Every Rosh HaShanah, as Dalya Harel welcomes friends and relatives from abroad into her home from abroad, she eagerly awaits the arrival of some other New Year favorites — apples, honey and head lice.
“It’s a very busy season,” she said. “I had guests from Israel, and I cannot tell you what they brought me.”
But these guests couldn’t have chosen a better place for their High Holy Days visit. Harel, the maven behind Lice Busters NYC, runs a thriving delousing business through her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she says she receives customers from all over the country.
The crowded nature of local camps and schools, both public and private, make New York a convenient city for lice spread, according to Harel, though she says that infestations are even more prevalent in Europe and Israel, where schools don’t check students. Harel first decided to start her company in 1995, shortly after the two oldest of her nine children came home from school with lice.
“They came home and I couldn’t go to sleep at night,” she said. “You can’t sleep at night if your kids have nits in their hair.”
Harel isn’t the only leader in Brooklyn’s lice-slaying business. Her colleagues — other Orthodox women — offer equally popular delousing services throughout the densely populated borough. Some of these women include Susan Sherman at LiceBGoners, Adie Horowitz of LiCenDers and Abigail Rosenfeld, the “Lice Lady of Brooklyn.” Others include Lice Be Gone in northern New Jersey and Licebeaters, with locations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida.
“There’s work for everybody,” Harel said.
Because the sheer number of children in Orthodox families is often so large and relatives are so close, Harel believes that the Orthodox community does increase its odds of contracting and spreading lice. However, both she and her colleagues maintain that lice are, in reality, no more common among New York Jews than within other communities. Jewish women are just more fastidious about attacking the creatures, Harel said.
“We’re always checking things — we’re checking out vegetables we’re checking our flour, our rice,” agreed “Lice Lady” Rosenfeld. “We’re nitpickers, right? We’re more careful with bugs, and I think we have more patience.”
Rosenfeld feels that the number of children in a family have nothing to do with lice spread, as her own 14 children have only contracted the bugs once.
“I have friends that have 16 or 17 [children] and never have had it,” she added. “Most of the people I work with are not even Jewish.”
The women also bring their services to local public and private schools, as well as camps, where lice spread easily. Harel likes to teach her precise method to others, demonstrating how to use fine-tooth German Nisska combs instead of harsh chemicals, which can be both poisonous and ineffective.
The return to school makes September and October prime business season for these ladies, who are often called directly into classrooms. New York City public school administrators recently changed district policies, now sending kids home only for active lice, not for nits (eggs).
“We made a decision to revise our lice policy similar to ones adopted by large school districts, including the L.A. public schools,” Marge Feinberg, press officer for the Department of Education’s Office of School Health, told The Jewish Week via e-mail. “The recommendation had nothing to do with overall attendance. It was designed to ensure that individual students were not removed from school unnecessarily. While head lice are unsightly and embarrassing, they do not pose a health hazard. We do not keep records on lice infections.”
Harel believes that the new policy is flawed, and says that children who have nits should certainly be sent home as well.
“It’s so common the problem — the last thing the nurse wants to do is deal with the lice and the kids and the parents,” she said. “It’s better for them to just close their eyes.”
The Jewish community in particular cannot afford to close its eyes, according to Harel, because we need to be able to continue so many rituals like going to the mikveh, which is prohibited to people with lice.
“All you need is one family who couldn’t care less, or a nice good neighbor who can’t handle these things,” she said, noting that she has to take care of an entire family immediately, all at once.
But both Harel and Rosenfeld remind the community that despite the stigma attached to lice spread, having the bugs in your hair is by no means indicative of poor hygiene.
“It has nothing to do with hygiene, it’s for the cleanest people,” Harel said. “If you get lice it’s the biggest compliment — they are attracted to the good smells and clean heads.”