Jewish Action Editor-in-Chief Nechama Carmel speaks with the former chief of staff to Israel’s tenth president.
Rivka Ravitz, the former chief of staff to Reuven Rivlin, the tenth president of Israel, has served as a government administrator and advisor, researcher and author for nearly twenty years. Currently, Rivka, a Chareidi mother of twelve, is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and is pursuing a PhD in public policy at the University of Haifa. JPPI, established by the Jewish Agency, is an independent center of thought and planning focused on shaping policy for the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.
Rivka first entered politics in 1996 as an eighteen year old, when her father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Ravitz of the Degel HaTorah party, was appointed to chair the Knesset’s Finance Committee and asked her to work for him. In 1999, she began working as Reuven Rivlin’s parliamentary assistant. A trailblazer, Rivka entered politics at a time when it was rare for a Chareidi woman to do so. (Today it is a bit more common, though still, she says, not common enough.) She ran many of Rivlin’s campaigns, including successful campaigns for his election as speaker of the Knesset in 2003 and 2009, and his election as president of the State of Israel in 2014. She was appointed his chief of staff in 2014 and served in that position until 2021. Among her many duties as chief of staff, she organized foreign delegations to host countries across the globe, worked closely with foreign governments and officials and coordinated national projects seeking to improve the position of minority groups in Israeli society.
Rivka holds a BA degree in management and computer science, as well as an MA in management and information systems and an MA in public administration and political science. Rivka is married to Yitzchak Ravitz, the mayor of Telz-Stone, where they live with their children.
Nechama Carmel: Your career in politics is fascinating, especially because you are a member of the Chareidi community. Can you tell us about your career path?
Rivka Ravitz: My career in politics began as a way to make a living. I was eighteen when my father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Ravitz of the Degel HaTorah party, asked me to work for him in the Knesset. I had trained to be an English teacher, which was my dream job. But he convinced me to take the job in his office. I didn’t have the right skills. I ended up taking home documents every day and studying them all night long so I could come prepared for the meetings in the morning. Two years later, a new law was passed in the Knesset that banned Knesset members from hiring first-degree relatives. I had to find a new job. I found one working with Reuven Rivlin as a parliamentary assistant. Eventually, I worked my way up to become his chief of staff.
He [the Pope] put out his hand, and I quickly blurted, ‘I’m a religious woman and I don’t shake hands with men.’ While every other member of the delegation had a hasty one- or two-second meeting with the Pope, I ended up having a five-minute conversation.
I loved my various jobs in politics despite the fact that it was not an easy environment for me as a Chareidi woman. When you work in a secular office and you are the sole religious person, people assume you are a rebbetzin. My colleagues started asking questions, many of which I could not answer. Often I would call my rabbi for guidance. Once, a secular colleague whose husband is traditional pulled me aside. A two-day yom tov, which is unusual in Israel, was coming up. She asked me if there are a few minutes between the first and second day of yom tov because she needed time to drive back home from her parents’ home to her apartment. How was I to explain to her that “no, there’s no time to drive back home, it’s one yom tov?!”
There were other challenges as well. When I took on the role of chief of staff, I was thirty-seven years old and had just given birth to my eleventh child. Some of the staff members I supervised were high-level government officials who were twenty years older than I was. Truthfully, there were times I felt like quitting. Some days were really hard; I felt I didn’t have the stamina to continue. I was responsible for overseeing a very large staff—sixty or seventy people—and whenever there was friction between staff members or a complaint, it landed at my door.
At times, I felt like just going back home and raising my children like any other mother. Then I started getting phone calls from young seminary girls—eighteen- or twenty-year-olds who had recently joined the workforce and were seeking advice on how to negotiate the secular world while maintaining their religious principles. Inadvertently, I had become a role model to these young women. I realized then that I couldn’t give up.
Carmel: How did you explain Chareidim to your secular colleagues?
Ravitz: I explained to them that the word Chareidi means to be afraid of change. Being a traditional Jew means keeping the traditions. I would tell them that my grandmother looked exactly like her grandmother and her grandmother exactly as her grandmother before that. We are averse to change because once you start making changes—even small ones—you don’t know where you’ll end up.
Carmel: Do you think you had an impact on your secular colleagues?
Ravitz: Even if I didn’t change [their secular outlook], I changed their perception of Orthodox people. Getting to know someone on a personal level helps to change one’s point of view. I showed them that Chareidim are normal, loving people with families and similar challenges . . . I humanized Chareidim for them.
Carmel: What were the most difficult moments for you in your career?
Ravitz: Every time I had to go back to work after giving birth, it was very difficult. After each child was born, the thought would enter my mind: Maybe I should just stay home and give up my career.
That was one kind of challenge. There were other challenges too.
President Biden turned to me, obviously impressed, and said, “I have to bow to a mother of twelve.” And he went down on his knees.
