Last Friday, like many of my days, I spent in the only mikveh in Israel that is open to anyone who wants to immerse and that is run by a woman rabbi—me. The morning’s main event was the conversion of twin baby girls who were born three months ago in Thailand to a surrogate mother. They came home two months ago with their two fathers, Ro-ee and Or from Tel Aviv, who came to Mikveh Shmaya at Kibbutz Hannaton to convert their daughters.
I am happy to report that now—after many years of this not being the case—the conversions of these two girls is accepted by the Ministry of the Interior, despite the fact that the process was facilitated by the Reform Movement and not the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate. However, outrageous as it may be, these two girls are not considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate, and therefore the Rabbinate will not marry them or bury them. In other words, these girls, who are considered Jewish by the Ministry of the Interior of the State of Israel, will not be treated as such by the Rabbinical arm of the State!
Mikveh Shmaya is the only institutional mikveh in Israel where non-Orthodox conversions take place. (I write “institutional mikveh” because an ocean, lake, or spring is also a kosher mikveh and even the Rabbinate cannot prevent anyone from immersing in a natural body of water!). This is because Shmaya is the only mikveh in Israel with a declared public open-door policy, stating that anyone is permitted to immerse in the manner in which he or she is accustomed. It is for this reason that our mikveh receives no financial support from the National Ministry of Religious Services. Thankfully, however, our local regional religious council (of the Jezreel Valley) does quietly assist us with mechanical repairs, oil for heating, water filter supplies, and other services. The bulk of our budget, however, relies on support from the Kibbutz itself and money collected from fees paid by the people who immerse.
It is promising to hear that MK Aliza Lavie (from the Atid Party) has proposed a law in the Knesset that would forbid mikveh Balaniyot from asking any questions of the women who come to immerse. If passed, this law would solve the problem of those women who come to Shmaya from across the country to immerse in our open mikveh because they are turned away from their local mikveh because they are not married, or because they are not Orthodox, or because they do not practice the menstrual separation laws in the traditional manner, or because they are immersing for purposes other than “Family Purity”. But this law would not solve the problem of non-Orthodox conversions, which would still not be allowed in mikveh pools run by the Rabbinate.
I feel blessed to be able to do the work I do, running this unique and much-needed mikveh in Israel; but the status quo is unacceptable from an ethical point of view. Why should the State not be required to assist our mikveh as it does all other mikveh pools in Israel? The fact that we allow non-Orthodox conversions to take place at our mikveh—conversions that are recognized by the Ministry of the Interior!—should certainly not be a reason for this discriminatory treatment.
Two months ago, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Government has three months to find a solution to this problem. Only a few weeks remain for the Government to present its proposal, and I will not be surprised if their lawyers ask for a deferral. Not because it is difficult to solve the “problem”. The solutions are clear. Either the mikveh pools that are already standing and are run by the Rabbinate need to be taken out of their hands and opened to all—non-Orthodox included!—or Mikveh Shmaya should be supported by the State, and other mivkeh pools like it should be built—with State funding—all across the country, thereby creating a system of open, pluralistic mikveh pools to be run parallel to those run by the Rabbinate.
I will be sad to lose clients like Ro-ee and Or who came all the way from Tel Aviv on a Friday morning with grandmother and twin babies in tow. But I will be glad to know that justice has been served.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David runs Mikveh Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikveh. She is most currently author of Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Struggles with Gender, Commitment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening (Ben Yehudah Press, 2014). She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children. Her first memoir, Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (JFL Press, 2000) was the runner up for the National Jewish Book Award in the category on non-fiction. She is currently working on a novel. To order Chanah’s Voice, click on the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Chanahs-Voice-wrestles-commandment-brightening/dp/1934730440