Troubled waters

Troubled waters

October 9, 2009 06:12

At the renovated Batei Rand Mikve (ritual bath), a plaque hangs on the waiting room wall for women about to commence the final stages of their pre-mikve preparation to read and contemplate: "She emerges from the mikve with the power to foster harmony and to be a source of unity to her family and to all creation." Perhaps for those who use Batei Rand, a luxurious complex located in the heart of Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, the above statement rings true. But for many women who frequent more rundown mikvaot in other neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the experience is less enjoyable, making it difficult for them to imagine that a monthly visit could have much spiritual significance. When visiting Israel from Australia last year, Sarah Friedman went to the Katamon mikve, considered by some to be one of the nicer Jerusalem mikvaot, and was appalled by its conditions, which she viewed as far worse than those at her local mikve in Melbourne. "The bathroom was terrible, with mold and crumbling grouting, hairs in the bath and soaking wet flip-flops and a robe that had just been used by the previous woman. The floor was covered in water, and the partitions - not walls - were paper thin: I could hear everything going on in the whole mikve. If it wasn't a mitzva, I would have run a million miles away," she says. Friedman's experience, and the experiences of others who have expressed frustration at the current state of Jerusalem mikvaot, reflects a larger problem - the lack of government funding available to undertake much-needed renovation projects for Jerusalem's 35 public mikvaot. The Jerusalem Religious Council requires that women pay between NIS 20 and NIS 50 NIS per visit to the mikve - depending on whether they use the bath before immersing - an amount which, according to Rabbi Menahem Blumental, head of the council's mikvaot division, doesn't come close to meeting the costs of running the service. "Mikvaot cost a lot of money to run. The payments cover only a third of the costs… and the other two-thirds is split between the municipality and the Religious Council," he says. However, even with the payments from users of the mikve and the combined funding from the Religious Council and the Jerusalem Municipality, there is still not enough money for renovation. "The Religious Council fulfills its regular financial obligations, but renovations are another story. The council doesn't have enough money for the various renovations, which range from a paint job to more serious projects, such as pulling down a building and starting from scratch. Private entities are undertaking this task," says Friedman. For two to three months in 2008, mikve attendants were not paid, a situation which, according to one mikve attendant who did not wish to be named, has been rectified with a change of management in Jerusalem's Religious Council. Rabbi Yitzhak Hanau, the executive director of the Department of Construction of Religious Facilities for the municipality, says that in theory the responsibility for Jerusalem mikvaot is split. The municipality is responsible for building the mikvaot and the Religious Council is responsible for running them, including cleaning, paying wages and renovations. However, during Uri Lupolianski's term as mayor the municipality started to become involved in large renovation projects, even though it is only responsible for building mikvaot. "The municipality realized it [mikvaot] was an important service that the public needed and therefore became involved in renovations." Some of the city's projects have included renovating the mikve in the Katamonim, a NIS 200,000 project, and one in Neveh Ya'acov, for NIS 1.4 million. This year it will be renovating a mikve in the Old City, a project that will cost NIS 6m. In 2008 the municipality spent NIS 1m. on renovations. This year it is spending NIS 1.5m. and the same amount for 2010. This does not include the funding that will go towards building new mikvaot or the Old City project. After Succot the municipality and the Religious Council will be meeting to discuss further details relating to financing renovation projects. From next Monday, some of the mikve services, like cleaning and renovations, will be outsourced to private companies to improve the standard of the services provided to the public. "The state of some of the mikvaot is really terrible, but the situation has improved already. The Religious Council let many mikve workers go [for financial reasons], which is bad. But the positive aspect is that the money is being used to improve the mikvaot through privatization," says Hanau. WHEN ASKED whether he thought it was problematic that private funding was required to renovate mikvaot rather than the state covering the costs, Blumental was adamant that this is an issue that reflects a broader problem in Israel, namely that the government does not have enough resources to provide much-needed social services. "Why do you ask just about mikvaot?" he asked. "Do you know how many places give people food rather than the state? It's a huge problem. The state can't even fulfill its obligation to feed the poor. It is really bad, but that's the situation." Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, founding director of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage, says that the best solution to the deteriorating conditions of mikvaot is fund-raising and community action. "I would not wait for the money to come from the municipal authorities, unless the point is to do that on principle. It is true that it is a public building and that it should be taken care of by public funds, but if people really want it to happen and don't need to stand on principle, it makes sense to raise money from other sources. If people can be patient and speak to the right people, they should be able to get public funds. Unless they just don't exist." Annie Hier, who did the fund-raising for the Batei Rand mikve and is now collecting donations for the Rehavia mikve on Rehov Ha'ari, believes that communities have a responsibility to fund their local mikvaot and will ultimately benefit from the investments they make. "I am of the belief that it [funding] should come from the community. Coming from the States, where the community supports such things, I think that if the community would get involved, it would make a difference. I think the community has a tremendous responsibility to maintain mikvaot financially. If mikvaot had more money, the community would use them. It would be put to good use. It would be cleaner and the staff would get more than minimum wage." WALKING INTO Batei Rand, which was renovated four years ago thanks to Hier's fund-raising efforts and the funding of a private donor, one is struck by its exquisite features, a refreshing change from the interiors of other Jerusalem mikvaot. The seven-room building - one room is especially for brides to use before their wedding - has granite