OMER Yankelevich is the new minister of Diaspora Affairs in Israel, meaning she’s in charge of managing the country’s relations with Jewish communities abroad.
It has never been an easy task, but tensions in recent years between Israel and America, as well as other international Jewish communities, have boiled to all-time highs over several social, political and religious disagreements.
Among them: who can pray at the Kotel and who Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate deems Jewish.
Yankelevich’s role is complicated by the fact that she is charedi — part of a community that is at the heart of some of the issues putting a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora.
She’s also the first charedi woman to hold a Cabinet position in the Israeli government and is taking criticism for that — many in her community say her participation in politics is scandalous.
Many eyes are focused on the political newcomer. Will she work to bridge the divides that have widened between Israel and international Jews? Or will she compromise with the religious community in Israel to which she belongs?
Despite being charedi, Yankelevich isn’t a member of a religious party. In fact, she’s in Benny Gantz’s Blue and White centrist coalition, which does not cater to the religious community the way Netanyahu’s Likud party has.
In March, the party pledged to push for charedi enlistment in the military and enforce the teaching of a core curriculum in charedi schools — both of which are strongly opposed by the charedi political establishment.
Yankelevich, 42, was elected to parliament last year in her first foray into politics.
The Tel Aviv native, born to secular immigrants from the Soviet Union who had embraced religion later in life, grew up with one foot in the insular charedi community and another in the secular world.
Her father, Yaakov (Yasha) Galinsky, a Lithianian, was an actor for the famed Israeli Habima Theatre, while her mother was born in Latvia.
Born Omer Galinksy on May 25, 1978, she was given her name because her birth coincided with Lag b’Omer.
Her early formative experiences included travelling to Russia with her parents toward the end of the Soviet Union, where they spent several years volunteering in local Jewish communities.
By the time she was 16, Yankelevich was teaching Hebrew and Jewish practice in Moscow.
She attended charedi schools in Israel and Britain, including the Gateshead seminary, before earning a Bachelor’s degree in teaching from Cambridge and a Master’s in law at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Yankelevich spent several years working as a government attorney before establishing the Just Begun Foundation in 2015, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to “promoting social resilience and reducing gaps in society”.
She now lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh with her husband Yaron and five children — two sons and three daughters.
It’s too early to tell how exactly Yankelevich could enact change in the ministry, but there have been some clues to analyse.
Since entering office, Yankelevich has issued calls for greater unity between Israel and the Diaspora, and pledged to offer aid to Jewish communities disproportionately hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to The Jerusalem Post, in late May she offered her “unconditional commitment” during a Zoom conference with Jewish Agency officials, describing the “need to work together in mutual respect and understanding for the good of our Jewish world”.
In April, the Jewish Agency, in collaboration with Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal, started a $10 million Covid-19 Loan Fund for Communities in Crisis. It is currently unclear what the Diaspora Ministry would add to this.
In an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post, Yankelevich said that she and her team were “working in full co-operation with other bodies to create a programme of worldwide solidarity that will serve to strengthen the sense of mutual Jewish cohesion, a step on the way to our goal of creating an active, strong and significant world Jewish solidarity,” but offered little practical detail.
“While here in Israel we are also experiencing a difficult period and a tough economic situation, this is an opportunity for us to prove our unconditional love,” she wrote.
“We are also preparing an active assistance programme to help communities and institutions.”
Her time abroad and the fact that she lives in the heavily American suburb of Beit Shemesh could mean that she has a greater understanding of Diaspora Jewry than other Israelis without her background and experiences.
“I have always felt a strong link to our commitment to the Jewish Diaspora. It began when I was still a child, when my parents took the step of working as emissaries to the Jewish communities of what was then the Soviet Union,” she wrote in The Jerusalem Post op-ed.
“During this period we met Jews, many of whom were outwardly different from us, but were, in fact, very similar in so many ways. These encounters instilled in me, even then, a personal commitment to become acquainted with and to cherish the Jewish world outside of Israel.”
Zvika Klein, an Israeli journalist who covers the Diaspora for the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, said that “the fact that she is in a non-religious party pretty much says it all”.
Blue and White “is a party that says it will promote the Kotel deal and on issues of religion and state is pretty progressive, so it [indicates that] she’s not a typical charedi,” he said.
The Just Begun Foundation is focused on broader Orthodox cultural integration. One of its projects is Art and Emuna (belief), an initiative to promote the work of charedi artists and help integrate them into Israel’s cultural scene, as well as exposing the secular art world to art with Jewish content and themes, “thus leading to a significant change in consciousness in Israeli society”.
Diaspora leaders seemed unfazed by Yankelevich’s religious background.
“It’s important that women from a diverse array of backgrounds are taking up the mantel of leadership,” said Sheila Katz, chief executive of America’s National Council of Jewish Women. Katz added that she looked forward to working with Yankelevich.
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich agreed, saying that it was an “important step to have a female charedi minister.”
“A Cabinet should represent the people of the nation, and the appointment of Omer Yankelevich certainly helps that goal,” he said.
“Let’s give Minister Yankelevich a chance to see what she will do. It is wrong to prejudge her.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of America’s Union for Reform Judaism, said: “We hope that it is precisely the fact that the MK Yankelevich is part of the ultra-Orthodox society in Israel which will help to reduce the concern of more traditional Israeli public with full recognition of the Reform and Conservative streams.
“We are confident that it will be a personal example of the ability to work together despite differences and disagreements,” he continued, stating that she had “the potential to be a bridge of understanding between Israel’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities and the largely non-Orthodox Diaspora communities.”
Noting Yankelevich’s efforts to “achieve greater integration of marginalised sectors of Israeli society,” Alex Ryvchin, co-chief executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that her “emphasis on inclusion, outreach and unity should serve her well in her new role” and that he looked forward to connecting with her.
William Daroff, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, said that he had previously spoken with Yankelevich and found her “engaging and [a person who] can be worked with”.
He added: “She was interested in listening and hearing about the concerns of the North American Jewish community and engaging with us in those conversations, and that is precisely, I think, the best attitude to take, which is to be in a position of listening to the Diaspora across the board and hearing our concerns and our thoughts about the relationship between the state of Israel and Diaspora communities.”
Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, sounded a similar note, saying that he welcomed her appointment and that she had “already made clear her commitment to Jewish unity.”
But Yankelevich has been harshly criticised by charedi politicians and media.
Last June, several months after her entrance into Israeli politics, parliament member Moshe Gafni, whose United Torah Judaism party does not allow female candidates, censured a seminary in the charedi city of Bnei Brak for allowing then-candidate Yankelevich to visit.
“I was shocked to hear that a Knesset member of a secular party whose goal is to harm all that is holy and precious to the people of Israel visited and was received with great respect by the management of the seminar,” Gafni wrote, calling her visit “a contemptuous and shameful thing,” according to a copy of the letter published by The Jewish Press.
More recently, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, former head of Israel’s Office of the Chief Rabbi, went on radio to accuse Yankelevich of having “sacrificed her body for politics” and undermining the family dynamics that sustain the Orthodox community.
Her appointment, Halbertal said, was “a strategic threat to the ultra-Orthodox world” and her example would “destroy the ultra-Orthodox woman”.
Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College, New York, who studies the Orthodox community, said: “If anything, she threatens the charedi world because she presents an alternate model of what one can be and still be labelled charedi in the media.”
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