There was the time President Rivlin was invited to meet the Pope. The Israeli government needed Rivlin to make a certain request of the Pope regarding a political situation. When our delegation arrived in Italy, Israel’s ambassadors to Rome and to the Vatican came to our hotel and started prepping us; there were some very strict protocols, so they let us know what to expect and how to act. “Each one of you will be escorted by a high-ranking cardinal,” stated one of the ambassadors. “You will then shake hands with the Pope and he’ll give you a small gift.”
At this point I interrupted him and said, “I’m a religious woman. I took upon myself a chumrah [stringency]—I don’t shake hands with men. Please tell the Pope’s entourage so he can be prepared.” “No problem, I’ll do that,” the ambassador replied.
The next morning, as we prepared to leave to the Vatican, the ambassador told me, “Rivka, I’m sorry. I forgot. I didn’t tell them. So please call your rav and just ask for a heter [leniency] for this one time to shake hands with men.” But I didn’t want to do that. So as I walked through the long corridors before meeting the Pope, I grew increasingly anxious about how things would turn out. It didn’t help that my colleagues were concerned as well. “Rivka,” they told me, “be careful. You could be responsible for ruining a very important meeting.” When the Pope appeared, I was second in line to greet him. He put out his hand, and I quickly blurted, “I’m a religious woman and I don’t shake hands with men.” “Oh really?” he said. “Are there people who observe that?” And I said, “Yes. There are.”
While every other member of the delegation had a hasty one- or two-second meeting with the Pope, I ended up having a five-minute conversation with him, in which I explained to him that in Jerusalem there is a large Chareidi community that adheres to strict religious principles including separation of the genders. I think our conversation warmed the atmosphere, and baruch Hashem, President Rivlin’s meeting with the Pope went well.
Just as I was concluding my conversation with the Pope, someone captured the moment on camera. By the time I arrived back in Israel, I had some 700 calls on my phone. The photo had gone viral; I was getting calls from journalists around the world.
Carmel: Can you share any other memorable stories of meetings with world leaders?
Ravitz: In 2021, President Rivlin was invited to meet with President Joe Biden. The meeting was supposed to be just between the two of them, but when the door opened and the US president ushered President Rivlin in, he whispered to me, “Rivka, come with me.” I was more than happy to oblige.
I found myself in the Oval Office; it was just the three of us. When President Rivlin introduced me, the US president stuck out his hand to shake mine and President Rivlin said, “No, no, Rivka doesn’t shake hands with men. And guess how many children she has? She has twelve children.” President Biden turned to me, obviously impressed, and said, “I have to bow to a mother of twelve.” And he went down on his knees. (That photo went viral as well!)
He then took a photo of his mother from the shelf and showed it to us. I thought to myself: Even the most powerful man in the world has a picture of his mother in his office.
Carmel: Now that your career has taken a different turn, tell us about your research at the JPPI focusing on Chareidi women.
Ravitz: Part of my research at the JPPI is geared toward empowering Chareidi women in the workforce. Traditionally, women in the Chareidi community were primarily focused on raising their children, but in many Chareidi homes, husbands have dedicated themselves to Torah study full time and the women have become the main breadwinners. Work for Chareidi women is therefore often seen as a necessity, rather than a means of self-fulfillment or professional growth. While 83 percent of Chareidi women are employed, their average hourly wage is lower than that of non-Orthodox Jewish women. Chareidi women are generally out of the house from eight in the morning until four or five in the afternoon. Why should they earn so little?
In 2018, a survey by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that these wage gaps are significantly narrowed for those who have attended academic programs. But as of 2020, only 15 percent of Chareidi women held academic degrees compared to 28 percent of all Jewish women in the same age range. Many Chareidi women want to increase their salaries and advance their careers.
How can they pursue higher education and secure higher-quality employment without compromising their lifestyles? Government policies have mainly centered on promoting Chareidi male employment due to their low employment rates. The government has not adequately addressed the needs of Chareidi women. It’s time for a shift in government policy to address this imbalance by providing greater support and opportunities for Chareidi women in education and employment.
A Chareidi woman can do whatever her heart desires, including obtaining a PhD in public policy at the University of Haifa.
Carmel: Is there any project, past or present, that you’re really proud of and that you feel has significantly impacted your community?
Ravitz: Fourteen years ago, I took an evening job teaching computer science to seminary girls. Currently, I teach in a few seminaries. Some of the girls are already working, but most are preparing to enter the workforce. The classes take place from 8:00 to 10:00 pm. I put my children to sleep and run out to teach because I love it. I don’t even take a salary. I really enjoy connecting with these young girls as they prepare to make these significant life-altering decisions. It feels like my avodat Hashem.
