From ultra-Orthodox outcast to TikTok sensation: Riki Rotter's path to freedom

The rebellious girl ran away from home to escape the constraints of her religious life, and today claims she 'fucking loves my life,' which she spends with her partner Anna and as a content creator and consultant for renowned Israeli figures such as Merav Michaeli, Amit Segal and others

YNet News/June 2, 2023

By Tia Barak

After being expelled twice from the seminary (once because she watched "HaMerotz LaMillion" - an Israeli adventure reality game show based on the international Amazing Race franchise), Riki (then Rivki) Rotter overheard a secret late-night conversation between her parents.

At the time, she was 18 years old, a daughter to a family from Elad affiliated with the Jerusalem Faction - an extremist and separatist group within the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian stream of Judaism.

"They said, 'Let's end this trouble. We'll marry her off, and everything will be fine,'" recalled Roter, who is now the owner of an online video marketing company and has an impressive track record of turning MK Merav Michaeli, journalist Sivan Cohen, and others into TikTok sensations.

"My father told my mother that there is a guy, albeit a bit older, but it's suitable since I was expelled from the seminary. In our terms, it's two damaged people together."

What went through your mind at that moment?

"I couldn't sleep the whole night. I understood that this was the moment, that if I didn't leave, I would never do it. From a young age, I fantasized about being secular, but I didn't think it would actually happen. It was something beyond mountains of darkness for me. I love my parents deeply, and I knew it would hurt them, but I had no choice. It wasn't a matter of religion, God and I get along. I wanted freedom, I wanted to fulfill myself. I didn't want any more boundaries."

It was April 5, 2016, when Riki told her parents that she was going to sleep over at a friend's house in Jerusalem. In her suitcase, she packed only a few family photos from her childhood because she knew she wouldn't be able to visit home again.

"I opened the closet, looked at my skirts, and realized I no longer needed them. I said goodbye to my younger siblings, lifted my sister from her crib, and kissed her. There was a sticker on the bus window that echoed in my mind: 'Make sure you don't leave something behind.'"

Where did you go in Jerusalem?

"I visited 'Yad Vashem,' so I wandered around there for a few hours. I spoke to people and understood that the 'Hillel - The Right to Choose' could help me. I went there and sat in front of the CEO, Yair Hass. He brought me cookies, and it was the first time I didn't say a blessing on them. It shocked me. He called the social worker of the association to join the conversation.

She asked me for my date of birth. I only knew the Hebrew date. I opened my ID card and discovered that it was actually the date of my birthday. During the conversation, she checked how prepared I was for this step, if I understood what could unfold, and the detachment from the family."

What did you answer?

"I was raving. I told them I had taken the step and that I wanted to go through with it until the end. They took me to a room with second-hand clothes and told me to take what suited me. I wore long jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. I let my hair loose and started dancing in front of the mirror that was there. I was amazed by how I looked. When I stepped out onto the street, I felt both naked and free."

'My life is fucking amazing'

The next day, Riki entered the transitional apartment, provided by "Hillel," an NGO body providing assistance during the transition period, including drop-in services, counseling and treatment, transitional housing, housing subsidies, education and employment guidance, tuition-aid scholarships, free legal aid, emergency shelter services, services for those serving in the military or national service, and services for single-parents and children.

"We were six boys and six girls living in a beautiful, well-maintained three-story house in a good neighborhood in Jerusalem. There was a counselor and a house manager, and clear rules. No smoking drugs, no sexual relations in the house. Everyone had to cook, do laundry, and go to work. There was a defined curfew. Once a week, we had a meeting with a social worker."

How did you feel about having boundaries set for you?

"For those leaving religion, there's a feeling that they can do anything, and it's a dangerous feeling. It's very important to set boundaries for us, otherwise, we'll lose our moral compass.

I lived in that apartment for four months, during which I had the chance to breathe deeply before I ventured out into life. This home reset me. I was with people like me, experiencing what I was experiencing. There was someone who left children behind, someone whose family manipulated him and offered him money to return.

When I discovered that our kitchen in the apartment was kosher, I was surprised. But they explained to me that people here go through a complex experience, and the home needs to accommodate everyone."

Currently, "Hillel" is opening a 72-hour crowdfunding campaign to establish an emergency shelter in the central region. "Every year, hundreds of those leaving religion live in a house in Jerusalem that has been functioning for seven years," declared the association. "The amount raised in the crowdfunding, which will take place on the GEEV platform between May 14-16, will be doubled by Hillel's veteran donors."

Rotter, who is interviewed due to the crowdfunding, looks back at those days nostalgically: "It was an especially sweet period - we had Shabbat meals, went on trips with one of the resident's run-down car. We discovered the Israeli world through these trips."

What about your family? You told them that you were going to visit a friend and just didn't return?

