friend and began celebrating key Jewish holidays. The summer before she graduated college she formally converted. By then, she had met David Schaps, her future husband, who was a Conservative Jew and also a Swarthmore student. As their relationship developed, leading up to their marriage after they finished their undergraduate degrees, the two of them went on what Schaps calls “parallel journeys” down the road of Orthodoxy.
Schaps was only ever intrigued by more observant forms of Judaism. “[Judaism] was only interesting if it had some mitzvot in it,” she said. “For that, Reform Judaism was not interesting at all.” After graduating Swarthmore, they both started doctoral programs at Harvard—she in mathematics, he in classics. Both grew steadily more observant during their programs. By the time they left Harvard, in 1972, they considered themselves ultra-Orthodox.
Schaps finished her doctorate in an unusually quick two and a half years so she could graduate at the same time as David, a decision that she now feels left her less than fully prepared for a career in research.
They immediately moved to Israel, both taking up positions at Bar-Ilan University, and Mary started going by the name Malka. But her Hebrew was clunky, and in her first semester teaching, several of her students switched to a different class. Within a few months of their arrival the Yom Kippur war broke out, with sirens going off in the middle of the night that required rushing to a bomb shelter with their newborn baby. Despite the many culture shocks, Schaps told me, she and her husband never seriously contemplated going back to the United States. They felt that it made sense for them to be in Israel because, she said, when you’re a Jew, Israel is “the center of things.”
Israel wasn’t the center of things for theoretical mathematics, however, and few Israeli mathematicians shared her specialization. Because she had no colleagues with similar interests in Israel, she would write long letters with questions to former professors in the United States. The responses would arrive months later, if they came at all.
Even faced with these difficulties, she and her husband created a thriving life in Israel. She worked with Bar-Ilan to develop programs so that top young math students could begin college math courses early and enter the military with a deeper mathematics background. She founded Israel’s first financial mathematics program, which focused on the mathematical principles underlying finance, independent of any business program. Schaps became an advocate of increasing opportunities for women in the natural sciences and says that now that she is a dean she will be able to focus more of her time on developing programs oriented toward women. She envisions offering a course for teachers, to train them to bring out the best work in Haredi girls and to take their academic potential seriously.
In addition to the two children they have together, she and her husband took in four foster children. Schaps also found time to author eight books under her pen name, Rachel Pomerantz—six of them are semi-autobiographical novels, and two are non-academic, popular histories of the Holocaust. Her next novel, which she has put on hold until she retires as dean, is about a young Christian woman who shares most of Schaps’ biography, except she never decides to convert to Judaism. It’s a way for Schaps to explore how life might have gone and reflect on how the religion she chose has shaped the rest of her life. “I started writing because Haredi women weren’t publishing at the time,” she said. “There was no Haredi fiction for adults.” She set about changing that, too, and many of her works have been translated from the original English into Hebrew.
Yuval Roichman, chair of the mathematics department at Bar-Ilan, told me that Schaps is “doing mathematics at the most theoretical edge” and is one of the leading mathematicians “not just at Bar-Ilan, [but] in Israel.” He said that the few professors he knew who had doubted whether she would make a successful dean had since told him that they now supported the decision.
Yet despite her many achievements, Schaps has regrets—notably that she hasn’t achieved more in the field of mathematics. “I certainly was not nearly as successful in my career as I ought to have been,” she said, “given where I started.” She told me she expected more from herself when she got her Ph.D. at Harvard. “I’ve had a very nice life and I would be insane not to be happy. I don’t kill myself over it, but I still sort of wish I had done better, that’s all.”
She would have had a more successful career in research, Schaps told me, if she were not Haredi; being a successful Haredi wife and mother still presents obstacles to a full-bore career. “There is a problem,” she said. “Partly because of the large family. And because of the high expectations for the house, with having to entertain so many people on Shabbes. We [Haredi women] have a lot we’re supposed to be doing to teach the kids.”
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