This blog first appeared in the Times of Israel on April 4, 2020
For so many women immersing in the mikveh is non-negotiable, allowing for physical intimacy between husband and wife and serving as a cornerstone in our relationships. The safety of the mikveh in the age of corona is at the center of a raging public debate in Israel.
The guidelines of the Israeli Ministry of Health, both regarding water treatment and cleaning and distancing measures at the mikveh, are clear. A national expert in infectious disease assured me (and a live audience in a webinar last week) that when followed, those guidelines are more than sufficient to protect women immersing in the mikveh. Likewise, the official in charge of enforcement at the Ministry of Health confirmed that chlorine levels have been up to standard. Indeed, she assured me, spot-checks revealed that mikveh attendants in many mikvaot were following or exceeding the guidelines. And when I conducted my own checks by reaching out to mikveh attendants in different areas, they reported on the quantities of bleach they were using to ensure proper disinfection; one attendant told me she worked in the mikveh until 11:30pm on FRIDAY night (missing her family’s Shabbat meal) so that all of the women wanting to immerse would be spaced appropriately! Based on those assurances and the guidelines, as recently as last week, I felt confident to tell women that mikvaot are completely safe.
But, over the last week, I have fielded calls from women who went to immerse, only to discover that the regulations were not being followed. Some women indicated that they felt so unsafe that they did not immerse, others indicated that they no longer want to immerse, and others expressed that all women should stop going to the mikveh. Some of the first-hand reports I heard were shocking. One woman arrived at a mikveh and found a party for a bride, replete with children and snacks shared from a common bowl. Another was told that “God’s spirit hovered over the water” and so that there was no need for further precaution.
I couldn’t sleep. Did those attendants who were not following the guidelines think that lax enforcement would encourage the authorities to keep the mikvaot open? Are they not aware that this is a matter of life and death? Do they realize how many women are swearing not to return to the mikveh, ever?
To date, we know of no woman who has contracted COVID-19 at the mikveh. Going to the supermarket with dozens of others is probably far riskier than immersing in the mikveh. In fact, I went to the supermarket the other day, and it was packed with people doing pre-Pesach shopping. I didn’t feel safe, and I turned around and came home. So if a woman does not feel safe at the mikveh, or she decides that the stress of taking the risk of going is more burdensome than withholding from physical intimacy, she should absolutely not go! The statistic making the rounds that 16 cases of COVID-19 were recently traced back to a mikveh is actually attributable to a men’s mikveh (which in addition to having no supervision, erratic chlorination and no enforced cleaning, were ordered closed by the Ministry of Health a few weeks ago.) As for women’s mikvaot, the chlorine, the stringent cleaning measures, the short duration of a woman’s visit, and the limited amount of human interaction make it unlikely that this is where the disease will transfer. In fact, because of the cleaning and stringent enforcement of social distancing, in the one city where a mikveh attendant was found to be infected with corona, none of the women who immersed when she was working have tested positive. But the mikvaot are only as safe as the level of adherence to the established safety guidelines.
I believe that as long as health officials permit women’s immersion, we must do our part to ensure that women can go, and can feel safe doing so. There are two ways of ensuring this, which are not mutually exclusive. One is top down: increased supervision and inspection. The other is grass roots. Women can (and must) take responsibility for the safety of immersion, and report health violations to other women to avoid mikveh immersion being unsafe. What steps can individual woman take toward this end?
Call the mikveh.
1) Ask if the mikveh requires appointments so that visits can be properly spaced to allow for cleaning, to prevent congregating outside the mikveh, and to generate a record of who was there if there is need to inform others that a corona carrier immersed.
2) Inquire about what is being done to disinfect between each visit and if attendants are sanitizing handrails, doorknobs and faucets as required.
3) Check that social distancing is enforced – that the attendants stay the required 2 meters (6 feet) away throughout the visit and do not check nor touch the woman or her belongings, that distancing is also enforced between women who come to use the mikveh, and that there are no gatherings of any kind.
4) Make certain that attendants are preventing women who are sick or under quarantine from immersing.
5) Speak to other women who have immersed. Even though mikveh is a private mitzvah, this is not the time to be private about your mikveh use. Hear from your neighbors and share your experience — positive or negative — to help and protect others.
If you are not satisfied with the answers, DO NOT use that mikveh! Let the attendant know that you will not use that mikvah and that you will report it to your wider circle of contacts. Share with your friends, with your local religious council, or with The Eden Center. As frustrating as it may be, call a different mikveh, until you find one with which you are satisfied.
And then, go with a full heart — having prepared everything at home, ready to come and go efficiently (here’s a link to written guidelines prepared by The Eden Center and see the above video). Know that you have done your due diligence to protect yourself, your family, and your community.
As part of our social responsibility to the community, and in the effort to help women make informed choices regarding mikveh, The Eden Center has just released a crowdsourcing platform (it is still in beta and has some rough edges to be worked but we wanted to start making information available to women as quickly as possible) that will allow women to record their experience at a mikveh in Israel (positive or negative), and search what others have posted for a recommendation of a mikveh in their area that is following the regulations strictly. It includes directed questions regarding mikveh adherence to Ministry of Health guidelines and a space for personal reflections and recommendations. Over the coming weeks, we intend to upgrade it to a “Mikveh Trip Advisor” of sorts, with optimized user-friendly interface and search features. The Eden Center will not plan to administer or monitor the comments, but rather, will rely on users to provide trustworthy information. I invite you to comment, read comments, and share the links thoughtfully, so that it can become a constructive community resource. Crowdsourcing the data will empower each of us and keep the mikvaot safe and open.