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Will Rivka Ravitz Break the Glass Ceiling of Ultra-Orthodox Politics in Israel?

One of the country’s most powerful women has remained rooted in a traditional community. But religious parties still won’t let her run for office.

Rivka Ravitz visits Qasr al-Yahud
Rivka Ravitz visits Qasr al-Yahud in the West Bank in 2018 as she manages then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s program to restore the Land of the Monasteries—a project approved by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, and the pope. Courtesy of Rivka Ravitz

One evening in 2001, on a dusty hilltop in the West Bank Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, Rivka Ravitz was bathing her children. She was a 25-year-old mother of four at the time—and the chief of staff for Likud party Knesset member Reuven Rivlin.

Her phone rang—Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was on the line.

“Where is Ruvi [Rivlin]?” Sharon asked.

Rivka Ravitz visits Qasr al-Yahud

Rivka Ravitz visits Qasr al-Yahud in the West Bank in 2018 as she manages then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s program to restore the Land of the Monasteries—a project approved by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, and the pope. Courtesy of Rivka Ravitz

One evening in 2001, on a dusty hilltop in the West Bank Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, Rivka Ravitz was bathing her children. She was a 25-year-old mother of four at the time—and the chief of staff for Likud party Knesset member Reuven Rivlin.

Her phone rang—Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was on the line.

U.S. President Joe Biden kneels before Rivka Ravitz

During a visit with Rivlin (left) at the White House in Washington on June 28, U.S. President Joe Biden kneels before Ravitz in admiration after learning she is the mother of 12. Haim Zach/Israeli Government Press Office via the Associated Press

“Where is Ruvi [Rivlin]?” Sharon asked.

“Ruvi is in the middle of something,” she said, holding a child steady with one hand, propping the phone on her shoulder with the other.

“Ah, Rivkeleh! How are you? Tell him that I need him.”

Sharon, it turned out, would eventually reach out to his longtime friend to inform him of his decision to disengage from Gaza—a move that would cause Rivlin to step down from his position as Israel’s communications minister at the time and later cast a vote against his friend’s decision.

“I saw leaders up close, their fears, their fights,” she reflected years later. “It was hard to watch it upfront.”

For the last 20 years, this was Ravitz’s life: serving as chief of staff to a leading politician, and then president of Israel, observing some of Israel’s most historic moments in recent decades, emerging as a prominent back-room player in Israeli politics—all while raising 12 children at home.

I met Ravitz, now 45, in June at the Loews Regency New York Hotel, where she was rushing around, waving at Israeli secret service agents, her phone glued to her hand. She was in the United States to accompany Rivlin on his final official trip as his term as president came to a close. At the White House on June 28, President Joe Biden kneeled in front of her, allegedly after hearing that she was a mother of 12.


Prince William, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and Rivka Ravitz

Ravitz accompanies Rivlin and Britain’s Prince William (left) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem in June 2018. Mark Neyman/Israeli Government Press Office

Over the years, Ravitz has wielded power behind the scenes—but now, she is stepping into the limelight.

Her shoulder-length dark brown wig, or sheitel, common among married Orthodox women as a head covering, and uniform of long, dark skirts are unusual for such a high-powered position—and her home life is far from typical, too.

Ravitz is a member of Israel’s rapidly growing Haredi community, which makes up around 12 percent of Israel’s population and doubles itself every 16 years, growing at double the rate of the rest of the country. Haredi children make up a quarter of students in Israel’s elementary schools today. And while Israeli Orthodox women tend to work at an even higher rate than their secular Israeli counterparts—a trend that is changing the community—Ravitz was a trailblazer, having entered politics at a time when no Haredi woman did.

“I am proud to be part of the Haredi community, and I am ready to pay the price for it,” she told me. “For example, my sons learn in cheyder [a religious boys school]. They do not learn English and barely any mathematics. It’s not written in the Torah that one cannot learn foreign languages, but the cheyder doesn’t teach it.” Acknowledging that she will accept that her children won’t receive a full education in exchange for communal acceptance, she added: “I really want my son to learn English, mathematics, computing—it’s important to me, but I am ready to pay the price. I am proud to live in this community.”

