MIT grad brings mikve observance into the age of technology

Today, MikvahCalendar.com has 65,000 users.

Rivkah Bloom: Enhancing Judaism via apps (photo credit: ELAZAR BLOOM)
Rivkah Bloom: Enhancing Judaism via apps
(photo credit: ELAZAR BLOOM)
Two casual conversations with guests at the family Shabbat table shaped the last 12 years of Rivkah Bloom’s life.
It started in 2005, with a Shabbat guest who, at 37, was newly observant. Discussing the mitzva of family purity, the guest expressed frustration about how complicated it was to keep track of the dates of a woman’s menstrual cycle related to using the mikve. She unwittingly inspired Bloom to create MikvahCalendar.com.
Bloom grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was the only Jewish pupil in her grade at the college-prep school she attended until eighth grade. Although her family is Torah observant today, she didn’t know a lot about Judaism as a child. Worried that she wasn’t going to remain connected to Judaism as an adult, her parents sent her to a Jewish sleep-away camp in the summers. That camp sparked her desire to keep growing.
“I really had a passion for what I saw there. Everything was beautiful to me. Every year I wanted to observe more and more,” she says.
Back in North Carolina, Bloom was a math and science whiz. She attended mathematics competitions and studied higher-level math in classes full of boys. Even though on one level, she “loved it,” it was socially challenging to be the only Shabbat observant student in a school where everyone else went to football games on Friday nights.
“I lived in two different worlds,” Bloom recalls.
With her family’s full support, she transferred to a Jewish high school in Pittsburgh. In the process of her personal religious growth, her parents and four siblings also became Torah observant.
How did she maintain her high level of learning math while attending an all-girls Chabad high school? The administration gave her special permission to enroll in classes at a nearby women’s college. She also spent summers in math and science camps. At this point, her Jewish identity was secure.
“I knew who I was more. I looked different, but I was confident in who I was. They thought it was very cool.”
With all that advanced education, Bloom graduated from high school in three years. At age 17, she studied for a year in Israel at Machon Shoshanat Yerushalayim. During that year in Jerusalem, she was accepted to MIT, where she majored in computer science and electrical engineering, followed by a master’s degree in computer science.
For a math and science prodigy like Bloom, MIT was a great fit. But there was more to her college choice. There weren’t many religious Jewish students at MIT, but the ones who were there “were very committed. There was one dorm floor with a kosher kitchen where all the religious Jews lived,” she says.
Marriage, a move to New York and a high-pressured job in the financial services industry followed in quick succession. Then Bloom had the first of her five children, a son who needed a lot of medical attention.
“That experience was a breakthrough decision to quit my job. Thank God, his heart healed on its own. It was this experience that changed me from being a career woman to prioritizing family first,” she recounts.
Her husband got a job working as a rabbi in Boca Raton, Florida, so the young family left New York and headed south. In Boca, Bloom continued with her devotion to math and science, this time as a freelancer, working on a computer software database and tutoring students for their college entrance exams.
It was there, in 2005, at their Shabbat table, where inspiration hit.
“I got excited about the idea! I could take what I was really good at, and my education, to help Judaism. This was a unique thing that I could do,” she explains.
In the initial research phase, Bloom called a number of rabbis to see if her idea was possible. She didn’t get a lot of encouragement at first. Then she connected with Rabbi Fishel Jacobs, an expert in the laws of family purity, who said, “We can and should!”
Bloom partnered with a former colleague at MIT, and they began what eventually became MikvahCalendar.com. Their goals were simple. They wanted the algorithm to be 100% correct. They wanted the calendar to be simple to use. And they wanted to develop something that could be used by all women, regardless of any differences in customs.
They launched the program in 2009 after going through “extremely thorough testing. We were very sure that everything was being calculated correctly,” she says.
Indeed, no user has ever found a bug in the program.
Today, MikvahCalendar.com has 65,000 users. Approximately 15,000 are from Israel. The program is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Russian. The program can send the user text messages in her mother tongue for every stage of the process related to mikve observance.
“Every day we have more people who sign up,” Bloom proudly reports. “Now the professionals [who instruct new brides] are telling people to use it. People are still taught to calculate by hand. MikvahCalendar.com is a tool that enhances the observance.”
In 2011, MikvahCalendar.com was released as an app for the Android and iPhone. Bloom, who spends at least three hours a day guiding users and improving the product, says that she and her partner are always adding features and languages based on user requests. A new website with new features is scheduled to launch this summer.
Inspiration hit Bloom a second time, again thanks to a Shabbat guest. This time it was a newly married couple, both of whom had grown up observant but had drifted. Once married, they committed to keeping Shabbat, kosher and the laws of family purity. They confided to Bloom that they drew the line at bringing the wife’s questionable menstrual stains to a rabbi.
Eventually, they found a rabbi who agreed that they could send him a picture.
“People are deciding the law for themselves because they are so uncomfortable taking their stains to a rabbi. This couple asked me if there was a way to create an app that would make it anonymous and also that the answer would be accurate,” she says.
That was the beginning of the newly released Tahor app, online at tahorapp.com. Bloom was clear from the beginning that she wanted to work with Orthodox rabbis to ensure that the app would provide accurate images that allowed for a correct decision according to Jewish law.
Using the iPhone app, which has multiple safeguards in place to assure that the image is accurate, a woman can send a picture of a stain to a rabbi anonymously. The app is free to download; sending a question is treated as an in-app purchase.
The rabbis have no access to any identifying information about the woman. The rabbi and the questioner communicate by texts sent through the database. Although there has been some controversy, mostly from rabbis who are concerned that the app will replace them, the rabbis who support the project explained to Bloom that 90% of the time, the answer is very clear. When the answer is not clear, the user is advised to take the actual cloth to a local rabbi.
There is currently a small number of rabbis answering questions generated by the Tahor app. Bloom anticipates announcing the addition of a Sephardic rabbi very soon.
User Chava Erica Shapiro says, “Historically, women would only go to the rabbi in extreme cases. With this app, women have the opportunity to reclaim their ownership of these laws. That’s a good thing. It’s the way God intended it.”
Bloom concludes by saying, “I feel privileged to have been able to help the people that I helped so far. I get a lot of suggestions for new apps. I want to work on things that are inspirational and that I have a passion for. It sounds like what I’m meant to do. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”


Tags mikveh mikva