Jerusalem — Every two weeks Daniella Salomon, a Jerusalem-based mikvah attendant, helps women fulfill their religious obligation to immerse in a ritual bath.
After a woman emerges from the mikveh and wraps herself in a towel, Salomon said, “I keep an eye out” for anything unusual. “If I were to see a bruise on her back, I would ask if she is OK.”
Salomon, who spends a few hours a month working at the mikvah in addition to her work with a not-for-profit organization, said she would do the same if she saw a suspicious-looking mole. She explained that the mikvah “is one of the only places that certain things can be noticed, and it’s important that issues not be neglected. Maybe a woman needs encouragement to seek help but may not know who to turn to. Some women don’t know how to ask for help.”
In recent years the role of the mikvah attendant in Israel has undergone a transformation. And the change comes amid an increase in incidents of domestic violence in the Jewish state.
On the one hand, attendants, most of them state employees, have less autonomy when it comes to dictating a mikvah’s religious norms following a 2017 court ruling that allows women to immerse in the presence of someone other than an attendant, and recognizes that women can immerse according to their own customs.
Practically speaking the ruling means that “an attendant cannot demand that a woman immerse herself seven times because that’s the norm in the attendant’s community,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the nonprofit group ITIM, which petitioned the court in 2016. (The ITIM effort comes four years after the women’s forum Kolech, the Center for Women’s Justice and two unmarried women petitioned the court requiring that single women, widows and divorcees be allowed to immerse in the mikveh without any restrictions.) Nor can an attendant bar a woman wearing fake nails or cornrows from dunking in the mikvah.
“The overwhelming majority of mikvah attendants are sincere and dedicated women,” Farber emphasized, but that doesn’t give even the most well-intentioned the right to promote one set of customs or norms over others.
While the ruling may have narrowed the attendants’ role from a Jewish law perspective, most of the country’s 1,500 attendants are actually assuming more responsibility when it comes to their clients’ physical and emotional well-being.
The religious councils have always trained the attendants to follow Jewish law, but it is only during the past few years that they have learned — from courses offered by a handful of independent organizations and institutes — how to detect signs of physical abuse and medical problems like skin cancer.
Courses in sensitivity are helping them better relate to the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of their clients, including non-Orthodox ones, who come from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds, and to women with disabilities or other physical challenges.
The Jerusalem-based Eden Center, whose goal is to enhance the mikveh experience through education, is one of the facilities that offer training to attendants. Its courses relate to infertility, breast health, illness and body image and communication skills.
Naomi Marmon Grumet, the organization’s founder and director, believes the attendants have a unique role to play in the health and well-being of the more than 750,000 Israeli women who utilize mikvahs every month.
Mikvah attendants, she said, see women when they are most hopeful, sad and vulnerable. “They’re present when a woman immerses herself after having a baby or experiencing a miscarriage.”
Although many women are excited at the prospect of physically reuniting with their husbands following their menstrual cycles, Grumet noted, others dread physical intimacy due to spousal abuse, sexual dysfunction or chronic infertility.
To me it’s obvious that the great rabbis meant the mikvah to be a space of womanhood and being able to reach out to one another.
“To me it’s obvious that the great rabbis meant the mikvah to be a space of womanhood and being able to reach out to one another,” Grumet said.
Earlier this year the Eden Center partnered with the Hadassah Medical Center and the Tahareinu Organization for Medical and Ritual Guidance to advance the women’s health.
Dr. Dvora Bauman, a senior ob-gyn at Hadassah and director Hadassah’s Bat-Ami Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse, said mikvah attendants are playing an important role in identifying medical problems.
“Perhaps a woman comes to the mikveh very frequently, every two to two-and-a-half weeks. Her menstrual cycle is too short or she has bleeding between her periods. It could be many things, most of them benign. It could be a polyp or something hormonal.”
Or a nursing mother may come in with overly sore, cracked breasts, Bauman said. The attendant may suggest that the woman see a doctor to prevent mastitis.
It may be the only time a woman will disclose these things.
And if an attendant sees a bruise or other signs of trauma on a woman’s body, “it’s time to gently ask, ‘Has anyone hurt you?’ It may be the only time a woman will disclose these things.” (A 2016 Ben-Gurion University study found that 40 percent of Israeli women 16-48 have suffered physical, psychological or verbal violence from their partners, and a further study that year found that 755 women took refuge in one of Israel’s 14 shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence, an increase of 20 percent over 2014.)
Charedi women, whose clothes cover most of their body, can more easily hide bruises,” Bauman noted.
The physician recalled a case where an attendant saw that a woman was badly bruised every time she came to the mikvah. She asked, “Did someone do this to you? Would you like me to accompany you to a social worker?’”
If the woman refuses to go to police, there is nothing the attendant can do, Bauman said.
“Many of them are very afraid, of revenge” from husbands or others in their communities.
Melissa Kohn Rosen, director of National Outreach at the U.S.-based Sharsheret organization for Jews facing a cancer diagnosis or prophylactic surgeries to prevent cancer, said mikveh attendants have long played an important role in a woman’s spiritual and emotional recovery.
“The impact mikvah attendants have is truly dramatic,” she said.
In the U.S., Sharsheret teaches attendants about the possible changes to a woman’s body and emotions during treatment and how those changes may impact the mikvah visit, including potential halachic issues, specific concerns the woman may have and how to address them, and even the emotional impact of the visit on the attendant.
“A few specific examples include the very real possibility that mikvah prep may accelerate chemo-induced hair loss, [concerns about] the different locations on the body where scars may be unexpected, and concern about infection in immuno-compromised women,” Rosen said.
As a member of the team that runs the mikvah in the West Bank settlement of Elezar, Tamara May has attended courses related to breast cancer, abuse and even the fear of water.
“We learned that fear of water is a real thing and there are some breathing techniques to help women overcome their fear. We also learned what a normal body is going through doing cancer treatment.
May, a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor problems, taught her fellow attendants about painful intercourse and incontinence and how they can affect women’s pride, anxiety and depression.
“We don’t pry,” she said, “but if they confide in us we can say, ‘You’re not the only one who is wearing pads, or who hasn’t consummated her marriage.’ Most women in this situation think, ‘I must be the only one.’
“We want women to know they’re not alone.”