It’s been years since I read ‘The Rebbe’s Army’, journalist Sue Fishkin’s 2003 book on Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, but one anecdote has stuck with me ever since: when Chabad’s emissary to Alaska took a congregant to a local lake for her monthly immersion, the two women were surprised by a family of moose, who had chosen the same spot for a quick evening bath.
When I conjured this image, I chuckled. But never in my life did I think Jews across the world would be contemplating putting themselves in similar scenarios.
From synagogues closing their doors to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ordering the cessation of all communal worship, from the possible cancellation of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca to the Pope bowing out of public gatherings, much has been written about how the pandemic has disrupted the rhythms of religious life.
Add mikveh usage to the list of faith traditions that have been thrown into question by the virus––and this one, you can’t perform via Zoom.
The primary users of mikvehs today are Orthodox women, who immerse seven days after their period ends, before they are able to resume physical intimacy of any kind, including sexual relations, with their husbands. The ritual is so crucial to Orthodox life (after all, no kosher sex means no Jewish babies) that a community is required to build a mikveh before it builds a synagogue. Women who grew up Orthodox were often told stories about the horrors their female ancestors endured to immerse, from sub-zero temperatures in Siberia to grimy Lower East Side basements to clandestine river dips during the Warsaw Ghetto. Today, many modern mikvehs are more like spas, with tiny shampoo bottles, plush towels, and excellent shower pressure in the rooms where women prepare themselves before dunking. But these modern mikvehs have one thing that their more threadbare predecessors didn’t: the potential to be breeding grounds for the new coronavirus.
The milieu seems obviously problematic. Even if, as the CDC has stated, chlorine kills the virus, there are the shared showers, toilets, and toiletry items, like pumice stones to wear down callouses and scissors to clip nails. This is not to mention the ubiquitous reasons many others are already staying home, such as avoiding touching doorknobs, buzzers, and hand railings.
Mikveh attendants, rabbis, and healthcare professionals in Israel and the United States are finding themselves advising anxious women about how to use the mikveh safely during this time. They’re also rushing to create standardized guidelines for sanitizing the facilities and for proper conduct between attendants and users.
“There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty,” says Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder and executive director of the Eden Center, a Jerusalem-based organization dedicated to educating and empowering women around mikveh-related topics.
After discussions with top infectious disease doctors in Israel and representatives from the Ministry of Health, the Eden Center published an infographic and produced a webinar highlighting the ways a woman can keep herself safe at the mikveh, including by preparing at home, making an appointment to avoid overlapping with others, and refraining from touching surfaces. Religious organizations in the United States, like the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA), a consortium of Orthodox female physicians, have put out similar instructions.
“The guidelines we’ve been given is that you should limit exposure to different things and people in the mikveh,” Dr. Grumet told me. “Therefore, do your preparation at home as much as you can.” Some mikvaot, like the one a friend of mine attends in Baltimore, have asked users to bring their own towels. Another mikveh in the Bronx leaves all the doors open so no one has to touch a knob.
Mikveh attendants are also being instructed as to how to interact with women who come to use the facilities and how to protect themselves, as many are in an older age bracket. Dr. Aaron Glatt, Chief of Infectious Diseases at Mount Sinai Hospital South Nassau, who is also an ordained rabbi, said he’s consulted with numerous mikvehs on their policies in light of coronavirus, and has advised attendants to never touch the women and to space out visits so there is no possibility of mingling in the waiting areas. “[Attendants] should be wearing a mask ideally, and never be within six feet of the woman.”
Of course, women with any symptoms of coronavirus, or those under quarantine, cannot use the mikveh. At some mikvehs, they’ve even asked women to take their temperatures upon arrival (although that could offer a false sense security, as many people infected with COVID-19 report never having a fever). And if you have any medical concerns, like an autoimmune disease or another underlying condition, you can ask to be the first appointment of the day, which Segal says many facilities are trying to reserve for vulnerable populations.
All the experts I spoke with stressed that, like everything coronavirus-related, the facts are changing rapidly. “We’re reevaluating them on a daily basis and sometimes on an hourly basis to make sure that the mikveh is as safe as possible,” Segal said. Dr. Bat-Sheva Maslow, a fertility specialist and founding board member of JOWMA, said that things are shifting so quickly that what was previously a side gig has become nearly all-consuming: “It keeps me awake at night.”
Some women are not as worried about the level of cleanliness, but whether their local mikvehs will be accessible. The JTA reported last week that the Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel, in New York, is enforcing a complete lockdown, including closing their mikvehs. Women undergoing fertility treatments, in particular, worry that if their mikveh closes, they’ll miss a window in their cycle (not to mention the money spent on a treatment).
