In the last few days, in following the #MeToo movement, I’ve noticed one topic that I feel it important to weigh in on: the “MeToo”s relating to the mikveh. As a researcher turned activist in this realm for more than 20 years, I can tell you that the feeling of being harassed, and even physically molested or touched inappropriately in the mikveh, is sadly not new to me. It’s part of what inspired me to found The Eden Center and begin working in a grassroots way to create change. Though most of the attendants I know are wonderful — giving women with extreme yirat Shamayim (Divine reverence) and mesirut nefesh (dedication) — over the years, I have heard stories. I know of attendants who sit on a stool to perform the “examination,” and have heard stories of attendants who won’t let a woman tovel (immerse) in “her mikveh,” and even the extreme of a woman whose pubic hair was unwelcomingly combed by an attendant. With a heavy heart, I feel we need to acknowledge that these “MeToo”s currently exist.
Beyond the awareness that the #MeToo campaign has produced (in all areas, but also regarding harassment in the mikveh), I believe that, with regard to mikveh, we as a community have several obligations:
- New protocols for attendants, and training for a new level of sensitivity.
Attendants need to be educated about what feels invasive today — even if that list is different than the one that existed 20 years ago.
There should be NO:
- touching without permission
- imposing of the attendant’s halakhic stance on someone who comes to tovel.
There should be:
- Respect for others, and the understanding that according to halakhah (Jewish law), a woman is responsible for herself. A tovelet (immersee) does not “need” to be checked (unless she requests that); she needs to be respected. Most women can cut/clean their nails or check that they have removed jewelry. If, however, a woman sees it as helpful to have the attendant remind her or go over the list of preparations, the attendant can happily assist.
- Support. An attendant should be there for women in a supportive way — and asking how a tovelet would like her to facilitate her immersion.
The Eden Center pioneered mikveh attendant training courses (with the support of The Jewish Women’s Foundations of Metropolitan Chicago and Palm Beaches and UJA Federation of New York) about four years ago to bring sensitivity, health and abuse prevention awareness into the mikveh. We see tremendous results of this training on the ground — turning attendants into greater resources, who are more sensitive and respectful in a plethora of ways. Just as doctors over the last 20 years have created new protocols and changed their approach, so, too, mikveh attendants, who work in this incredibly vulnerable area, must all be trained with those sensibilities today.
- Empower women mikveh users to find their voice. Not just by allowing for immersion without an attendant for those who want to do so, but by teaching women that they can assert their needs:
- Say: “Thank you, that’s not my custom.”
- Proactively share with the attendant, “My practice is to ____________.”
- Request to “…please discuss when I’m dressed.”
- Request that the attendant enter the mikveh room after you’re in the water (just like a practitioner allows you to disrobe and cover yourself with a gown or sheet before entering).
- Face away from the mikveh attendant when you enter the water so she’s not staring at your most intimate parts.
- Use preparation time as a time to connect to your body and soul rather than feeling it as an objectification of the woman’s body. Yes, there are many technical requirements, but use Mayyim Hayyim’s 7 Kavanot or Eden’s Hebrew translation (pictured above) to reframe them and create that time for yourself.
Every woman can adopt these practices to make her mikveh experience less invasive. Equally importantly, kallah teachers, who have enormous influence on how the laws of mikveh will be practiced, can empower their brides from the beginning to find a voice that makes them feel comfortable.
- If something feels wrong — SPEAK UP. Violation is not acceptable — not from a peeping rabbi, not from a mikveh lady, not from anyone! If you feel invaded by inadvertent or innocently practiced actions, let the attendant know how her actions have made you feel. If you are touched or harassed in an overtly inappropriate act, speak to your friends, yoetzet, the rabbi’s wife, or the rabbi himself, a representative from the Religious Council, or whatever other higher/external authorities seem appropriate to spread the word and make sure it doesn’t continue unchecked.
The #MeToo campaign raised our awareness to the rampant nature of harassment. Community voices have arisen that shed light on ways harassment happens in the mikveh. But we absolutely cannot tolerate that in the place which is the source of taharah (purity) for Am Yisrael.