"The next day, my dad called me again and again. It turned out that someone saw me wearing pants and informed my parents. The community has eyes everywhere. I asked him to come to me so we could talk. We sat at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and he said harsh things to me, including wishing that a terrorist would kill me because with all the crimes I'm about to commit, I will go to hell. But if I die for the sanctification of God's name, all my sins will be forgiven. The conversation ended, and he left."

And today, how is your relationship with your family? Have you managed to mend them?

"I call them every Friday, and only my mother answers. She refuses to let me talk to my younger siblings. Despite everything, the immense love for my family, the longing for them, for the smell of home, the food, and the intrinsic desire for a connection - do not fade away. When my parents asked me to attend a seminar for rebellious girls, even though I knew I wouldn't change my mind with the push of a button, I went. I only meet my family at my siblings' weddings. They invite me so as not to cause a scandal. I come for a few hours, sit with them at a quiet table. No one speaks to me. But my life is fucking amazing. I don't let this pain control me."

'I always liked beautiful girls'

Today, Rotem (25) studies film at the Minshar School of Art and lives in Bat Yam with Anna, her partner of two years. As mentioned, Rotem grew up in Elad. Her mother is an accountant, her father is a religious studies teacher, and she is the fourth among 11 siblings.

How was your childhood?

I was mischievous and rebellious. At the age of five, I ran away from kindergarten and went to pick up my three-year-old sister. I was considered brash. When a teacher in the seminary mentioned Ben-Gurion and added, "May the name of the wicked rot," I asked why she said that, and she kicked me out of the classroom. I would escape from school to the bookstore in the mall and read secular books there.

Every week, I bought a 'Laisha' magazine (an Israeli lifestyle magazine for women) and learned about life outside. The regular bus driver on the route from my house to the seminary would give me the daily newspapers he bought.

"At the age of 15, I convinced my dad to buy me a computer. The condition was that the internet would be blocked. On the computer, I had Photoshop and Premiere software. I would draw myself as a blonde with tattoos and pants."

What did you know back then about your sexual orientation?

"I always liked the most beautiful girls in the class, I had a crush on them, but I didn't understand it. I thought I wanted to be like them, to be their friend. On the other hand, at weddings, I liked peeking through the partition at handsome guys. It was only when I left the religion that I explored my sexuality and realized that I am bisexual."

Rotem says it was difficult and frustrating for her to be a woman in the ultra-Orthodox community. "My dad and brothers would go to protests against the army in Bnei Brak, and I would go alone, a lone wolf, standing on the Coca-Cola bridge, looking down at the protest. At events, the boys' dancing is wild and free. The girls are expected to dance modestly. On Purim, only the boys drink and smoke. At the Shabbat table, men talk about politics, and the women listen and stay silent. I always sat next to my dad and joined in the conversations, until they moved me to sit next to my mom."

'They didn't touch the challah because of me'

At the age of 15, Rotem went through sexual assault. "I was waiting at a bus station and talking to a soldier. Out of curiosity, I would talk to secular people. He suggested we go talk in a nearby garden, and that's where he exposed his genitals and started touching himself. I ran away, contacted a close friend, and shared what happened. She told the school administration. The next day, I was expelled from the school. My dad took me to a family doctor and gave her a note. She looked at it and said, 'To the hospital immediately.'"

What did the note say?

"It probably stated that I had been raped. The police also arrived at the hospital. I didn't know what to say to them. When my dad came out of the room, I explained to the doctor who was there that nothing had happened. I managed to convince her not to perform the invasive examination on me. She told me that it had already happened, that ultra-Orthodox parents had come to them requesting to know if the girl was still a virgin.

After understanding the situation, she told my dad that they didn't see any signs of assault. Even though I had 'passed' the 'virginity test,' they refused to let me return to the school and warned the girls to avoid contact with me or they would be expelled."

On what claim?

"That I already knew what sex was. The final film I'm working on, 'Virginity Test,' is about that incident. Only when I wrote and analyzed the scene did I understand that the soldier assaulted me. I was an innocent little girl, and he took advantage of the opportunity."

For half a year, Rotem stayed at home, and no prestigious ultra-Orthodox seminary agreed to accept her. "There was a thought for a moment to send me to England, to a rebellious girls' seminary. But my parents knew that going abroad would open horizons for me, and they insisted on keeping me in the country. Here, I became impure.

 When my dad blessed the challah on Friday evening, and I passed pieces of challah to my younger sisters, they didn't touch them. However, it's important for me to say that I grew up in a loving family. They are not bad people. It stems from ignorance and brainwashing that comes from the environment they were raised in."

What happened in the end? When did you return to school?

"My dad fought until they took me back to the seminary. Instead of entering 11th grade with my class, they placed me in 12th grade to finish as quickly as possible. Someone in the seminary, whom I didn't know, once said to me, 'I heard you're pregnant.' I replied, 'With twins.' I realized that the gossip had spread, that everyone knew."