Ravitz was born as one of 10 children to American immigrants living in Israel. She married her husband, Yitzhak Ravitz, at the age of 18 and had planned on being a special education teacher of English after completing one of the elite Haredi women’s seminaries in Jerusalem. But that summer of 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected for his first term as prime minister, and her father-in-law, Haredi Rabbi Avraham Ravitz of the Degel HaTorah party, was appointed to chair the Knesset’s finance committee. He asked her to work for him. At first, she refused, saying she was planning to be a teacher.

“He asked me, ‘How much are you getting there?’ I said, ‘700 shekels a month.’ He said, ‘I’ll get you a starting salary of 4,500 a month.’” (At the time, employing family members was permitted in the Knesset.)

Like most things in the Orthodox community, parnasa—the need to earn a livelihood—allows for a certain amount of leniency, even for a Haredi woman to take the unorthodox position of a parliamentary aide.

In the late 1990s, she was the only Haredi woman in those corridors.

“I was very young, and everyone was constantly saying, ‘Wow, she’s pregnant! Wow, she’s Haredi!’”

“The Knesset was very secular at the time, though the food was kosher,” she said. “I was very innocent but also very strange there. Only four or five members of the Knesset were [Ashkenazi] Haredi at the time, and all their staff was male. I was very young, and everyone was constantly saying, ‘Wow, she’s pregnant! Wow, she’s Haredi!’” (There were, in fact, 14 Haredi members of the Knesset in total at the time, counting the Sephardic Shas party.)

But Ravitz took to her work immediately. She would take home materials to read, staying up all night to study law, taxes, and finance. Every day offered different adventures—one day a meeting with broadcasting authorities, another day with the education ministry, another with defense

But Ravitz could never have gotten to where she is—a trailblazer operating within the lines of religious community strictures—without the support of the men she had at either side of her, namely her famous father-in-law and her supportive husband. This is a world where male bona fides matter; historically, exceptions were made for daughters and wives of prominent men in the community, offering them allowances to push boundaries and take on unusually public roles.

“What was strange was my father-in-law [employing] a Haredi woman,” she said. “I owe him a debt of gratitude. He gave me this opportunity. He had faith in me. A Haredi rabbi to take a woman, even a daughter-in-law, to work for him was a very strange thing at the time.”

In 1999, new regulations forbade Knesset members from employing family members as aides. Rivlin, who sat on the finance committee with the older Ravitz, invited the young Ravitz to work for him.

Over the years, and the pregnancies and births, Ravitz grew more powerful, as Rivlin climbed the ranks of Knesset life, eventually winning the presidential seat in 2014. Her husband, meanwhile, has also pursued a political career—first serving as deputy mayor of Beitar Illit and now as head of the city council in Telz Stone, an Orthodox town of 6,000 people that is part of Jerusalem and where they currently reside.

Ravitz was present at the notorious 2015 meeting between Rivlin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin that would later be reported as the “submarine affair”: When Rivlin shared Israel’s concerns about German sales of advanced submarines to Egypt, Merkel responded, “But you approved it.” Rivlin stepped out onto the balcony to call Netanyahu immediately—the prime minister, it turned out, had approved the sales without informing the defense minister or the president.

For Ravitz, it was just another day of life in her front-row seat: “Rivlin standing with Merkel on the balcony—I watched this happen. I watched how Netanyahu’s fall from power was triggered from this moment,” she recalled. Defense Minister Benny Gantz later formed an inquiry panel to investigate the submarine affair, essentially declaring war on his own coalition partner.

Ravitz has met with Pope Francis (a meeting where she did not shake the pontiff’s hand, for which she received special praised in the Haredi community, despite not shaking other male leaders’ hands ), Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, King Felipe VI of Spain, and Vladimir Putin, among others.


