Politics in the mikve

Education can also help to begin the process of transforming the concept of a mikve attendant from a halachic gatekeeper to someone who facilitates a woman’s experience.

By NAOMI MARMON-GRUMET
November 23, 2013 22:53
4 minute read.
Mikve

Mikve 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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MK Aliza Lavie and ITIM have put forward a bill in the Knesset that will make it illegal for mikve (ritual bath) attendants to question women about their religious practice. I’d like to take the opportunity to describe where this bill is coming from, and another necessary response.

The Eden Center’s mission is to enrich and empower women about mikve in a holistic fashion, and to ensure that the mikve is a warm, welcoming and respectful space, which allows everyone to have an experience that is pleasant and personally meaningful. We do this through educational programming including workshops and a public lecture series, and hope to build a mikve center in Jerusalem reflecting these values. Last night we held a lecture at The Eden Center. Afterward someone mentioned the bill, and a few women instantly responded with stories from the past month – of attendants asking when and how many bedikot (internal checks to assure there is no menstrual bleeding) the woman did, and whether a woman had done a hefsek (internal exam which officially marks the end of bleeding) The attendant claimed that she can’t say “kasher” if the woman hasn’t done these because she will suffer Divine retribution for wrongly sanctioning the immersion.

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One woman was asked if her freckles were make-up or permanent – and the attendant tried to rub them off. Another woman was questioned about her choice of birth control.

Unfortunately, among the 850 officially employed mikve ladies in the country, not all are sensitive to how these things might offend, and where they overstep the woman’s personal authority. Many attendants feel that it is their responsibility, rather than a woman’s, to decide what is appropriate – and can refuse entry because of a woman’s personal status or the psak, or religious ruling, she chooses to follow.

From the discussion in the Knesset (which I attended), the bill is intended to prevent attendants from being able to turn someone away (it’s a public institution in Israel), and from asking questions like if/when she did a hefsek, her marital status, and more, which are insensitive or intrusive.

The proposed legislation is welcome, but unless it is accompanied by a deep educational process I fear it will be met with resistance from the mikve attendants, who will likely see it as an attempt by a secular government to intrude in their holy work.

Legislation cannot make people more sensitive; education can, and education can also help them to understand the underpinnings of this law. The mikve attendants need to understand that the bill is not a threat nor an attack on their holy work, but rather an attempt to respect the privacy and dignity of thousands of women who come to the mikve with different priorities, yet consider their immersion vitally important.



A little background would be helpful. Most of the mikve attendants are haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. They grew up in an educational system devalues personal autonomy and places ultimate value on strict adherence to authority.

Their own self-perception as well as their perception of their roles in the mikve and vis-à-vis the women who enter are often dramatically different from those of the women they are paid to service. Education can help them to be made aware of the feelings and sensitivities of the other side, whose concerns are so far from their own that they just don’t relate to these things as a problem.

(I believe that it is the awareness of the complexity of this problem and respect for the difficult work attendants do which prompted MK Lavie and ITIM to phrase the bill in a way that calls to task the rabbis who oversee the mikve, and not the attendants themselves).

Education can also help to begin the process of transforming the concept of a mikve attendant from a halachic gatekeeper to someone who facilitates a woman’s experience.

More than that, attendants have the rare opportunity to witness (and, as appropriate, extend a hand) to things that would otherwise go unnoticed – whether signs of abuse, a growth on a woman’s back, or fertility challenges and miscarriage.

An education program like this already exists and has been implemented in a number of locales for the mikve attendants, with great success. The Eden Center has developed a course which has been extremely successful in extending that kind of sensitivity (see Judy Siegel- Itzkovich’s article on the program in The Jerusalem Post, called “More than a mikve.” Attendants learn communication skills and become very aware of different needs, learning to accept women from across the religious spectrum. At the same time, we give the attendants general knowledge and tools for identifying abuse and domestic violence, postpartum depression, breast health and infertility, as well as issues of physical, emotional and sexual health, so they can be community resources.

We also point out that while some women love being asked a checklist of items, others just want to be left alone to do their own thing. And through the program, we have seen incredible change.

When we explain the complexity of feelings that come from a range of women and different life situations, they begin to understand their part in making all women feel comfortable and respected in this most precious institution.

We hope to bring this program to communities throughout Israel – and even to the Diaspora – because we see how effective it has been in helping women in need get sensitive assistance, and helping attendants understand their job in completely new ways.

The author is the founder of The Eden Center, and director of the Training Program for Mikve Attendants. She holds a PhD in Sociology. Her dissertation explored the meaning and practice of mikve in the Dati Leumi/Modern Orthodox community. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children.


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