I also enjoy volunteering in a local women’s jail. When I was working with President Rivlin—the president of Israel has the power to pardon prisoners—we would hear really heartbreaking stories. I told myself that when I left his office, I would make sure to visit some of those prisoners. So I go there once a week and deliver a shiur on the weekly parashah, after which I stay for an hour or two to talk with the women.
Carmel: I think all readers will want to know the answer to this question: How do you do it? How did you manage such a demanding career while raising twelve children?
Ravitz: I got a lot of help from my family. My mother, who has ten children herself, was very supportive. She never worked outside of the house, and she helped me raise my children. In fact, at one point, we had our babies together. She had her tenth child two weeks after I had my oldest child.
In terms of sacrifice, I worked very hard over the years, and, of course, my children had less of me. But my husband and I decided early on that we didn’t want to leave our children with babysitters. Obviously, there were times when we needed to, but on a regular basis, we didn’t. My husband, too, has a very demanding career as he is the mayor of Telz-Stone. At the beginning of every week, we’d take out our work schedules and we would each pick two or three days when we would come home early—at 4 or 5:00 in the afternoon when the kids came home from school. We tried to arrange our schedules so that one of us would be home at those crucial hours to help with homework and to serve the children a hot meal. If, for example, it was my husband’s day to be home at four in the afternoon, I would stay in the office until seven or eight at night, and then when I returned home, he would go back to the office. And the same would happen in reverse.
Carmel: What advice would you offer working mothers?
Ravitz: The best advice I can give is to manage your time well. You can’t waste your time and be successful. When I was raising young children and working such a full workload, I didn’t read a book—this lasted years!—and I love reading. I knew I would lose myself in a book and waste time.
I generally make three lists: a list of what’s important to finish today, a list of what can wait for tomorrow, and a list of what can wait until the following week. I find that it’s crucial for me to stop in the middle of the day and read the three lists. If I don’t read the lists, they aren’t effective.
Delegating tasks is also very important: whether it is to your staff, your children and even your husband. Someone else can wash your dishes. But there are certain things that only you can do—such as spending time with your children. Don’t waste your time and brainpower on things that someone else can do.
In general, to be successful as a working mother, you need to be efficient. I wake up around 5 o’clock in the morning; I go to sleep early, at around 10 or 11. Sleeping a sufficient amount of time is vital as well. I find myself more productive in the morning—the work I can get done in the early morning takes me one-third of the time it would take if I did it in the evening. But you have to know yourself and the hours that work for you.
These days, people waste a lot of time on their phones and on social media. But you can’t be successful if you don’t utilize your time productively.
The biggest challenge is the Chareidi community becoming almost 50 percent of the population in the near future. . . . Chareidim need to get training and education if they are going to be the majority of the country.
Women with careers need to remember to make time for their children and their husbands. I recommend shutting your phone completely whenever you are with your children. Take out the battery for two hours. Look your children in the eye and talk to them. Mothers have a powerful influence on their children. Career is important, and I’m not opposed to women having careers obviously, but just remember: a mother is irreplaceable.
Carmel: What advice would you give to young Chareidi women who are interested in pursuing a career path along the lines of what you did?
Ravitz: I would say it’s not easy. The Israeli parliament works late hours, sometimes all night. During budget season, we would go without sleep for days on end. You have to be willing to work hard and devote a lot of time. It’s not always suitable for women who are raising young children.
Carmel: How would one know if she’s suitable?
Ravitz: If you want it, you are suitable.
Carmel: Are there more Chareidi women in politics now than there were when you first started?
Ravitz: There are many more, but certainly there aren’t enough Chareidi women in high positions. Even some of the Chareidi Knesset members choose secular chiefs of staffs, which I think is disappointing. Today there are enough Chareidim, men and women, with PhDs, who are qualified for the position. At the end of the day, only a Chareidi can truly understand the needs of his own community.
Carmel: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the Chareidi community in Israel today?
Ravitz: The biggest challenge is the Chareidi community becoming almost 50 percent of the population in the near future. If you look at the number of first-grade children in the country today, Chareidi children constitute almost 50 percent. That means that we need to be prepared. Chareidim need to get training and education if they are going to be the majority of the country.
Carmel: A final question: Who influenced you to become the woman you are?
Ravitz: My Bubbe, my mother’s mother, had a tremendous influence on me. She was born in Jerusalem between the two world wars. Food was so scarce that children were dying of starvation. So her father left for the United States to try to earn a living. After two years, he sent tickets for his wife and children. My Bubbe was four years old when her mother took them on a three-month voyage by boat to America. My great-grandmother didn’t let them eat anything fleishig during the trip because the meat wasn’t kosher. Bubbe became a student of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan [a student of Sarah Schenirer who brought the Bais Yaakov movement to America], and later became a teacher.
She was always learning; you could always find a Chumash open before her. She had strong principles and she stood up for them. She taught me about standing up for your values and beliefs, and I try to teach that to my children.