Coronavirus has particular impact on Orthodox Jewish couples

With resurgence of coronavirus infections in Israel, women considering a visit to the ritual bath must weigh marital relations and public safety

An ultra-Orthodox couple watches the sea during a storm in the Mediterranean coast of the city of Ashkelon, Israel January 19, 2018. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox couple watches the sea during a storm in the Mediterranean coast of the city of Ashkelon, Israel January 19, 2018.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israeli society has been impacted drastically by the coronavirus. Orthodox-Jewish families are particularly affected because some religious traditions are limited by social distancing.
An important aspect in the day-to-day life of an Orthodox Jew is the mikve – the ritual bath. In Orthodox tradition, any physical contact between husband and wife is forbidden during and immediately after a woman’s menstrual cycle until she is bathed by a mikve attendant.
As the number of coronavirus cases in Israel has ballooned, mikve attendance has dropped drastically due to people being forced to enter quarantine. Unable to maintain marital relations, many Orthodox women go anyway, further endangering public health.
Sara, who declined to give her last name because of the sensitivity of the issue, says her marriage has been impacted by her decision to not go.
“My husband keeps asking me to go, but I don’t feel safe going into an enclosed space with anyone not in my immediate family,” she told The Media Line. “At first, it was more of a gentle reminder, but now he is definitely frustrated with me.”
The Health Ministry has issued numerous safety regulations for the ritual bath, including a requirement for appointments and a distance of at least six feet between people. However, there is apparently no enforcement, and with the added pressures of religious beliefs and potential marital strife, some community members are concerned that the baths will end up spreading infections.
“At the very beginning [of the pandemic], there weren’t that many people who needed to be in quarantine who then had to go to the mikve,” Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, director of the Eden Center, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the mikve experience, told The Media Line.
“Now… it’s challenging,” she stated.
“[The] mikve is something that allows for intimacy to take place, so many people have learned this is not something we delay,” she continued.
“Sometimes, people feel they can break quarantine for this because it’s such an important thing and it’s a one-on-one kind of situation, but that is not the case,” she said. “You should not be leaving your house if you’re in quarantine for anything, including going to the mikve.”
Even religious leaders are suggesting that members of the community stay home.
In March, writing in “Gluya,” an online magazine founded by Rabbanit Sarah Segal-Katz for women and couples, Rabbanit Dr. Chana Adler Lazarovits and Segal-Katz wrote that mikve use should be delayed during the pandemic in cases where there is uncertainty about cleanliness.
Their opinion has not changed in the ensuing months.
“The Health Ministry is responsible for supervising the mikva’ot,” they told The Media Line, using the Hebrew plural for mikve.
“The ministry can supervise the sanitation level of the mikva’ot and ensure that the restrictions regarding social distancing and prohibiting women in quarantine from attending the mikve are complied with,” they said. “As of today, these goals are under the responsibility of the local mikve operator or attendant alone, and are not supervised by an external body.”
Citing the case of an attendant at a Jerusalem mikve who unilaterally decided that appointments were no longer necessary, Grumet says oversight is crucial to keeping the facilities safe.
“We need to make sure – both as individuals and as a society – that the regulations that have been put out by the Ministry of Health are enforced,” she stated.
“The head mikve lady in Jerusalem went against those regulations and is a paid government official,” she said. “You would think that [a] paid government official would be following the regulations put out by the government.”
Lazarovits and Segal-Katz agree.
“The conditions in many mikva’ot have improved due to public awareness,” they said. “Unfortunately, this is not the case in all the mikva’ot, so it is still necessary to find out if the current guidelines are kept in a specific mikve before the visit.”
They note that the Health Ministry, which did not respond to a request for comment by press time, does not provide such information.
“The system currently depends on trusting the specific mikve attendant,” they emphasized.
Yet there are those who insist that mikve safety during the pandemic is not of great concern.
Dr. Tova Ganzel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Institute for Advanced Torah Studies and one the first women trained as an adviser of Halakha (Jewish law), claims that Lazarovits and Segal-Katz’s written opinion is not mainstream.
“Just like any other job, you can always find people that aren’t doing everything as expected 100 percent, but I think it totally within the norm,” she told The Media Line, referring to the operation of ritual baths.
“If you look at librarians and you check the way libraries are run,” she said, “I’m sure you’ll find a few who don’t do everything exactly by the book.”
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