This ultra-Orthodox Lawyer Is Tasked With Saving Israel's Diaspora Ties

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MK Omer Yankelevich at a Kahol Lavan press conference after Israel's second Knesset election of the year, September 19, 2019.
MK Omer Yankelevich at a Kahol Lavan press conference after Israel's second Knesset election of the year, September 19, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Omer Yankelevich was sworn in as Israel’s Diaspora affairs minister this week, becoming the first ultra-Orthodox woman ever to join the cabinet.

The mother of five, 42 next Monday, had been running a small nonprofit that, among other things, assists Haredi artists when former army chief of staff Benny Gantz plucked her out of anonymity and recruited her to his new political party last year. Over the course of three election campaigns, Yankelevich, a trained teacher and lawyer, would emerge as one of his closest confidantes within Kahol Lavan.

How a former Bais Yaakov girl worked her way up the political ladder and into the inner circle of Israel’s next prime minister has naturally sparked curiosity. Especially considering that Yankelevich – at least by her own account – never had political aspirations.

The daughter of two ba’alei tshuvah (secular Jews who embraced Orthodoxy), both immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Yankelevich was born in Tel Aviv. Her early childhood years were spent in a neighborhood popular among the city’s bohemian crowd. Her father, Yaakov (“Yasha”) Gilinsky, worked as an actor, clown and juggler, while her mother, Adi, was a psychiatric nurse.

The couple named their eldest daughter Omer, she has said, because her mother went into labor on the Jewish bonfire holiday of Lag Ba’omer.

After they became religious, her parents moved to the Haredi city of Bnei Brak, just outside Tel Aviv, where Omer attended a Bais Yaakov elementary school and later a teacher’s seminary for women. She would subsequently earn another teaching degree at the prestigious Gateshead Seminary in northern England.

She met her husband, Yaron Yankelevich, on a shidduch (a date set up by a matchmaker). The couple live with their three daughters and two sons in a largely English-speaking neighborhood in Beit Shemesh (halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). A former full-time yeshiva student, he is currently employed as a real estate agent and mortgage consultant.

After several years as a teacher, Yankelevich decided she wanted a change and told her husband she was interested in studying law. He was initially resistant to the idea but after consulting with their rabbi, who was in favor, her husband agreed. Yankelevich studied law at the Ono Academic College, which offers separate classes for men and women. Had such an option not been available, she has often said, she would never have attended law school.

Yankelevich is known as a prominent advocate of gender segregation in the classroom, believing it will encourage more Haredim to pursue higher education. But that is certainly not a consensus view in Israel and has regularly pitted her against feminist groups.

The newly appointed minister – who has also clerked for a judge – declined a request for an interview about her new job, telling Haaretz: “I prefer to learn about the ministry and its challenges before issuing declarations on such an important and sensitive subject.”

Not ‘one of them’

Since she rarely gives interviews, not much is known about Yankelevich’s views on matters of religion and state – a subject of paramount concern to Diaspora Jews. Her appointment as Diaspora affairs minister has aroused much curiosity, especially as her Kahol Lavan party appeared so keen on promoting an agenda of religious freedom and pluralism.

Omer Yankelevich being sworn into the 35th Israeli government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

As part of its election platform, it had vowed to legalize civil marriage; establish a friendlier national conversion system; repeal the law preventing shops from operating on Shabbat; allow cities to operate public transportation on the Sabbath; open up the national kashrut certification system to competition; increase representation of women in state-run religious institutions; grant single-sex male couples full surrogacy rights; prohibit exclusion of women from public spaces; and create many more options for civil burial.

In his very first campaign speech, in January 2019, Gantz vowed to revive the Western Wall deal and grant full and equal rights to the Reform and Conservative movements at the Jewish holy site. That he would insist on the Diaspora affairs portfolio, as part of the deal to form a national unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was taken as a sign that such issues truly mattered to Kahol Lavan’s leaders.

Gantz was certainly also aware that most Jews in the Diaspora are not affiliated with the Orthodox movements. This has led activists in the non-Orthodox community to wonder why he would choose to appoint as his liaison to the Jewish world, of all the possible candidates, the one Haredi member of his party.

When Gantz recruited Yankelevich, he had no illusion that she would draw ultra-Orthodox voters to Kahol Lavan. Rather, he believed she could strengthen the diversity of the party. Israel’s main ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, do not as a matter of policy allow women on their election slates. The only precedent for a Haredi woman being elected to the Knesset was Tzvia Greenfeld, briefly a lawmaker for the left-wing Meretz party between 2008-09. (She is currently a columnist for Haaretz.)

Yankelevich definitely dresses the part of a Haredi woman with her long-haired sheitel, long sleeves and long skirts. But despite her outward appearance, most Haredi Jews would not consider her “one of them.”

Several ultra-Orthodox journalists, who asked not to be identified by name, noted, for example, that she does not send her children to Haredi schools and that her sons serve in the Israel Defense Forces – in defiance of accepted norms in the ultra-Orthodox community. Not to mention the fact that she chose to throw in her lot with a secular party that supports changing the religious status quo in Israel.

‘Interesting opportunities’

In the rare interviews she has given since entering politics, Yankelevich has been careful to tiptoe around questions pertaining to religion. Speaking with best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth in early March, she was asked if she supported public transportation on Shabbat. She responded that her party did indeed support limited forms, but warned against turning it into “something massive.”

“My fear,” she said, “is that this could serve as a catalyst for widespread opening of businesses on Shabbat, and not just cafés and cultural events.”

When asked for her views on conversion therapy for homosexuals, she responded: “This is a medical issue, not a political one. I’m not a professional, but since the professionals say it’s not effective and even harmful, clearly their view should be accepted and it should be opposed.”

Yankelevich has never expressed herself publicly on issues that have driven a wedge between Israel and large swaths of the Jewish world, such as the recognition of marriages and conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis, as well as the accommodation of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Her spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about her positions on these matters.

Before joining Gantz’s party, Yankelevich had been active in Kulanu, the center-right party that has since merged with Likud. That, along with her ties to the religious world, might explain why she was considered a “weak link” in her party during government coalition talks. Indeed, many predicted that she might cross party lines after each of the last three elections, which all ended in political stalemate. She has, in fact, acknowledged publicly that various rabbis had tried to pressure her into defecting to Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Yankelevich will be the first Diaspora affairs minister in many years who is not a member of Likud or one of the religious parties. For leaders of progressive Judaism in Israel, that in itself is a source of consolation.

“Gantz understands the importance of strengthening ties with the Jewish Diaspora, and he would not have put Yankelevich in this position if he had reason to believe she would work against him,” noted a prominent Israeli activist in Jewish pluralism initiatives.

Having a Haredi woman in charge of Diaspora affairs could open some “interesting opportunities,” mused a popular Reform rabbi who asked not to be named.

“There has been so much animosity toward us in the ultra-Orthodox world,” he said. “Maybe Yankelevich can serve as a bridge between us.”

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