After six months of delays and three years of construction, a luxuriously modern new mikveh opened last Sunday on the Upper West Side, a far cry from the funky but soulful ritual bath that served the neighborhood for years.
Located on 74th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, the mikveh has three immersion pools and 13 preparation rooms for women, as well as a men’s mikveh with its own entrance, and a mikveh to immerse new pots and pans in order to make them fit for use by those who keep strictly kosher.
The reception area is clad in palm wood, with gold-leafed ceilings and mosaics in rose and gold hues based on those from ancient Israel. Preparation rooms feature Frette robes and a new kit with shampoo, soap and nail clipper for every visit. The women’s immersion pools are lined with glass tile and surrounded by white marble. It’s all part of the trend to make new mikvehs a luxurious and sensual pleasure.
“Many women don’t come with a tradition of mikveh, so you need to do everything you can to make it appealing,” says Sharon Liberman Mintz, an Upper West Sider who has been involved with the new mikveh’s construction and design.
“Making it physically beautiful is the first step. When people come into a spa-like atmosphere, they feel relaxed. That’s the way it should be,” she said.
Luxury doesn’t come cheap: buying the property and building the new mikveh cost about $14 million, says Elliot Gibber, president of its board. It was all paid for by developer Urban Residential. In exchange, the developer received the old mikveh building and property, where it is constructing a condo project.
The new building has eight apartments above the mikveh, all of them rented out. That income subsidizes the mikveh’s operating costs, said Gibber.
The new mikveh ($20 per visit; $200 for annual memberships, www.westsidemikvah.org) is also completely accessible to the handicapped, with a street-level elevator that takes people downstairs, a wheelchair-accessible roll-in shower and a special lift that can carry the impaired from the platform right into the immersion pool.
The new mikveh also has a new attendant, who replaces the storied Mrs. Lobel. Lobel, a tiny woman with a thick Hungarian accent, was the mikveh lady for decades at the old location. She lived above the mikveh and is regarded with affection by many of the women who used it. The mikveh’s board forced her to retire in February, say some Upper West Siders, and gave her a severance package that she wasn’t happy with. Lobel, who reportedly moved in with one of her grown children in Brooklyn, could not be located for comment. Sources critical of the change asked not to be named because of Gibber’s influence within the New York Orthodox community, as president of the nearby Manhattan Day School among other volunteer leadership roles.
The old mikveh was “perfectly fine, not glamorous or glitzy. If the price of having a deluxe mikveh is treating people this way, that feels very disturbing,” said one woman. “We’re building castles but treating people as if they’re expendable.”
Another concern some have had is that the new mikveh attendant will be less tolerant than her predecessor was of unconventional uses, as when Conservative rabbinical students have immersed on the morning of their ordination, or when women who are unmarried but are sexually active have visited the mikveh.
There was also concern that non-Orthodox rabbis, who along with their Orthodox colleagues have long used the West Side mikveh for conversions, would now be barred.
That has not been the case, said Conservative rabbis who have used it since Lobel left.