A Mikvah Horror Story

I wrote on Saturday night concerning mainstream Orthodox rabbinic failure to adequately address women’s concerns about immersing in mikvah. Shortly after the piece was published, I was alerted to a letter by Rabbanit Sarah Segal Katz and Dr. Hana Adler Lazarovitch, alleging that mikvahs were not adhering to Health Ministry guidelines. They also pointed to a 2015 report that found many mikvahs were not up to proper health standards, and that no meaningful action had been taken in response to the report.

In Israel, mikvahs are state-run institutions. As such, one would normally expect that of all places, they should be up to government health standards. But alas, there is nearly no supervision of mikvahs to ensure that they are safe for women. Think about that: The Israeli government will not let a Jewish woman get married without proof she has immersed in a mikvah — but it does not demand that the mikvah provide proof it did not endanger the bride’s health.

As I wrote the article, I was grappling with my own decision of whether or not to go to mikvah. I spoke to inside sources involved in the field, who repeated the same claims I have been seeing in the guidelines published by organizations such as the Eden Center and Nishmat: One cannot catch Coronavirus from a mikvah, as long as it adheres to Health Ministry guidelines. Nobody could assure me however, that most mikvahs were up to those guidelines. Nobody had heard of any cases of the government sending officials to ensure that the guidelines were being enforced. Mikvah attendants were told to sanitize the water between every two users, but were not necessarily being given special training by experts on how to sanitize.

On Saturday night, one mikvah had to close down when someone who had been there previously was diagnosed with Covid-19, and to send all other women who had been there that night into quarantine.

My thoughts on mikvah right now were complicated: I was worried, but I was also excited. In this time of darkness, going to mikvah seemed to me to be a sign of hope: a statement of faith in my future, and in the future of humanity.  I am at a time in my life when I am hoping to start a family. After my IVF cycle got cancelled, mikvah took on special meaning, as it signified the only way I can continue to journey towards my desire for motherhood. So I took a deep breath and got ready.

First, I called the mikvah and asked if they were open as normal. I was told yes. I asked if I should make an appointment. I did so because new Health Ministry guidelines recommend that mikvahs be by appointment only. The mikvah said no, just come towards 7, when it would be less crowded, because there were lots of brides. I insisted, and asked if I could make an appointment to be first the next day. They said yes, took my name down, and told me to come tomorrow at 6.

The next day, I arrived at 6, promptly. Nobody knew who I was or had any recollection of my making an appointment, but I managed to convince them to let me be first. The mikvah attendant stood right next to me when I paid, not keeping two meters. When another woman there to dunk said she had also called to be first, the mikvah attendant said: “Don’t worry. There are two mikvahs. And the mikvah is tehorah and nekiyah -pure and clean.” This completely freaked me out -is that a religious way of saying hygienic? Does the mikvah attendant think we are equating the mikvah with dirtiness, on some kind of spiritual level?

I asked if I could go straight to the mikvah, quickly take off my dress, and dunk, thereby avoiding the bathroom. It was those surfaces I was most worried about touching. My request was denied. I was told to go to the bathroom, get undressed, and wait for the mikvah attendant to come around the other side and lead me to the waters. I did as I was told. The mikvah attendant who supervised my immersion was wearing gloves and did try to keep some space. I asked her to not put a towel on my head when I said the blessing over immersing, because often mikvah attendants do that, even though it’s unwanted physical contact. She respected my request.

It was an awful experience. I did not come back feeling refreshed, and ready to start trying for a baby. If anything, I left feeling scared and humiliated. It feels violating to be coerced into putting yourself into situations that feel unsafe for your body on a very primal level. The experience was frightening enough that I will try very hard not to go to mikvah again while the Coronavirus rages. I am already looking into other viable halachic options from people I respect. I certainly would not feel comfortable advising another woman to go. I certainly would feel obligated to share my experiences with my friends, as a warning – which is why I am writing right now.

Prior to going to mikvah, when I pressed people involved in that world about my concerns, I was told that the solution was for women to call their local mikvah to see if it was up to standards. But what kind of a solution is that? First of all, I am not an expert and don’t necessarily know the right questions to ask. Second of all, when it comes to the mikvah attendant-mikvah user relationship, there is a severe power imbalance. The mikvah attendant can tell the woman immersing that she is not ready for mikvah, or pronounce her immersion impure. Therefore, it is unfair to place the burden of asking on the mikvah user.

But most importantly: It is the Health Ministry’s job -and the Ministry for Religious Affairs’ job- to ensure that publicly funded places run by the Ministry for Religious Affairs adhere to the health standards set out by the Health Ministry. The problem is that the Health Ministry, under Deputy Minister Litzman’s guidance, has been known to bend the rules in order to accommodate certain Ultra-Orthodox communities. For example, he allegedly pressured official psychologists to change their report to make it more favorable to alleged child abuser -and Ger community member – Malka Leifer.

However, this is part of a larger problem, where the Israeli government has decided that the Ultra-Orthodox communities are above the law: This is reflected not only in the continued Ultra-Orthodox draft exemption, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, but also, in the government’s refusal to properly police Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. This has helped to allow many Ultra-Orthodox communities to flagrantly defy recent government guidelines to prevent Coronavirus, with few consequences.

I’ve heard it argued that if going to mikvah was unsafe, the Health Ministry would ban it. I think that is wishful thinking. Would it really? Think of the political pressure the Health Minister would face from his own community if he banned mikvah. Think of the pressure that Israel’s current Prime Minister  would get from the Ultra-Orthodox parties. It’s hard for me to believe the government would take such an act, even if it was necessary from a health and safety perspective. One need look no further than a recent excerpt of a reported conversation between Bibi and Litzman to distrust the Health Ministry’s handling of affairs:

Litzman: It can’t be that one can take their dog out, but the mikveh is closed.

Netanyahu: What can you do, the virus doesn’t respect religion.

Litzman: Well if it doesn’t respect [religion], we will.

I am calling on all organizations that are saying that it is safe to go to mikvah if they adhere to government guidelines: Are you making sure that they adhere to government guidelines before you say that? If you are saying that with the caveat that women must check with their local mikvah, are you making that caveat clear and giving them a script to use when they call? If you know of mikvahs that are excelling in safety, or mikvahs that are failing at it, will you publish their names so that women can make informed choices?

I appeal to the Israeli government: Please enforce your own Health Ministry standards in the institutions run by your Ministry of Religious Affairs. Please give training to mikvah attendants in how to safely sanitize the mikvah and to implement best health practices. If there comes a point where you truly believe that there is a health imperative to close the mikvahs, please do so.

I appeal to the rabbis: We are in this for the long haul. Things might get more dangerous. Mikvahs might have to close. Please provide women with safe halachic options. Read every source, think of every angle. Where is the value of pru urvu, which has been used to pressure women into undertaking IVF, when it comes to helping find creative mikvah solutions that would help them to continue trying to procreate? Where is the value of shalom bayit, so often used to pressure women into compromising, when it comes to thinking about ways that couples can continue to be physically intimate without risking women’s lives? Where is the value of pikuach nefesh, so strong when it comes to reducing or cancelling minyan for men, when it comes to women the laws of niddah?

Passover is nearly upon as, serving as a reminder that miracles can occur even during the darkest moments. And we must pray for a miracle that God delivers us from this disease. But we can not only wait for miracles. We must also take action over the things we can control.

It’s time to act, now. Women’s lives are on the line.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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