The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine
An unlikely mikveh advocate
An Israeli billionaire’s daughter explains why she paid celebrities to speak about family purity, and how her family is fighting the ‘Tinder Swindler’
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‘Why not bring the light and the beauty of the way Judaism sees marriage and the secret it has for it?’
sraelis from all types of backgrounds – religious, secular and traditional – have been discussing a controversial campaign about family purity around their Shabbat tables. The most contentious part of the campaign, which featured female Israeli celebrities, was that they were paid for participating in short videos where they spoke of their intimate life – promoting family purity according to Halacha.
The person behind this campaign is businesswoman-turned-sex therapist and Jewish outreach activist Ruthy Leviev-Yelizarov, the daughter of Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev. She has also recently been in the media denouncing Simon Leviev, the con artist who was the subject of the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler, where it was revealed that he lied to the world about being a member of her family.
The Magazine met Leviev-Yelizarov at her home in Savyon, where the nation’s elite live in large and lavish houses.
Leviev-Yelizarov was born and raised in Bnei Brak. When she was 12, her family moved to Belgium for three years. Afterwards, she returned to graduate from high school in Israel. She speaks Hebrew, English and Dutch.
“I got married,” she says, detailing her life story. She then started her studies, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business. She then began working in the family business, Africa Israel. “When I was 25, my husband and I moved to Hampstead Gardens in London. We moved there with two children, and we had another four children during our 10year period in the UK.”
Her mother is a ba’alat teshuva (a person who becomes religiously observant), and her father is the son of a rabbi. “My father is a mohel; he even knows how to slaughter animals and, of course, to read the Torah. He was raised like a rabbi ever since he was a very young guy,” she says. Leviev-Yelizarov was educated in ultra-Orthodox schools.
One of the questions she gets asked a lot is “You grew up in a very business-oriented family, so how did you end up doing outreach?” She immediately answers that “I started teaching kallah [bridal] classes before weddings. I’m also a marriage and sex counselor. I’m a mediator, and I assist couples before they get married [in aspects of family purity according to Judaism].”
Leviev-Yelizarov says she went through her big change – from a businesswoman to an activist and therapist – when she moved to London. “Life in London was very different from life here,” she says about the cultural differences. “When we left Israel, I headed the shopping mall division in Africa Israel. My life was very hectic. My days began very early, and I chased my tail. That’s the way I see it. At the same time, I was studying to get my master’s degree and raising two little babies.”
Leviev-Yelizarov says something changed for the good when the family moved to London.
“When [we were] in London, everything was different. First of all, my type of work changed. I was working from home, so I had an office in my house and didn’t have to go anywhere. There is also a shorter week outside of Israel: Friday is a short day, and then you have Saturday and Sunday off. I felt as if there was a lot more time to be with family in the UK. There were many vacations such as half-term vacations; the kids barely go to school. It was very, very different. So it became very much a family-oriented business. And also, we became very involved with the community, so I had a lot of Torah classes in our home.”
Two personal incidents made her decide to devote her life to couples and promoting family purity. The first was a behavioral issue with one of her children. After months of counseling, the therapist said there was nothing she could do, except for moving into their home and being a sort of nanny. She responded to the news by sitting in her car outside her house and sobbing.
And then two things happened: Her sister-in-law told her that the Lubavitcher Rebbe would advise couples with different types of issues to learn all the laws of family purity. In addition, a friend asked her to help organize a class about family purity in memory of her mother, who had asked her on her deathbed to keep those religious instructions.
Leviev-Yelizarov couldn’t find a rebbetzin to speak to the group of women on two days’ notice, so she decided to learn everything on her own, with assistance from her sister-inlaw in Colorado. “I got to this woman’s house and began giving these classes. It was an amazing, amazing adventure to meet all these women. As time went by, I realized that without even paying attention and stopping to think, everything else that we did with my son was really getting back to a normal level again.”
She says she realized “this is what Hashem chose for me.” She then began to study all the aspects that have to do with sexuality, Halacha and spirituality.