'I asked to join the Border Police'

After finishing my studies, I was sent to an ultra-Orthodox professional seminar. "They didn't ask me what I wanted to do, but at least they enrolled me in a track of graphic editing and video filming, a field they knew I loved. I didn't complete my studies, and to this day, I have no idea why they expelled me for good. And then I left home."

From the Hillel apartment, she moved to a roommate apartment in Tel Aviv. "I received Hillel's blessing only after they felt that I was mentally and financially capable of attempting it on my own. I worked in telemarketing and as a waitress, and gradually, I realized that in order to integrate into Israeli society, I had to serve in the army.

I canceled my exemption and enlisted. I asked to join Magav (Border Police). I read about the unit on Wikipedia and thought that's where I could get to know the Israeli population. I fought for them to let me be a combat soldier."

In what role did you serve?

"As a 'documentary combatant.' That means I was on the front line, but I didn't touch weapons. I only filmed. I served as a lone soldier. When the military social worker contacted my dad, as she was committed to ensuring that I met the conditions of this status, he told her that they had sat Shiva on me."

During her service, an officer in the Magav's undercover unit asked her to join classified activities of the unit as his partner to reduce suspicion in the hostile environment they would seemingly infiltrate. "One time we arrived in a dark forest, and he said that the forces were spread around. He kissed me and got close to me, apparently to avoid suspicion. After a few weeks, I discovered that he lied and there was no activity. I filed a complaint with the Military Police, and in the end, he was convicted of misconduct, and sentenced to a year in prison."

After her service, she began studying film and working as a waitress, but then she realized she was capable of more. "I've been filming and editing my whole life. I told myself, 'Go out and start filming.' I started shooting promotional videos and opened my own business, 'Rotter Media.'

After a year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I was alone and bored at home, so I started a TikTok page. It was during Passover, and I uploaded a video of me making an omelet, cutting it up, and putting it in soup. The video received 80,000 views."
It's hard to describe.

"I wanted to understand why the video was so successful. It couldn't have just gone viral for no reason. I started researching TikTok and realized that the video had all the components needed for success in this medium: there was a process involved, which was preparing the omelet, and there was conflict and relatability.

"I titled the video 'Ashkenazi-style omelet,' and it sparked controversy in the comments. Some said, 'We also eat that during Passover,' while others reacted with, 'God forbid, what kind of food do Ashkenazis have?'"

'TikTok is the future'

Rotem understood that it was worth directing her attention to TikTok, and today it is indeed one of the professional and sought-after forces in this new arena. Among her past and present clients are MK Merav Michaeli, journalist Amit Segal, TV presenter Haim Etgar, journalist Sivan Cohen, model Yarden Harel, the life coach Sharon Adam (Omer Adam's mother), and more.

"I work in creating videos for the internet for individuals and organizations, provide personal consulting, and deliver courses and lectures. TikTok changed the rules of the game. Before it, you could only distribute your content to those who followed you. TikTok won when it created an insane exposure capability. After that, Facebook and Instagram copied it with their reels.

Even YouTube, which is a video giant, had to open Shorts, based on the same principle: exposing content to people who are not following you, based on their interest level in the video. In the end, the goal of all platforms is to keep the viewer engaged for as long as possible."

So what should one do to broaden their audience?

"Create straightforward and precise videos that prompt viewers to take action, to follow, like, comment, save the video, and so on."

Your first client was Merav Michaeli.

"We started working together in 2020. Initially, I was there to film her, and then she asked me to continue as her videographer throughout the election period. Very quickly, I advised her to let me open a TikTok account for her. It happened to be on International Women's Day, which was quite amusing.

Merav spoke about that day, and it was the first video we uploaded. In the second video, she talked about her choice of wearing black. I filmed and edited it so that the entire idea would be condensed into half a minute. Within three weeks, she had 20,000 followers and 5 million views. She was ecstatic about it. I stopped working with her when she already had over 100,000 followers. I didn't have the time. Currently, I'm focusing on my own final film."

"There was a government minister who asked me what this TikTok is all about, as he constantly sees nude girls there. I told him, 'Because that's what you like.' He laughed"

How was your client Amit Segal?

"He was a serious student."

It's probably not easy to advise people who are heavily involved in the media.

"That's true, they think they know all the rules of the game, but the rules of the game on the internet are completely different from television. You have to be much more authentic, informal, and down-to-earth. And most importantly, you have to capture the essence of a topic in half a minute while still not neglecting the details."

The TikTok audience is very young. How is this platform relevant to your clients?

"TikTok has long gone beyond the viral and playful sounds of dancing kids. The stigma is no longer relevant. TikTok is the future. There are over 4 million users in Israel, and a significant percentage of them are between the ages of 20 and 35. TikTok knows how to tailor the content that suits the viewer. There was a government minister who asked me what this TikTok is all about, as he constantly sees nude girls there. I told him, 'Because that's what you like.' He laughed."

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