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Arrivals: Svietka Rivilis.
by Judy Lash Balint
Jerusalem Post Magazine
March 2, 2005

When Svietka Rivilis' mother had to choose between Israel and the United States as they emigrated from the former Soviet Union, the young Svietka declared, "I'll never go to Israel, that fascist country."

Today Svietka is a proud Israeli and a double emigrant, having left both the former Soviet Union and the United States to become fully integrated into the Zionist enterprise.


Svietka grew up in what she calls a typical Russian family: as an only child with an absent father. The family has roots in Lvov and Kishinev, but Svietka's mother, a teacher, moved to Moscow, where Svietka was born. On her mother's side, Svietka is a distant relative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom she now regrets not having met when she lived in the United States.

Svietka's mother made one trip to the U.S in the early 1970s and returned unimpressed with what she saw there. "But she recognized that there would come a time when she wouldn't be able to feed her family since she had no "connections", so she applied to leave," Svietka recalls.


After several months in transit camps in Vienna and Italy, Svietka, then 11, and her mother arrived in Milwaukee, WI where they had located distant relatives. "I come from the real America," says Svietka with a smile, "where women look like dairy farmers, drink pitchers of beer and go tail-gating."

After a short stint learning English as a Second Language in Milwaukee's public school where there were ten Jews out of a student body of 1000, Svietka skipped a grade, played for three different varsity teams, and eventually graduated high school one year early.

It was attending a Conservative synagogue during her junior high school years together with membership in the United Synagogue Youth movement that exposed her to different ideas about Israel, and where she "began to understand what it meant to be a Jew." At the age of fourteen she told her mother she wanted to move to Israel. "Finish university first, then we'll discuss it," her mother replied.

During her high school and college years, Svietka's Jewish identity blossomed and as she recounts, "I went on every organized program to Israel that existed." She volunteered on an army base through Volunteers For Israel, completed Project Otzma and Marva, and started to learn Hebrew on a kibbutz ulpan program.

Every time she returned from Israel to Milwaukee, the young Zionist would spend weeks crying and pining to get back for another Israel fix.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in social work, Svietka felt the pull of Israel was too strong to resist any longer. That's when her mother finally told her "go already-I can't stand seeing you so miserable" Svietka recalls. Leaving her mother was the most difficult thing for her to do she says, "but I just felt that I couldn't live in the States any longer."


Svietka's first stop in September 1989 was the absorption center at Kfar Saba. Here, instead of concentrating on studies, she spent every free minute hitchhiking to get to know her new homeland. "I know every junction in this country from those days," she says.

Following the ulpan, Svietka and a three other olim rented an apartment together in Ramat Hasharon, but within a year, Svietka moved on her own to Kiryat Arba "for ideological reasons."

Her next goal was to get accepted into the Israeli army. Not so easy, since she was already in her early twenties, way past the age of conscription.

Why was she so intent on serving in the IDF? "I believe if you want to really understand the mentality, to stop being a galut Jew and really become an Israeli, you have to go. Plus, I adore men in green with that little "Zahal" insignia on their breast pocket," she states laughingly.

Persistence finally got her accepted into basic training ("a joke after the Marva program,") after which she set her sights on becoming "pkida plugatit" with the paratroopers.

Svietka spent more than a year with the paratroopers before deciding her next post should be as an officer. Undeterred by army personnel who told her she was too old to become an officer, the sassy Svietka went on to become the first officer assigned to dealing with immigrants in the IDF.

After being demobbed with a rank of a captain in 1996, Svietka bought a house in Eli and became it's resettlement coordinator, a position she held for three years. " I sold myself out of the job", she says smiling. "Basically, after I sold all the houses available in the settlement, I was out of a job".

Her next career move was to work for MK Benny Elon at the Ministry of Tourism. She is currently working out of the Tel Aviv offices of the Chernoy Foundation as Project Coordinator for The Jerusalem Summit, her "dream job".


"I bought a view and the house came with it," she says of the spectacular vista from her living room in Eli, looking south towards Shiloh and Jerusalem.

"Eli is a model for what Israel could and should be. Secular and religious people respecting each other and living together."


"I'm disgustingly rich," she jokes. "Don't you know that settlers get everything for free in this country?" Svietka claims to be the only Israeli not in minus at the bank, since she refuses to buy anything if she can't pay cash for it.


"I go overseas every day." That's how she feels when she makes the one-hour commute from Eli to Tel Aviv twice a day. After work (sometimes until 3 or 4 a.m) and on weekends, Svietka lets her creativity loose with design projects and handicrafts that she's marketing under the label: Svietka's Funky Stuff from Shomron.


She can banter in the latest slang in Russian, English and Hebrew. At work and with friends, she switches effortlessly between all three languages.


Her two best women friends are an Israeli she met in the IDF, and a successful American businesswoman who has been here for more than thirty years. "All my guy friends are Israeli, since we met in the army." Her best friend from America, another Russian �migr�, is set to make aliya in March.


"I don't fit into any standard category. I'm a fanatical Jew, a zealot, but I have no religious background. In America we drove to shul on Yom-Kippur while observing the fast. I keep a very strict kosher home, but eat out at non-kosher restaurants. I drive on Shabbat but do not light fire. I am just a weird Jew and a regular Israeli."


Svietka describes herself as "an Israeli with leftover sparks of Russian and American culture. I'll never be a true Israeli because I won't throw garbage out of my car window."

The more years she lives here, the more she feels that "this country is a miracle that we can't take for granted."


Only half joking, Svietka says she plans for a nice young man to follow up on this profile, call the Jerusalem Post and find his beshert.

Also in the works is a self-published book of "my own badly-written poetry." She's also seeking a publisher for a more serious autobiographical book for children "with a twist."

Meanwhile, Svietka quotes the Ethics of the Fathers to sum up her life in Israel: "Who is rich? He who is content with what he is given." "I'll never be embarrassed to say that I moved here and stay here because I am a pure, fanatical, irreversible Zionist."