I had been selected for a 10-day workshop at Yad Vashem for Jewish educators and planned to arrive early and stay late. I was looking forward to spending time in Israel during the summer of 2012. I knew that I would be due to visit the mikvah prior to my return, and reached out to a Chabad Rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) I knew to see if she could recommend a “friendly” mikvah where I would not have to answer too many questions as a visitor. My concern was based on an experience I had when I was in Jerusalem during the summer of 2007. While I had visited the mivkah every month since my wedding, and I covered my head and dressed modestly, I do not attend an Orthodox shul. I am a Conservative Jew – a halachically (Jewish law) observant Conservative Jewish woman who covers her head, wears skirts, goes to the mikvah and wraps tefillin (phylacteries) while leading minyan (prayer services) on a weekday morning.
My conversation with the Rebbitzen did little to quell my concerns. She, a Chabad Rebbitzen, had been harassed and questioned endlessly on her last visit to a mikvah in Jerusalem. They felt her nails were too long. Had she really cleaned her ears? Had she checked each day for blood? I was now more than ever afraid of Jerusalem mikvah attendants and resolved I would go as soon as I got home and not risk the gauntlet – made even more frightening by the language barrier of both Hebrew and frumkeit (Orthodox culture). I was told while in Jerusalem the rationale for the drilling related to concerns about “concubines” trying to use the mikvah. I was glad I had that appointment set up back in Seattle with my warm and friendly mikvah attendant who always complimented my very attentive preparation.
So, why was I worried in the first place? What happened in 2007? That summer I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and was part of a fellowship program that included attending a number of special talks about life in Israel. One of the speakers was a rabbi who was in the leadership of Masorti Judaism in Israel. During his speech his cell phone rang. As is common practice with rabbis, he looked at it to see if he needed to answer it.
“I need to take this.”
We got to hear his half of the conversation – his frustration, the giving of an address and wishes for success. When he hung up he said, “As a Masorti rabbi, I face arrest if I do a wedding. Despite this, I do about five a year. The couples go to Greece and get married civilly and then return and have their rabbi, me, do the chuppah. That was a kallah, a bride, whose chuppah I am performing tomorrow. She is trying to visit the mikvah prior to her wedding, as Jewish brides are commanded to do. She was just turned away from a third mikvah here in Jerusalem. See, to get to visit the mikvah as a bride, you need a document from the rabbi who is marrying you, the Orthodox rabbi, and without that document the mikvah attendant will not let you in.”
Shortly afterwards the phone rang again, and it was the bride. She had been turned away a fourth time. The letter from this rabbi was not “good enough” to gain her entrance to a mikvah to immerse prior to her wedding. The rabbi directed her to a Masorti congregation on a kibbutz outside Jerusalem, an hour or more drive away, where there was a mikvah run by the Masorti movement. There she would not be turned away.
I was shocked by this whole exchange. I could not believe that a bride trying to immerse in a mikvah would be turned away anywhere. Don’t we want women to be going to the mikvah? Such emphasis is put on this practice in the Orthodox world, and here they are pretty much guaranteeing that this young woman would never try to enter a mikvah again in her hometown of Jerusalem. Why would she? Everything beautiful and holy about that moment had been ruined. I had been looking forward to the thrill of visiting the mikvah in Jerusalem, but this also made me feel unwelcomed. I was no different than that bride, as I did not have a document from an Orthodox rabbi that said I was ‘fit’ to enter a mikvah. I did not have a copy of my ketubah to show that I was a married woman.
Five years later, while my outer appearance might have opened the door to a mikvah, my inner self wanted nothing to do with a place, an institution, that would turn away my sisters. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the mikvah in central Manhattan while I was studying at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and being amazed at the variety of women there. The Chabad wife, whose eldest had just made an excellent shidduch (marriage match), the young woman with dreadlocks wearing a tank top and peasant skirt, and the JTS rabbinical student who wasn’t sure she would be able to go to Israel the next year because of her husband’s job. These women all sat and talked and waited their turn to immerse. There was no questioning of anyone’s ‘right’ to be there. There was no judgement of who they were or how Jewish they were. That is how it should be.
If we want all Jewish women to observe mikvah, then all women need to be made to feel welcome. I loved going to the mikvah each month, and I miss going now that I no longer have to. My last visit was bittersweet. The idea of ‘ritual impurity’ and all the laws surrounding the mikvah are hard enough to make appealing to women in a modern world. To add to those already difficult issues the possibility that you are going to be interrogated, made to prove your appropriateness to be there or even turned away is not how we are going to keep alive this ritual. For me, visiting the mikvah was a beautiful moment each month where I connected with God and myself. I was not willing to risk dirtying that moment with baseless judgement and neither should any other woman.
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This article originally appeared in My Jewish Learning on December 23, 2015.