While many men’s mikvehs have already closed in the US and abroad, Dr. Grumet is confident that in Israel, at least, the women’s mikvehs will remain open. “The Ministry of Health have known how to close a lot of things,” she told me. “But they honestly believe the women’s mikvehs are still safe, otherwise they wouldn’t have left them open.” Dr. Maslow thinks they should remain open in the United States, as well, though she admits to wavering. “As long as we can keep the mikveh open in a safe manner, I think that it behooves us to try.”
But even with the reassurance of a rabbi or a healthcare professional, many women remain uncomfortable with the idea.
“This virus, we don’t understand it so well,” a friend in Brooklyn who asked to be identified as Rachel told me (many of whom requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic). She is currently in self-imposed quarantine at home with her family, and as her mikveh date approached, she became increasingly worried about going. She asked multiple rabbis, who said medical professionals had assured them it was fine; one suggested her concern “might be a psychological thing.”
Initially she felt her worries were being dismissed and diminished. “I usually can reframe a lot of problematic things within Orthodoxy to feel empowering, but I’ve never felt the weight of the patriarchy as heavily as I do now,” she told me. But she eventually opted to go, using the precautions outlined by many of the advocacy organizations. “It felt kind like a murder scene the way I entered and left without a trace. But a holy one!”
On Facebook groups for frum women, the issue is hotly debated, with some saying they trust the standard advice, and others saying they weren’t convinced others would follow it, or would go to the mikveh when they had the virus but were asymptomatic and didn’t realize they were contagious.
“If someone comes knowingly sick (which if it hasn’t happened yet definitely WILL) and gets others sick simply by breathing on them/coughing on them, disinfecting will do nothing,” Reena Furst from Crown Heights wrote in one forum.
Other women I spoke to said they had manipulated their birth control to circumvent menstruation and thus the mikveh entirely. “I’ve been militant about timing of taking the pill, even more than usual,” said a young woman from Brooklyn, who asked to remain anonymous. “I would be very concerned with having to prepare and dip in a space that is being used by others, however hygienic the mikveh is, and however chlorinated the water may be.”
According to one source in the rabbinic world, who wished to remain anonymous, rabbis are currently conferring with religious obstetricians, asking them to prescribe birth control to their patients and instructing those patients to skip the placebo dosages so they avoid menstruating all together. Maslow was broadly supportive of the idea: “[Provided you have no contraindications] it’s not unsafe to take [birth control] for an extended period of time. It decreases the chances that you will need to use the mikveh, and it also decreases the burden on the community.”
Shayna Abramson, a Jerusalem-based blogger, described her mikveh visit with agony. As she is trying to conceive, she opted to immerse, but left horrified: the staff as blasé about her desire to make an appointment and be the first immersion of the day, didn’t allow her to enter the water directly, and offered only platitudinous promises that the water was “pure.”
“The experience was frightening enough that I will try very hard not to go to mikveh again while the coronavirus rages,” Abramson wrote in the Times of Israel. “I am already looking into other viable halachic options from people I respect.”
She also cited just-released statistics from the Ministry of Health that said 16 women have contracted coronavirus after mikveh usage––accounting for about 1% of infections in Israel-–and that many more have had to quarantine because they used the facilities on the same days as the infected.
In conjunction with the Center for Women’s Justice, a legal advocacy organization for women in Israel, Abramson hosted a webinar in which she outlined the lack of helpful rabbinic responsa on the topic, the power imbalance between mikveh attendants and users, and the anger she felt at watching the establishment summon “rabbinic creativity” for other religious obligations (read: those incumbent on men) and neglecting to do the same for women’s mikveh usage.
“Now what maybe might have seemed like an abstract issue or an issue for feminists is becoming a public health crisis for all of Israel,” she said.
In response to the outbreak, Rabbanit Dr. Chana Adler Lazarovits and Rabbanit Sarah Segel-Katz, both ordained to rule on matters of family purity, published an opinion in which they outlined previous Ministry of Health failures to oversee mikveh cleanliness, and concluded that because no one can with any certainty ensure mikveh usage is safe, women should not immerse at all, and therefore couples should remain physically separate indefinitely.
“It is with great sorrow that we have no other recourse but to conclude that if a woman cannot immerse in the mikveh because of risk to her health, the period of being forbidden to her husband should be extended until the end of the outbreak,” they wrote. They signed their opinion, “Tearfully.” (The Health Ministry has not responded to their letter.)
One woman utilizing that option is Ma’ayan Seligsohn, a rebbetzin in Riverdale, New York. On Wednesday, Seligsohn posted on Facebook saying that she said she would abstain from going to the mikveh for the duration of the pandemic, and rely on nonsexual touch and masturbation for physical pleasure.
