First Lady of Israel, Nechama Rivlin, Dies at 73

By | June 5, 2019

Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

Jerusalem, Israel — June 4, 2019 … Nechama Rivlin, the wife of President Reuven Rivlin, died Tuesday at the age of 73, a day before her 74th birthday.

A statement from the family Tuesday said: “The Rivlin family wishes to thank the people of Israel and religious leaders who have continued to be concerned about Nechama’s welfare, who have sent letters and children’s drawings to the hospital and the President’s Residence and who have prayed for her recovery every day, every hour.”

The family expressed their gratitude to “the staff of the Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva for their devoted, sensitive and professional treatment during the past few months, night and day, with open hearts and shining faces.”

They asked for “the general public and the media to allow the family to gather in mourning at this time and to refrain from contacting family members directly.”

The funeral is set to take place on Wednesday afternoon in Jerusalem.

Nechama Rivlin had suffered for several years from pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which scar tissue accumulates in the lungs and impedes normal breathing. Rivlin was seldom seen without her portable oxygen tank. Yet despite her illness, she accompanied her husband on most of his state visits abroad including to India and Spain.

Mrs. Rivlin was a popular first lady who focused on the arts, the environment and children with special needs, and was a trusted adviser to her husband.

Nechama Rivlin was born on June 4, 1945 on Moshav Herut, a farming community in central Israel co-founded by her parents, Mendi and Drora Shulman, who immigrated from Ukraine. She enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1964 studying botany and genetics, and began working there as a researcher three years later. She then worked as a scientific secretary at the university’s Institute of Life Sciences.

In 1970 she met her husband at a party. They were married a year later, and had three children, Rikva, Anat and Ran. 

A young Nechama Rivlin

A young Nechama Rivlin

In September 2016, during a presidential visit to Kiev, Ukraine, Mrs. Rivlin found it difficult to hold back tears as her husband, in the Kiev parliament, read aloud the names of her family members who had perished on Ukrainian soil.

After his speech, she said: “To hear my mother’s name was a difficult moment for me, the tears were choking me. After a few minutes, I collected myself and listened to the speech with pride. I, Nechama, daughter of Drora Mintz, wife of the president of the State of Israel, was on Ukrainian soil and saw victory in this moment.”

Mrs. Rivlin was careful to keep herself out of the media spotlight since her husband’s election as a Likud MK in 1988, and she was not significantly involved in his political life.

At the height of the 2014 presidential race, she wrote on her husband’s Facebook page: “Rubi, my beloved and my friend, I did not marry the president, so whatever happens, you will always be my lover and my friend.”

In March, she underwent a lung transplant at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, receiving the organ of 19-year-old Yair Yechezkel Halabali, who died in Eilat days earlier. Nine days after the transplant, she underwent another surgical procedure to support the transplant.

In their message Tuesday, the Rivlin family expressed their gratitude to the Halabli family, “for their inspiring dignity and the wonderful thing they did.”

The president did not leave his wife’s bedside during her stay in hospital. In great pain, Mrs. Rivlin had to learn to breathe again.

During her rehabilitation, her medical team created the illusion of her still being attached to an oxygen tank, while in reality she was spending several hours breathing on her own. When she learned of their trick, she was incredulous.

At the beginning of May, Mrs. Rivlin’s condition worsened, leaving her suffering from severe shortness of breath and exhaustion. The president, who was on a state visit to Canada at the time, immediately decided to cut short his trip and return to Israel to be with her.

Nechama Rivlin at the President's Residence in 2018

Nechama Rivlin at the President’s Residence in 2018

“Together with every Israeli citizen, my wife Sara and I are deeply saddened at the passing of the wife of the president Nechama Rivlin,” Prime Minister Netanyau said.

“We all prayed for her recovery during this recent period in which she fought heroically and with spirit. We send condolences from the bottom of our hearts to the president and all his family.”

Although there is no official First Lady in Israel, Reuven Rivlin bestowed the title on his wife, and occasionally declared that he was married to the wife of the President of Israel.  

Nechama Rivlin is survived by her husband, three children and seven grandchildren.

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