Upon returning to Israel, Leviev-Yelizarov recognized that there was a difference between Israeli women and those she met in the UK. “I saw how hard it is [to teach family purity] here because brides come with a lot of wrong information, as if Judaism says the woman is second best and not good enough,” she explains.
Leviev-Yelizarov shares that many women in Israel believe Judaism states that a wife “should be staying home and only cooking for her husband, as if she’s not important and everything is about him. I felt that there were a lot of myths
that needed breaking and a lot of conceptions that aren’t completely true.”
She began planning different ways to get more women to observe family purity laws, along with her partner, Bracha Shilat, and then COVID-19 took over. “We heard that there were a lot of women who stopped going to the mikveh because of the pandemic, so Bracha and I said, ‘Okay, it’s time to do something about it.’ I felt like it’s not the only thing that has never been spoken [about] before.”
According to Judaism, there are three mitzvot that are especially sacred to women: lighting Shabbat candles; hafrashat challah (tithing dough, usually challah for Shabbat); and taharat hamishpacha (family purity). Leviev-Yelizarov says the first two of these three mitzvot have been discussed and promoted for years in the public. The third one was also discussed, albeit quietly.
“Nobody ever spoke about family purity because it was as if it’s something we don’t talk about,” she says, remembering thinking to herself, “We’re living in 2022. There is not even one subject we don’t speak about everywhere. So why not bring the light and the beauty of the way Judaism sees marriage and the secret that it has for it? I said to Bracha, ‘This is something that I want every woman to know about and they can decide on their own whatever they want to do with it.’”
And that’s how the She’asani Isha organization and its campaign were launched. “We give the information in a very positive and a very righteous way. We try to break all the myths and explain what purity means,” she says.
A few months ago, She’asani Isha launched a public campaign. It included billboards in major cities and social media videos with top female influencers who discussed their personal views of family purity and niddah (a woman during menstruation).
HOWEVER, LEVIEV-YELIZAROV was under fire for the campaign after it was revealed that many of the celebrities had been paid to participate. They included actress and TV host Yael Bar Zohar, Master Chef judge Michal Ansky, and reality star Shay Mika.
On the organization’s site, the two project leaders explained that they mapped out the best mikvaot in terms of visibility, cleanliness, aesthetics and service. They also gave selected ritual baths around the country a quality rating that indicates that they meet the most stringent standards.
Bar Zohar is a star of one of the initiative’s videos on social media. In a professionally produced video, she spoke to Mika, who said: “My desire is to go to the mikveh every month and [to] be able to observe niddah every month .... There are beautiful sides of immersing in a mikveh.”
Bar Zohar added, “There is something special about staying away [from your husband] in order to get closer. There is a lot of wisdom in the Torah that unconnected people cannot see.”
At the She’asani Isha launch event, videos were shown of the guests who spoke of their personal experiences. However, an investigation by the Good Evening with Guy Pines TV show revealed that Mika received between NIS 15,000 to NIS 20,000 to promote discourse on the issue. Bar Zohar, who led the campaign as an interviewer, received between NIS 40,000 to NIS 50,000, and Ansky received a similar amount.
Leviev-Yelizarov told the Guy Pines team, “Family purity is a very big part of She’asani Isha, which actually addresses this point of boredom and lack of passion [in marital relations] – there is this tool [in Judaism] of actually getting away a bit, [in order] to get closer.
“It was very important to us that the connection be real and, in these videos, we also see that each one of the women talks about her personal connection,” Leviev-Yelizarov said. In response to the criticism, she stated, “We did not know what each one would say in their videos. The payment was not for what they would say and [to] talk about a particular topic but for their time, for the days of filming they attended.”
She added, “I do not usually reveal numbers of how much people are paid, but we paid them as is customary in these types of productions.”
BACK TO the conversation with Leviev-Yelizarov, she was calm and said she wouldn’t do anything differently. “One of the nicest things that came out of this campaign is that people really started talking about it [family purity] and wanting to understand what it means, what it does and what Judaism teaches us.”
She says that in her perspective, after the situation “of asking if we sold our principles for money” calmed down, “real dialogue took place. People really listened to what we had to say.”