Seligsohn told me she wanted to bring this discussion out into the open. “I got frustrated that I was having these conversations about what people’s private practices were that weren’t being reflected publicly, and I think it harms us as women,” she said. (Many of those who responded were supportive, she said, but others suggested that as a member of a rabbinic community, she should have “used [her] back channels.”)
Many of the Jewish medical professionals and educators I spoke to downplayed these concerns. “What has happened at least [in Israel] on social media, there have been people in the community and certain individuals who have raised doubts about whether the procedures are being kept,” Dr. Grumet said.
Others reiterated the idea that risk is inherent in everything we do right now. “Even if you locked yourself in your home, you can’t eliminate risk,” Dr. Lerner said. Dr. Glatt was equally succinct: “There can be as close to zero risk [at the mikveh] as possible. It’s an essential part of life and not something we can easily dispense of.” (The non-Jewish professionals I spoke to were less enthusiastic: “My response would be to avoid,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of health science at Ball State University.)
This is in spite of the fact that in the United States, the situation has the potential to be more unstable than it is in Israel, because there is no centralized body at all that monitors mikvaot. Institutions can write up all the guidelines they want, but there is little they can do to ensure they’re being followed. Everything from the level of chlorination in the water to the standard cleanliness of the showers and surfaces are the sole responsibility of the attendant and others who oversee the facility.
“Most mikva’ot do end up having some sort of national affiliation where information is shared, but there is true that there is no national standard,” said Atara Segal, a Los Angeles-based yoatzet. “This is why it’s valuable to seek out a mikveh with a dedicated yoatzot on staff, who is up-to-date on both halakhic rulings and on best practices. and to encourage women to ask questions. “Find out about appointment coordination. Find out about water-changing. I think it’s important to always make sure that you’re guided by scientific evidence and not by hearsay.” Detractors, however, say this
Dr. Maslow says that while talking over the issue with women, she’s come to realize that the systemic issues at coming to the fore go beyond what we’re facing right now.
“I think we’re unearthing a discomfort that people have with their relationship to or the oversight of the mikveh that has nothing to do with coronavirus,” she told me. “People feel there’s not enough transparency over the guiding principle over each individual mikveh. It weighs heavily on me. This is an opportunity for communities to repair some of that trust.”
Carrie Bornstein, executive director of the Mayyim Hayyim outside Boston, said her organization was listening carefully to the broader conversation. “I would love to see [rabbinic rulings on this],” she said, noting that she knew of some rabbis working on the issue right now. “I believe that there is a way to figure this out that doesn’t leave couples physically stranded from each other at this time.” Mayyim Hayyim, along with Rising Tide, a pluralistic network of mikvehs throughout the United States, will offer its own live info session online on April 1st.
But while we wait for a definitive ruling, another group of women, myself included, looks to a wilder answer: The ocean.
Technically, any body of water that is connected to a natural spring qualifies as a mikveh––ponds, lakes and rivers aren’t always viable, but the ocean is. It’s not a perfect solution, though: there are long Talmudic discussions about when it’s acceptable to put yourself in danger, but nowhere do the sages state outright that being pulled out by a riptide is a better fate than contracting a potentially fatal respiratory virus.
Though many women I interviewed said they had considered the ocean, even the most sympathetic yoetzet and doctors I spoke to weren’t keen on the idea. “We don’t know anything about [the relationship between the virus] and the ocean, at this point,” Segal said. “There’s drowning. Cold water. There’s real risk.”
Carrie Bornstein added that some public beaches are currently closed to prevent people from mingling. Even the free thinkers on the CWJ call were aghast (“pikuach nefesh!” one yelped, referring to the Hebrew term for risk of death).
Thankfully, I’m not currently in a position where I have to decide where to immerse.
But, in the interest of answering Seligsohn’s call for candor, I’ll admit I already feel the ocean calling me. I’m probably biased, though: I was a scuba diver in a past life, and I’m a fan of wild swimming and the veteran of a Polar Bear plunge. Cold water diving invigorated me long before Gwyneth Paltrow met Wim Hof.
As I enter the water in this imaginary immersion, I will think of the French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle, who wrote about the human need for risk and who drowned trying to rescue two children from choppy sea water in 2017, and of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s pronouncement that by submerging ourselves in water, we are forcing ourselves “to recognize our existential estrangement from the physical universe.”
I will remember that Atara Segal told me she thought that the larger Jewish community needed to summon “a tremendous amount of empathy” for those women struggling with the mikveh right now –– and hope those in power forgive me for going rogue.