porcelain tiled floors and golden-toned detailing on the walls. Ideally, if there is enough money for it, Hier would like a sound system throughout the building so that women can listen to music while preparing for immersion. Sara Kadir, who has been one of Batei Rand's attendants for the past 15 years, says that prior to the renovation, about 10 women would come each night. Now the average is 30 to 40. "People come because it is nice. We welcome them. A bride comes for the first time and sees that it is nice and keeps on coming," she says. Jerusalem resident Lisa Sher describes the appeal of the Batei Rand mikve. "The Nahlaot mikve was actually my first mikve experience, and I was very impressed with the facilities. It is new, very clean and the ladies are friendly. They even gave me a "wedding gift" on my first visit - a framed Birkat Habayit [blessing for the home] picture." Ner-David says that although there are many beautiful mikvaot in the Diaspora, ones like Batei Rand are less common in Israel. "The mikvaot that I have been to [in the US] have all been more than decent, with plush towels, a reading/waiting room, all kinds of toiletries, hair dryers available, carpets and nicely furnished. That is pretty standard there, whereas if you have that here, it is exceptional." Emphasizing the difference between Israeli and American mikvaot, in particular her experience at the Katamon mikve, Sher says that "for Israeli standards, it's probably normal. For Americans it may seem below par." However, even Batei Rand has the potential to deteriorate if the building is not maintained. "We were getting a lot of complaints that it wasn't being kept in good condition, so before Pessah some members of the community volunteered to be the cleaning crew," says Hier. "It really is going to depend on the community to be involved and to make an effort to maintain it aesthetically," she insists. HIER'S OTHER project, the Rehavia mikve renovation, is due to begin in the coming weeks, pending the finalization of paperwork. Walking into the building, one immediately feels the stark contrast between its interior and that of Batei Rand. The tiles are cracked, the paint is peeling, and mold is growing on the ceiling. The rooms and showers are very small, and there is little ventilation. While I was there, the front door was left open to allow fresh air to come into the room, and women and men passed by on their way to use the adjacent mikve for their dishes, compromising the privacy of the mikve's users. One man peered in innocently and asked a question relating to immersing his dishes. Hier says that moving the mikve for the dishes, as well as moving the entrance to the mikve to the other side of the building, will rectify this problem. "We are taking all these issues into account," she says. Despite the dilapidated state of the mikve, it is apparent that the attendants do their best to keep the place clean. The attendant on duty, who did not wish to be named, said that despite the need for renovation, attendance at the mikve averaged 30 women a night. "People love it. It also is open until 11 p.m., which is very convenient for women." In addition, attempts were made by the Baka community to raise funds to renovate its local mikve. An online letter to residents of Baka and the surrounding neighborhoods calls for citizens to make donations, saying that the mikve is "unhygienic and unpleasant for women to use." Some of the problems listed in the document include a leaking roof - mikve attendants need umbrellas in the building in winter; broken windows and birds nesting in the rooms; moldy and broken tiles; exposed electrical wires and large chunks of plaster that have fallen from the walls. One of the people involved in coordinating the fund-raising effort for the mikve would not comment, saying only that "things are kind of at a standstill now." Blumental, however, confirmed the dire situation that the Baka mikve is in. "I wouldn't let my wife go there," he says. "It needs to be pulled down and built from scratch. There were a few groups that tried to do fund-raising, but they failed. Nothing came of it." Blumental revealed plans to build a new mikve in the area and to return that land to the municipality. "The new one will be beautiful and is in its planning stages." However, Baka residents will have to wait another few years until the new one is built and, in the meantime, go to mikvaot in surrounding neighborhoods, a frustration to many of Baka's residents. It is especially difficult when a woman needs to immerse on a Friday night and has to walk at least half an hour to the closest one. As well as individuals who have taken the initiative, organizations such as Mikve Mayim Haim, a registered non-profit organization, are involved in raising the necessary funds to renovate Israeli mikvaot. The nonprofit does a combination of fund-raising, construction of mikvaot and the renovation of old mikvaot that have become unusable or not kosher. "We have the ability to do the technical aspects in a way that meets the halachic requirements. There is no point having the money if you don't know how to execute the project in a sustainable manner that meets these requirements," says Rabbi Mordechai Kilav, director of the organization. Recently, Mikve Mayim Haim raised money for and completed the renovations of the mikve in Kiryat Hayovel. "No one wanted to go because it was too small," Kilav says. Because of space limitations, the Kiryat Hayovel mikve had only one preparation room with a bath, meaning that women would have to wait a long time for their turn. Mikve Mayim Haim designed the addition of three bathrooms. For some Jerusalem women, the mikve experience is determined by the attitude of the mikve attendant and the overall atmosphere of the mikve rather than the mikve's interior. Miriam Goldstein, a newly married Jerusalem resident, described her uncomfortable experience at a Jerusalem mikve, due largely to the overly scrupulous mikve attendant. "The mikve lady inspected every single finger and toe, and even tried to clean a little piece of dirt I had in my toes!" she says. "She then threw a towel on my head when I started saying the bracha, even though I don't cover my hair on a daily basis, and I was completely naked." Goldstein chooses to go to the Katamon mikve, even though it is not newly renovated, simply because of the welcoming nature of the attendants, as well as the fact that she has not heard good things about the Baka mikve, which is closer to her home. "The Katamon mikve is fine… It is not redone but feels pretty clean. The mikve ladies are also sweet," she says. According to Ner-David, more women would go to the mikve if they were satisfied with its atmosphere. "I would say that more women would probably go to the mikve if they were attractive places to go. My vision is not only about the physical conditions of the mikvaot but also about whether the feeling there is inviting or alienating," she says.

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