Rivlin’s right-hand woman

Rivka Ravitz shatters the glass ceiling at the President’s Residence.

Rivka Ravitz (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rivka Ravitz
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For centuries, secular Jewish women have regarded their ultra-Orthodox sisters as semi-literate baby-making machines that live in abject poverty.
It’s true that most ultra-Orthodox families are quite large, and it’s also true that many such families live below the poverty line. But although the women in such families may not be very well versed in secular subjects, they certainly know their Judaism, and these days most have finished high school, and in- creasing numbers have continued on to re- ligious seminaries and colleges. Some have even gone to university.
The ideal catch for a young haredi (ul- tra-Orthodox) woman is a young man who is a brilliant Torah scholar. She is more than happy to be the family breadwinner for the rest of her life if it will enable her husband to continue studying.
This is a concept that secular women, unless they come from a religiously obser - vant background, find difficult to accept or even understand. Many secular women have sacrificed their own careers to enable their husbands to complete a course of study in medicine, law or some other subject that is a prerequisite for his career choice, but once he gets his degree, she is free to do her own thing.
Even those women whose haredi husbands work are happy to contribute to the family income. Many haredi women are teachers. And increasing numbers are going into hi- tech -- a field in which they have demonstrat- ed an amazing aptitude -- while others have gone into retail or have taken on secretarial or bookkeeping work.
FEW, IF any, have risen to the heights of Rivka Ravitz, a 42-year-old wife, mother and grandmother with two university degrees and a third currently on hold. She has a BA in computer science, an MBA and is halfway toward completing a PhD in public policy.
Although her ultimate career ambition is to shine in academia, for the foreseeable future Ravitz will be staying in her present position: bureau chief of the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. She has been Rivlin’s personal assistant since 1999, and will remain with him until he completes his term as president in just a little over three years.
After that, she plans to return to her first love, which is teaching. She also hopes to study Arabic and will, of course, complete her doctorate. As a matter of fact, in addition to all her manifold duties, she continues to teach part-time so that she will not go stale.
The daughter of American immigrants from New York – her mother from Brooklyn, her father from Monsey – as a child, Ravitz never entertained thoughts that in any way resembled the career that she’s had for more than 20 years.
In fact, what she dreamed of was being a pilot or maybe a doctor – somewhat strange ambitions for an ultra-Orthodox girl, but Ravitz, the second of 10 siblings, was always a little different from others in her family.
Her mother attributes this to her voraciousness for reading; as a child, she would sneak books under the covers of her bed.
Her reading material was not always in sync with that of the ultra-Orthodox library.
When her late father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, who served six consecutive Knesset terms, was chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee during the 14th Knesset, he asked if she would like to be his personal assistant.
At the time, she was a young bride working as a teacher for a pittance of a salary that came to only a few hundred shekels a month. The Knesset salary was considerably higher, so she agreed.
In 1999, a new law was introduced whereby first-degree relatives of an MK could not work as that person’s parliamentary assistant.
Her father-in-law reluctantly had to fire her, but to her good fortune, Rivlin, who was also on the Finance Committee, was looking for a new parliamentary assistant.
He knew of her work and had no hesitation in taking her on.
Although she had never been interested in politics, and had led a relatively sheltered existence before first setting foot in the Knesset, she was a quick learner.
When she first came to the Knesset, she tells The Jerusalem Report, “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know where to make a cup of coffee or even where to find the toilet.”
In addition to undertaking the work she was doing for her father-in-law, she kept re-reading scores of documents. It took her about three months to become fully acclimatized, so much so that by the time she began working with Rivlin, she could understand Knesset procedure perfectly, and could find her way blindfolded through the building.
AS HER family grew, Ravitz and her husband, Yitzhak, decided that they didn’t want outsiders raising their children. They wanted to do it themselves, regardless of how busy they were with their respective careers.
