Veterans: I designed the way I live

“Because the country is still being built and nothing is set in stone, there are a lot more opportunities in Israel than you have anywhere else. This is the place to make your dreams materialize.”

As a kindergartener in her native Moscow, Svietka Rivilis absorbed a deep hatred for Israel. “The propaganda machine in Russia worked brilliantly. You are indoctrinated from kindergarten to love your country and hate the West. Israel is the sum of all evil,” she explained.
So when her mother tentatively suggested they leave Russia and move to Israel, the little girl adamantly refused. Nevertheless, getting out of Russia was crucial. Rivilis recalls her mother saying, “There will come a day when I will have to go to the black market to provide food for my family and that’s when we will die of hunger.”
With Israel off the table, they set their sights on America and eventually moved to Milwaukee, where friends of her grandparents had settled decades before.
Leaving Russia in the 1980s was not a simple matter. Once the request to emigrate was filed, her mother was forced to leave her job. Rivilis, her mother and grandmother subsisted on her grandmother’s tiny pension while they waited for permission to leave. Sadly, Rivilis’s grandmother passed away a month before their departure to America.
From Moscow, Rivilis and her mother flew to Vienna and spent two weeks in a former bordello, which the Jewish Agency operated as a transient camp for Jews on their way to another country. Once their paperwork was in order, they crossed the Austrian border into Italy at night.
“Officially, Italy had an anti-immigration policy. We snuck into Italy with wink and a nod from the Italian government. It took us a month to find an apartment. My mother took out a loan from HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] that took her 15 to 20 years to pay back. We lived in Italy with a small stipend and waited for permission to immigrate to the US.”
In Italy, Rivilis and her mother shared a two-room apartment with other Jews. They lived in half of one room, which they shared with two grandmothers. “For me, as a kid, it was dreamy. I’m sure it was hard on my mother,” she reminisced.
During their time in Italy, Rivilis’s perspective on Israel was completely altered. “The Jewish Agency had a club for kids and teens where we would learn Hebrew a few hours a day and English a few hours a day. There were movies, concerts and games. It was like a clubhouse. This place became a home. That’s where I saw the movie Exodus.
“WHEN WE lived in the States, I think I was 12 or 13 at the time, l wrote a letter to [then-prime minister] Menachem Begin. I told him that I will be moving to Israel and joining the IDF and becoming an officer.”
It took a while, but Rivilis did exactly that. She landed in Milwaukee and quickly mastered English, but her dream of making aliyah never wavered. During high school, she volunteered for two months at Kibbutz Einat, near Rosh Ha’ayin.
“My fantasy was that I would get off the plane and people would be dancing the hora everywhere and using camels for transportation. That was my knowledge of Israel at the time,” she laughingly recounted. Instead, “There were BMWs and Mercedes and the buses were German-made. I would never buy anything German. Ever. I was in shock.”
Two months working in the kibbutz factory, making holes for shoelaces in boots for paratroopers, solidified her desire to move to Israel. “Mom saw how miserable I was. She said, ‘Just go. I can’t see you suffer like this.’” Her mother stayed in Milwaukee and Rivilis made aliyah on her own right after high school.
“My mom was a fearless lioness. If she felt fear, I never knew it. All the crazy things she did in her early 30s, moving to a new country, with a small child, without money or language.
“She installed fearlessness in me. She taught me I’m responsible for my happiness and my well-being and no one else is. When you take responsibility, you don’t blame anyone else. It makes you resilient,” she commented.
For six months, Rivilis lived in an absorption center in Kfar Saba. After getting kicked out of ulpan for making trouble, she mastered Hebrew her own way. “I traveled around and hitchhiked through the whole country, talking to people.”
A few months later, she enlisted, just as she told Menachem Begin she would. In those days there were “only about 10 lone soldiers in the whole IDF. The army had no idea how to care for lone soldiers.
“I survived It’s all in the attitude. My attitude is ‘Everything is great. There are no hardships. Only challenges. Challenges are here to make my life interesting.’”
Rivilis didn’t just survive, she thrived in the IDF, spending six years and rising to the rank of captain. Being a native Russian speaker proved to be an asset in her army career, which focused on helping other soldiers adapt to army life. “I was very naïve and idealistic and I only wanted to see the good,” she recalled. “There were no faults in the army.”
ALTHOUGH SHE held other jobs after her army service, the seeds planted during childhood for Rivilis’s life work as a designer started to blossom. “Mom used to play a game with me. We would go to people’s houses. On the way home, we would discuss what we would do differently. She installed her love of design in me.”
Even in the army, her tent was always decorated. When she left the army and bought her current home in Eli, she cleaned houses for 11 shekels an hour. She then started designing on the side, first her own home and then for friends. “Since I bought a house, I immediately started doing things with it. I dispensed advice freely to anyone who would ask.”
In 2012, her gradual transition to design work was complete. She launched herself as an independent designer overnight, immediately after the non-profit for which she was working abruptly closed its doors.
She named her business Heder21, in memory of the 21 Israelis killed in the Dolphinarium massacre in 2001. Her first clients were from a neighboring community.
“I design exactly how I live. If something doesn’t work, I change it. This whole free will [idea] runs my life. I don’t [just] work as a designer. It’s not [just] my job.
“I design the way I think life should be. Cozy, affordable, pretty and pleasing. This is my viewpoint on life. And that’s exactly how I design, based on those principles. Life needs to be easy, not hard. I simplify whatever I can. Simplify, simplify. Everything affordable, accessible and easy. I also believe in practical coziness and affordable luxury,” she elaborated.
Besides design, Rivilis is also passionate about living in Israel. Although she speaks three languages fluently, she prefers to speak in Hebrew. “I’m very Israeli, mentality-wise. I like the culture. I like the choices and lifestyle. I chose to be an Israeli and I am very much Israeli,” she explained.
Her advice for successful aliyah? “If people understand aliyah as a marriage they will make it. My attitude to Israel was that I love it. I can’t breathe anywhere else. If I’m out of Israel more than a month, I don’t physically feel good,” she said.
“When you live in Israel, you’re on a different level of being. People who make it are the people who can’t NOT be here. Most of us that make it here, we take all the difficulties and challenges with a grain of salt.
“Because the country is still being built and nothing is set in stone, there are a lot more opportunities in Israel than you have anywhere else. This is the place to make your dreams materialize.”