Rivka Ravitz and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin ride in a helicopter

Ravitz rides in a helicopter with Rivlin to Israel’s northern border, circa 2016-2017. Courtesy of Rivka Ravitz

Yet no matter how powerful Ravitz may be—and even within her own community, she is viewed as a liaison to power, often getting calls and requests to help with a good word—she is barred from running for office in any of the Haredi political parties, the very parties that represent her community and the parties with which she identifies most.

Haredi politicians insist that this is what the women in their communities really want. “There are no Haredi women who want to run for the Knesset,” Moshe Gafni, the leader of the United Torah Judaism party, explained in a 2015 interview. Speaking to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gafni argued that if he were to nominate women for his party, “the Haredi women wouldn’t vote for us. The Haredi women in our generation, unlike previous generations, are more religious than even the men, and their opinion is very clear on this topic.”

Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Sephardic Shas party, insisted as recently as March that the Knesset is not a woman’s “natural place” and that it is against religious women’s “views on life.”

But Ravitz, sitting in her Loews Regency suite, is not worried. “The Haredi politicians say it’s religious law that women cannot be Knesset members. But I think they’re just afraid,” she said firmly, with a knowing smile. “They’re afraid that we’ll take their places.” In Israel, parties have their own bylaws as to how candidates are chosen for roster lists, and Haredi party lists are solely determined by leading rabbis.

“The Haredi politicians say it’s religious law that women cannot be Knesset members. But I think they’re just afraid. They’re afraid that we’ll take their places.”

As time passes, these community representatives may be slipping from power. The Haredi parties have been pointedly excluded from the coalition in power in the Knesset today, and aging politicians now face a younger Haredi electorate in which women are increasingly working outside their own communities; this generation is politically disillusioned, especially after the chaos wreaked by both the pandemic and the recent civil catastrophe in Meron, in which 45 people were killed in a large crowd stampede during a notoriously unsafe and overcrowded religious ceremony.

Ravitz points out that in her community, change happens slowly. “I understand that many of the women fighting for this are doing it for me,” she recently told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “But I am at a privileged point, perhaps I am even spoiled, that I can say that I do not support their fight because it is opposition against the [religious] establishment.”

Someone, after all, must do the dirty work of fighting in the public sphere, raising awareness about the misogyny that even traditionally minded women face, even those who do everything right, even those who give birth to 12 children. And Ravitz is relieved that she does not have to be involved; she won’t go on that crusade, but she’s happy to quietly welcome others who do. “I will not defy. I want to work from inside,” she said to the Haredi news site Kikar HaShabbat.

Ravitz is, in many ways, the face of many Orthodox Jewish women, who identify as Haredi, who follow rabbinical rulings and who are uncomfortable in questioning the status quo publicly, who are devoted to traditional family values and community life—yet who are ready to step into leadership positions previously barred to women.

Outside her community, the Haredi woman can do whatever her heart desires, whether it’s finishing a Ph.D. in public policy at the University of Haifa, meeting with Putin, or visiting Arab countries on secret missions that she cannot speak about. But in her own community, her public role is limited—for now.

Ravitz told me that she believes that one day she will be a Knesset member herself—as part of the very same party whose leader said no Haredi women want to run for the Knesset.

“I believe that in the 2020s, this won’t hold for long,” she said. “There will be a law that will pass that will say it’s discrimination for a party to bar a woman from being a Knesset member. And then, these parties will search for someone who is mainstream, not someone who is in opposition to them, not someone who screams against them. And then I’ll tell them, ‘Listen, let me think about it.’ And then they’ll beg! And then, maybe, maybe, I’ll agree.”

Update, July 20, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify the number of Haredi members of the Knesset in 1996.

 

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a journalist living in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vox, Salon, Glamour, Haaretz, and the Forward. Twitter: @avitalrachel

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