(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.