(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Dozens of men's mikvaot (ritual baths) across the nation are a potential health hazard due to poor accessibility, United Hatzalah of Israel, the haredi rapid-response first aid organization, has warned
"If, God forbid, there is a major crisis in a mikve, such as a gas explosion, poisoned water or a collapsed roof, I don't want to think of the consequences," Hatzalah spokesman Yerach Toker said on Wednesday.
Hatzalah volunteers, he said, had routinely run into serious obstacles that slow down first aid crews when responding to emergencies that take place inside men's mikvaot.
The most common emergencies are heart attacks, drownings and slipping accidents, Toker said. Also, the steamy, humid environment occasionally causes dizziness and even a temporary loss of consciousness.
Hatzalah crews complain that after arriving on the scene they are often delayed many minutes at the entrance to the mikve by barriers that prevent non-members from getting inside. The most common obstacles are pay-activated or card-activated turnstiles and doors.
"Just a few weeks ago a Hatzalah crew was called to evacuate a man from a mikve who complained of chest pains," Toker said. "But the volunteers were held up close to half an hour. Fearing that he had suffered a heart attack, the man was prevented from walking. But since the only available exit was via a turnstile, it was impossible to remove the man.
"An emergency door was blocked by a closet filled with towels and clothes. But even after the things blocking the door were moved, it was impossible to open the locked door. It took another 10 minutes until someone with a key showed up."
Rabbi Menachem Blumenthal, head of the Jerusalem Religious Council's mikvaot division, who is responsible for 27 men's mikvaot, said the problems facing first aid organizations were not new.
"We are aware of the difficulties in getting in and out of mikvaot that are governed by electronic turnstiles," he said. "But an adequate solution is provided as long as there is a caretaker with a key to the emergency door on the premises during opening hours."
Blumenthal said while it was commonly believed that hassidim and Sephardim are the primary users of men's mikvaot, more Lithuanian haredi men have begun using them.
Immersing oneself in a mikve before Shaharit (morning prayers) is considered an act of added sanctity and preparation. Streams of Judaism more aware of Kabbala (the mystical, esoteric aspects of Judaism) emphasize the purification process undergone by immersing in a mikve.