She’asani Isha is an organization that offers different information and services to women. “We have a lot of videos with doctors and other women talking about all kinds of aspects of family purity. They also selected 150 mikvaot in Israel out of 900 and rated them according to a number of parameters. We check if they are new, renovated, look nice, if they’re clean and if the mikveh attendant has been through some kind of proper training.”
Many people criticized her campaign, mainly secular men and women, but also people from religiously observant circles. “I think it’s hypocritical that some women who call themselves feminist spoke out against our campaign. I think it’s so anti-feminist to decide for another woman what’s right and what’s wrong when she tries to do something. I think that feminism tends to be very accepting of every woman in the way she sees fit, and you cannot tell me that I am an old-fashioned and close-minded woman because I’ve chosen to live this way. I feel the most feminist when I go
to the mikveh, so nobody can tell me otherwise,” she asserts.
She also says those who criticized the fact that her organization paid the celebrities who discussed their personal lives in the campaign are hypocrites. She gave an example from a different world that relates to her campaign: “What I did was just like if I was promoting vegetarianism. I would approach celebrities to talk about their personal experience as vegetarians, right, if they’re vegetarians. You can’t expect people to work for free; to get dressed up, wear makeup and sit in a studio for hours and hours speaking about their experiences. Whoever watched the movie saw that they were really connected [to the topic]. If they weren’t connected, they would never participate in this type of campaign.”
According to Leviev-Yelizarov, the essence of the``````` campaign was that she wanted to “show people that you don’t have to be religious in order to keep family purity.”
On a personal note, she says “Family purity is a very good tool for a good marriage, if you know how to use it properly.”
Leviev-Yelizarov adds that couples who keep family purity in a meaningful way “learned to work on their friendship and marriage without the physical aspect, which a lot of people can’t do. A lot of people say, ‘When I cannot be intimate, when I cannot touch, I don’t know how to consult, speak or communicate. And it’s really giving us the option to learn how to work on our connection.’”
HER FAMILY has been constantly in the media’s focus in Israel and around the world since the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler was aired earlier this year. The documentary tells the story of Israeli conman Simon Leviev, born Shimon Hayut, who used the dating application Tinder to connect with individuals whom he then emotionally manipulated into financially supporting his lavish lifestyle. Simon Leviev was perceived as a sibling of Leviev-Yelizarov.
She says it’s been five years since her family filed its first report against the conman. They found out about the scandal when they saw “that [forged] checks from our company were sent to us. My sister, who works in the business, couldn’t really believe [that these checks were forged]. We started getting phone calls from charter companies that he owed them money for boats [that he rented]. They said he told them he was sending them SWIFT [bank] transfers, which never came. There were a lot of stories about individuals that came to our offices claiming that our brother owed them money. These people told us that they put their house on mortgage and they gave him the money. Now they live with their parents, pay the mortgage and still have nothing left. A lot of horrible, heartbreaking stories,” she says, adding, “then this movie came out.”
A year before the documentary premiered, the Levievs decided to finally speak out publicly. “That is when I was interviewed for the first time, in the Israeli media, saying that we’ve got nothing to do with him,” Leviev-Yelizarov says.
It was only after the movie came out that they realized that there were many young women who had been abused by Simon Leviev. “My real brother was approached by girls through Facebook who said to him, ‘How did you do this to me?’ It was then that we realized how broad this con really was.”
She never met the three women who had been conned by Simon Leviev that were featured in the documentary, but her sister did. The family business’s jewely company recently did a collaboration with them called “The Stronger Together” bracelet. It was designed by the three women – Cecilie Fjellhøy, Pernilla Sjöholma and Ayleen Charlotte.
“The bracelet includes two golden rings and two natural diamonds, interlocked within each other, symbolizing how the world is round and things do come full circle, bringing their unfortunate experience to a positive closure,” the website promoting the bracelets says. According to the site, all profits will go directly to the women to help them recoup their financial losses. Ten percent of the profits will be donated to charity on their behalf.
Leviev-Yelizarov says all the money they receive from the lawsuit against Simon Leviev will be donated.
“We’re going to donate everything to the people who were harmed by him, and unfortunately, there are a lot of them.”