Yitzhak Ravitz is the deputy mayor and Degel Hatorah chairman of Beitar Illit, a settlement located around 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem. It was established in 1984 as a religious Zionist settlement, but was quickly overtaken by ultra-Orthodox families with native English speakers comprising around 10% of the population. It is one of the fastest growing communities in Israel, with an exceptionally high annual birth rate.
Every day, Ravitz and her husband coordinate their schedules to ensure that one of them is home in the afternoon to be with the children.
Her husband is more flexible than she is time-wise, so he’s the one that makes breakfast in the morning and sees the children off to school.
When Ravitz travels abroad with Rivlin, as she has been doing ever since he was elected speaker of the Knesset, her husband is both mother and father to their children.
Do her children resent her being away? They don’t always say so, but she’s very happy when they complain. “It indicates that they miss me, and that means a lot,” she says.
Not so long ago, when she traveled to Greece with Rivlin, the older children told Estee, the youngest, that their mother would be coming back on Thursday. Too young to have much of a sense of time, early in the morning Estee planted herself by the front door, awaiting her mother’s arrival.
When she didn’t come, Estee began to cry and continued crying to such an extent that Yitzhak Ravitz, who rarely calls his wife when she’s abroad, felt that the only way to stop the tears of his youngest child was for her to hear her mother’s voice. So he called Greece, explained the situation, and Ravitz placated her little one.
RIVLIN IS a super-Zionist. The ultra-Orthodox community in general identifies neither as Zionist nor with Zionism, even though haredi parties are represented in the Knesset.
Thus it is impossible for her interviewer to refrain from asking Ravitz whether she is a Zionist.
Ravitz cleverly veers away from the political connotation, and chooses the religious one in which Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem and for the biblical Land of Israel.
“A Zionist is someone who loves Zion,” she says. “My parents left a very good life in the United States and came here because they loved Zion. We are all big Zionists.”
The next question begs itself.
Did her children do national service? Not all her 11 children – nine girls and two boys – are old enough. The older ones did not do National Service per se, but “they do a lot of volunteer work within the community.”
Ravitz herself was exempt because she was married at 18, and her older son is also exempt because he studies in yeshiva.
What about her younger son? “He is not yet old enough, but I hope that he will also be a yeshiva student,” she says.
But what if he chooses to serve in the army? Would she stand in his way? “No, I wouldn’t stand in his way, but I would rather he went to yeshiva.”
As it happens, her father-in-law, who introduced her to the Knesset, did serve in the army, after having served in Lechi in the pre-state era.
Ravitz was aware that he had served in Lechi, the paramilitary organization that opposed British rule in the Holy Land, but his service in the IDF was news to her.
THERE IS no television set in the Ravitz household, however, there is a computer.
The only newspaper that comes into the house is “Yated Ne’eman,” a daily, non-Hassidic religious publication.
Ravitz reads other publications in the office as part of her job, but doesn’t bring them home. If an interview with her is published, she will cut it out so that her family can read it too, but is criticized for doing so by her nephews, who don’t like the fact that photographs of her appear in secular publications.
There are no photographs of women in ultra-Orthodox publications.
Likewise, Ravitz occasionally watches television at work within the confines of her job, especially when there are news items or features about Rivlin. When there is something of a religious nature that she thinks her children should see, there’s always You- Tube, which can be brought up on the computer and downloaded.
When Rivlin was in the Knesset, Ravitz helped run his election campaigns as well as his presidential campaign. In fact, it was she who first saw the result on television and called him to see.
Male visitors to the President’s Residence are alerted not to try to shake hands with Ravitz because physical contact between a male and a female who are not married to each other or who are not first-degree relatives is forbidden. After a certain age, brothers are sisters are also not allowed to touch each other.
And yet Ravitz agrees to be interviewed by the secular media.
There’s no halachic prohibition against being interviewed, she explains, whereas physical contact between males and females is forbidden.
When standing in a reception line to receive guests, Ravitz often stands with her hands behind her back, so that whoever might forget about not putting out a hand to her will be instantly reminded.
Mutual acknowledgement is by a swift bow of the head.
