Sunday night was mikveh night for C., an Orthodox Jewish woman in Manhattan — it was time for her monthly immersion in the ritual bath. The practice is a foundational part of the Orthodox Jewish family, allowing husbands and wives to resume sexual activity after a woman’s menstrual period.
But C. — who asked that her name be withheld for privacy concerns — was afraid to walk to the mikveh at night, with the social unrest that was unraveling on the streets of New York City. After consulting a rabbi, she got in a car the next day and drove an hour north to Monsey, where a friend arranged for her to use a private home mikveh during day hours, allowing her to get home before nightfall.
As synagogues, community centers and schools closed in March with the spread of coronavirus, the mikveh was the last religious institution that was kept open in many Orthodox communities — amid concerns about potential transmission of the virus, with mikvehs instituting strict health guidelines.
But now, as cities across the country institute strict curfews — traditional mikveh immersions, generally done after nightfall, are now impossible. Some women are now not only afraid to immerse because of potential infection — but are afraid to leave their homes, concerned about being stopped by police and encountering violent looters.
Communities are finding various solutions for women to be able to immerse. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Orthodox rabbis are giving a rare dispensation for daytime immersions — a move which has its source in the Talmud, which permits going to the mikveh during the day when in dangerous situations, such as “thieves” at night.
In Los Angeles, too, where curfew starts even earlier, at six in the evening, the central mikveh has been closed in the evenings entirely — women are being instructed to go during the day.
Other communities are working with local law enforcement to allow women to go out to mikvehs — as well as, in some places, men to attend late evening services. In Kew Garden Hills, Queens, assemblyman Dan Rosenthal said that he “has been in contact with the 107th precinct about going to prayers or the mikveh during curfew,” and that “patrol officers have been briefed about religious practices.” This doesn’t, however, solve the problem for all community members. Concerned about black community members who may be afraid to go to the mikveh during curfew, mental health counselor Shifra Rabinowitz posted in an Orthodox women’s Facebook group: “If any Queens-based black female mikveh users would value a white woman to escort them due to concerns about safety, let me know.”
In Chicago, the local mikveh association sent out an email to community members saying that they have “been in touch with the police,” and that a mikveh visit does “not constitute a violation of the Chicago curfew.” “In the event that you do get pulled over going to or from the mikveh, just tell them this is for a mikveh visit which is allowed as per Sergeant Sofere,” the memo stated. “The officers have instructions to allow you to proceed.”
In Far Rockaway, N.Y., the mikveh is deemed “an essential practice,” according to a statement put out by a local Jewish safety patrol group. Women are directed to only use the mikveh closest to their home, to limit travel distance, and are being given a letter to present to police if they are pulled over.
With the pandemic, “women were terrified to go to the mikveh, despite the strict protocols that were instituted and are still in place,” said Liora Refua, an educator in Los Angeles. “And just as it was starting to get a little easier, we get hit with the current civil unrest, which for long-time native Angelenos like myself, brings up a lot of memories from the 1992 LA riots. The mikvaot in the city have to operate during the day due to safety concerns, a heter [religious allowance] that I always knew existed, but never thought I’d see come into action in our day and age.”
Nightfall brings curfews — and fear of going to the mikveh
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.