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The practice poses no challenge to fertility for the vast majority of Orthodox women, who ovulate about halfway through their cycle, or 14 days from when they start menstruating. Resuming sexual relations with their husbands 12 days after menstruation begins puts them in a prime position to get pregnant. In fact, ultra-Orthodox communities have extremely high fertility rates. Boro Park, the heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood in which Rachel lives, is known as the baby boom capital of New York City.
Women who are halachically infertile, on the other hand, ovulate while they are still niddah, typically sometime during the seven-day span after they stop menstruating but before they go to the mikveh. For these women, visiting the mikveh earlier would solve their problem.
But community rabbis almost never allow them to make this adjustment.
In Israel, the ban on early mikveh was the subject of intense debate six years ago, when gynecologist Daniel Rosenak called for a “rethinking” of niddah. Rosenak claimed that tens of thousands of Israeli women were rendered infertile by contemporary niddah practices. He suggested returning to the pre-talmudic standards for ritual purity, when healthy women visited the mikveh just a few days after their period ended. Niddah, he wrote in a statement to Haaretz, has produced a “conflict with the first commandment in the Torah — to be fruitful and multiply.”
But most Orthodox women in this situation say they don’t want to flout halachic norms in order to get pregnant.
“I don’t want to conceive a baby that way,” said Brany Rosen, co-founder of the infertility support group A Torah Infertility Medium of Exchange and a onetime sufferer of halachic infertility.
Rosen, a mother of six in her 40s, realized that she might be infertile when two years into her marriage she had still not conceived. Twenty years ago, infertility was a taboo subject in the Orthodox communities of Brooklyn. Local rabbis were suspicious of emerging reproductive technologies, and childless couples were left to navigate the secular world of fertility care on their own. Desperate, Rosen appealed to a rabbi for help. He sent her to a doctor in Manhattan, who referred her to a fertility specialist.
Suspecting that Rosen was ovulating while she was niddah, the specialist wrote a letter to Rosen’s rabbi, asking if Rosen could visit the mikveh early. “Why can’t your rabbi be your rabbi and let me be your doctor?” she said the specialist asked her. Skeptical about the medical approach, Rosen never delivered the letter. “It’s not going to work,” she said.
Eventually, Rosen found another doctor who had several Orthodox patients. He diagnosed her with polycystic ovary syndrome, a common endocrine disorder that, combined with her religious practice, was keeping her infertile. Rosen began taking hormones to correct the problem, and after an early-term miscarriage she became pregnant with her first son. He is now 19-years-old and studying at a yeshiva in Israel.