The same applies when she’s part of Rivlin’s delegation in his travels abroad, although this issue is unlikely to arise when she accompanies him to Poland for the March of the Living.
It will be Rivlin’s second time joining the thousands of participants. He previously went with Ravitz’s father-in-law, but it will be her first time and she is psyching herself up emotionally for the experience, which she already understands could be soul shattering.
As Rivlin’s bureau chief, she has met the heads of state and government of many of the countries with which Israel enjoys diplomatic relations, but the one who impressed her most was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “who appears to genuinely care for all his people – and there are so many of them.”
What also endeared Modi to her was the effort he made to show Rivlin and his entourage as much of India as possible during Rivlin’s week-long visit there in November 2016. Modi made it his business to be Rivlin’s personal guide, and accompanied him to most of the places on his itinerary.
Ravitz was also impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin when Rivlin visited Moscow in March 2016. Despite recent antisemitic remarks by Putin, and the rise of antisemitism in Russia, Ravitz found him to be well- disposed to Jews.
At a lavish, nine-course kosher state dinner, at which she didn’t eat because she wasn’t sure of the level of kashrut, Ravitz heard Putin say that his parents were hard-working people and that he had often been left alone at home. When he felt lonely, he went to the apartment of another family that lived in his building. He was always made to feel welcome there, and when necessary, they helped him with his homework.
On Friday nights, they had a strange custom of lighting candles, and sitting around the table and singing songs in a language he didn’t understand. The food was also different from that of the rest of the week. It was only when he grew up that Putin realized that the hospitable family was Jewish.
In her travels with Rivlin, Ravitz seldom has the chance to explore any of the places that they visit. She is too busy working, though she does get to see whatever Rivlin sees. However, when she accompanied him to Morocco when he was still speaker of the Knesset, they were there over the Sabbath, a day on which she doesn’t work.
Ravitz was excited to be there “because Morocco is so rich in Jewish history.” Their hotel was close to the market so she went for a walk through it and was entranced by the colors, spices, aromas and customs of the people. A funeral took place while she was there, and this, too, was different from any funeral she had attended in Israel.
THE SABBATH is Ravitz’s favorite day of the week. She loves to entertain, and in addition to her own immediate family, invites relatives, friends and foreign students studying in one of the yeshivot or women’s colleges.
Some are regulars, returning week after week. Preparations for the Sabbath begin on Thursday night with everyone helping.
Ravitz makes her own challot. The Sabbath menu consists of lots of fish, fresh vegetables, poultry and meat – and naturally there’s the traditional Sabbath cholent. She also has special Sabbath dishes that she doesn’t use during the rest of the week.
Ravitz spends very little time in the kitchen on Fridays because Friday is the day that she and her husband have reserved for each other, and it’s something to which each of them looks forward.
Ravitz has very little household help.
Someone comes for two hours a week. She enjoys cleaning herself. She has also painted the house and lays wallpaper, and when anything needs fixing, she’s the one who does it. There’s no need to call a handyman.
“I don’t think my husband knows how to change a light bulb,” she says, then on reflection muses, “He probably does know, but he can’t be bothered.”
Ravitz is always elegantly dressed, though she doesn’t have much time or inclination for shopping. Her husband usually buys her clothes. “He has superb taste,” she says.
Her husband, like Ravitz, comes from a large family. He is one of 12 siblings.
When their older son was bar-mitzva, the number of his first cousins totaled more than a 100, and when their daughters married, 1,200 wedding invitations were sent out each time.
When one of the daughters was pregnant, Ravitz learned to be a doula so that she could assist with the birth. It gave her an emotional high, she says.
Although the families on all sides are big, they are also very close because the very size means numerous celebrations throughout the year when they all get together.
A multi-task renaissance woman who does not compromise her religious values, Ravitz is different from the other women in her community.
“My friends from seminary days are still my friends. Most of them are teachers. They don’t really understand how different I am.
When we get together in the park, we talk about our children, so I don’t really feel different from them. I’m very comfortable with the fact that they don’t realize that I’m different.”