Racheli Haliva received her PhD from the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University in 2016. Her dissertation considered the works of the 14th century Jewish philosopher Issac Polqar. She is now a Junior Professor for the Institute for Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Universität Hamburg in Germany and the co-Director of the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
It was quite a natural process. After doing a BA and MA at the Hebrew University in Israel, the next step is to do a PhD. Both of my advisors in my MA encouraged me to do the PhD outside of Israel. The best place to come was McGill because of the topic that I was interested in and the scholars that are here. I applied and I was accepted. I was very happy to come to Montréal.
Q: How did you get your current position as a Junior Professor at Universität Hamburg in Germany?
I used a website called AJS (Association for Jewish Studies), which advertises all open positions in the field of Jewish studies. One of my advisors is German, and he encouraged me and thought that the position would be a good place to start. I guess they liked my profile.
Q: While you were doing your PhD, did you receive financial support?
I received one hundred percent support, tuition and living expenses. I didn’t pay anything from my own pocket.
Q: Who would you say were your most important mentors during your PhD?
I had two advisors. They’re practically family now: Professor Carlos Fraenkel and Professor Lawrence J. Kaplan. It means a lot to leave everything behind and move to the other side of the world—to leave family and friends. They were really my family. I just spoke to both of them earlier this week. We’re in regular contact. In addition, since the department is very small, I also had “adoptive” family with Prof. Yael Wise-Halevi. I am grateful to her and her family for making my life much easier during those years.
Q: What do you value most about your time in graduate school?
First of all, the time to research. In Israel, I had to work full-time to support myself in terms of tuition and living expenses. The fact that McGill granted me, an international student, full support so that I could focus on the research itself was extremely helpful. Plus, my advisor, Prof. Fraenkel insisted that I teach; I was teaching my own course from my second year onwards. When I came here to Hamburg, I was quite experienced by then.
Q: Did you feel as though you were part of a community during graduate school?
Yes. I never did a holiday by myself. I always went to a faculty member’s home. In addition to that, there were other graduate students. Two MAs and one PhD. The MAs were from Iran and Pakistan, and the PhD was from Egypt. We’re still very good friends.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced during the PhD program?
The PhD has its own unique challenges. You start questioning whether what you’re doing is valuable, and you don’t have the energy to continue. McGill offered resources, like therapy, but I never used that opportunity. I don’t know why; I should have at one point. But even in my darkest time, I had my friends and I had my two advisors who were there all the time to support me. Only in the last stages did it get difficult–four or five months before I submitted the last version of the dissertation. So that was definitely a challenge.
Another challenge for me was that I came from the desert, so the cold weather was definitely a challenge. I am not used to being in minus forty-five. But I got used to the severe weather and I remember my time in Montreal very fondly. I really miss that time.
Q: What challenges have you encountered since graduating?
The fear that I won’t find a permanent position. Academic positions in general are very scarce. I’m in a non tenure-track position now, so I still have to look for a tenure track position. Our project got extended, so I can stay here until September 2023. I guess my biggest fear is not finding a permanent position.
Q: How many jobs have you applied for?
I’ve submitted around five applications and received three interviews, which is not bad. My topic is mainly philosophy, but I also deal with theology. For the theologians I’m too philosophical, and for the philosophers I’m too theological, so I somehow have to find the balance.
Q: Have you ever considered positions outside of academia?
I’m starting to think about it now that I realize how difficult it is to find a tenured position. I’m not there yet, but I’m definitely considering the fact that I won’t find a place in academia and I’ll have to look elsewhere.
Q: Is there something you wish you would have known before you started the PhD?
While McGill welcomes international students, they’re not sensitive enough to what it means to come to North America from a completely different place, mentality, and culture. I had absolutely no assistance when I went there in terms of rules, laws, or taxes. McGill needs to help people, for example, find a place to live. I mean, I have friends whose parents live in Montreal, so I could stay there for a few weeks until I found my place. But it was quite stressful. McGill University has to help international students to settle in, at least at the beginning. I wish I had had more knowledge about this stuff. It would have been great to have more assistance.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.