Ramat Beit Shemesh residents jostle over control of mikva

Haredi bath attendants are imposing their stringent beliefs on all women at the ritual bath.

April 25, 2010 04:47
Ramat Beit Shemesh residents jostle over control of mikva

mikveh mikvah 224 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Friction between two religious communities in Ramat Beit Shemesh has surfaced once again, this time over who should take responsibility for the mikve (ritual bath) in a neighborhood that is equally inhabited by both haredi and  national religious communities, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The tension is focusing on a mikve that opened roughly two years ago on Nahal Dolev and was divided in two last summer by the city’s Religious Council so each community could follow its own interpretation of Jewish law.

However, according to women who came forward to the Post this week, and to numerous posts on a Ramat Beit Shemesh community Web site, haredi “balaniot” – bath attendants whose job is to check that women are properly prepared for their immersion – have now taken over the entire mikve and are making life unpleasant for women who do not share their more stringent beliefs.

“The mikve is supposed to be an uplifting and spiritual experience, but since these balaniot have taken over, I know many women who have chosen to go to other neighborhoods,” said one Ramat Beit Shemesh resident, who asked to remain anonymous.

She told the Post that during her last visit to the Dolev mikve, the attendant had scrubbed her elbows so hard to remove the dried skin that she was in pain for many days afterwards. Other women described similar incidents, with some women leaving the establishment bleeding and in serious physical pain.

“I have been going to the mikve for more than 13 years, and that experience has never happened to me before,” said the woman. “Women go to the mikve to cleanse themselves and so they can be with their husbands; there is no reason for them to go there and get hurt.”

She asserted that it was “all part of an attempt by the haredi community to take over the area.”

According to city councilman Shlomo Lerner, head of the National Religious Party in Beit Shemesh, this woman’s interpretation of the situation is not far off the mark.

Lerner believes the mikve issue is symptomatic of renewed friction that has started to build up between the haredi and national religious communities.

“It is one small but very, very important part of the picture,” Lerner told the Post.

Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, the neighborhood that surrounds the Dolev mikve, is divided into roughly one-third national religious, one-third English-speaking religious immigrants, including some haredim, and one-third Israeli-born haredim, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi.

“Basically, for the past few years, everyone has more or less got on well together,” continued Lerner. “Each community has stuck to its own synagogues, schools and other institutions.”

However, he added, “there are certain rabbis from the haredi community who are not satisfied with [the status quo] and they have been trying for a while to impose their own rules on the mikve.”

The reason, claimed Lerner, is that they are fearful their followers will take on less-observant rituals. During the months the mikve was divided equally between the two communities, more than two-thirds of the women, including some of the haredi women, preferred being under the less stringent, national religious balaniot.

“These rabbis are worried about that,” said Lerner. “It makes them nervous, and now they want to control the whole institution. They think if they do not control the whole place, then some borderline haredim will become national religious.”

Lerner also believes that the haredi rabbis were given the go-ahead by Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, a member of Shas, to fully take over the mikve.

In recent months, the long-serving head of the city’s Religious Council from the National Religious Party was ousted and replaced by a member of Shas.

All are working together with key haredi leaders in the town, charged Lerner.

“On Yom Ha’atzmaut, the mayor asked us to come back and join his coalition,” recounted Lerner. “However, in light of these events, we cannot join an administration that does not want to work together to solve this problem and behind our backs turns only to the haredi rabbis.”

A response from the Abutbul’s office, however, reiterated that the mikve was meant to be divided equally between the two communities and added that the mayor was currently looking into finding funding for an additional mikve to ease the friction in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, some women have been so perturbed by the stricter immersion rules that they have chosen to search out mikvaot further afield.

“There is a danger that women might decide not to go to the mikve at all,” pointed out Lerner. “In Ramat Beit Shemesh, there are a lot of people who are not ultra-Orthodox, but they do go to the mikve. This is very disturbing for them.”

One community activist, who preferred that her name not be used, said that besides the political haranguing or the fact that overly zealous balaniot were frightening some women away, the clandestine takeover of a public ritual bath is illegal.

“From what we understand, mikvaot are meant to be run by the Religious Council, which is appointed by the government,” she observed. “So what gives them [the haredi rabbis] the right to take over this place?”

According to the woman, “they are taking something of religious value and making it into a political fight.”

She added, “It has been proven in numbers that the majority of women in this neighborhood do not want to go through the haredi process; surely the mikve should be controlled by those who live in the actual neighborhood?”

Those protesting the new regulations at the Dolev mikve have already taken action, she said, including a letter sent this week to the Religious Affairs Ministry and an appeal to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef explaining how the new setup was turning women away.

“If these appeals are ignored, then we will just have to follow the legal route,” she said.

A representative of the haredi community declined to comment.

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