Leah Nagar, a 28-year-old teacher and mother living in Baltimore, saw no way around going to the mikvah.
She had recently experienced a difficult miscarriage, and dipping in the ritual bath was the only way she could resume the tenuous, hope-laced process of “trying.”
“Going to the mikvah was my only option for moving forward,” said Nagar. “For me, the mikvah meant choosing life.”
For me, the mikvah meant choosing life.
But amid the coronavirus outbreak and urgent public calls for isolation, she approached the ritual with trepidation. An asthmatic, she was at higher risk if she contracted the virus.
“I was faced with a double-edged sword,” she said. Nagar was ultimately able to negotiate attending the mikvah at a non-conventional time in order to address her concerns, and was able to immerse last week.
For thousands of Orthodox women and others who observe a regular mikvah practice, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic poses a threat not only to communal functioning, but also to the most intimate rhythms of observant Jewish life. According to the binding ritual guidelines termed “niddah,” a menstruating woman is only allowed to resume sexual relations with her husband after immersing in the ritual bath, or mikvah. According to Orthodox law, failure to do so would prohibit marital intimacy.
That is why ritual baths specifically for the observance of family purity laws will be the “very last things to close,” according to Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder and executive director of the Eden Center, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the experience of mikvah for women.
The Jewish Week contacted mikvahs in Manhattan, Riverdale, Brooklyn and New Jersey — all remain open, albeit with restrictions. Most women’s mikvahs are continuing to operate by appointment only. Extra precautions are also being taken, including mikvah attendants standing six feet away from the person submerging and women being asked to prepare for the ritual dunk at home.
On March 19, the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association issued “guidance” for mikvah operators and users, quoting the Centers for Disease Control. “There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of pools and hot tubs,” according to the CDC. “Proper operation, maintenance, and disinfection (e.g., with chlorine and bromine) of pools and hot tubs should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”
There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of pools and hot tubs.
The Women’s Medical Association concluded, “Based on these recommendations, the mikvah can be used safely, with appropriate precautions.”
While synagogues and schools have largely shuttered over the past weeks, no women’s mikvah in Israel or abroad has yet closed, according to Marmon Grumet. (JTA reports that last Thursday, the Village of Kiryas Joel, a chasidic enclave in upstate Orange County, announced the closure of men’s mikvahs as part of a wider lockdown. Other communities have similarly closed men’s mikvahs, which are not essential to keeping the laws of family purity.)
Last week, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel conferred with the Israel Health Ministry and put out a statement affirming that mikvahs can meet all health standards and therefore remain open. The statement also said that alternatives, such as submerging in a bath at home, would not fulfill the halachic, or Jewish legal, obligations required by niddah.
Additionally, the seemingly obvious alternative — submerging in a natural body of water like a lake or an ocean — is being discouraged by Israeli health officials for safety and hygienic reasons, said Marmon Grumet. (In the United States, many public beaches, including all those in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Marmon Grumet has been at the forefront of creating new hygiene guidelines and protocols for mikvah attendants, including disinfecting surfaces between each usage, minimizing contact between women and encouraging those using the mikvah to “prepare” — meaning a detailed ritual of bathing and grooming — at home. Marmon Grumet is also encouraging rabbis to permit mikvahs to open during the day, though under regular circumstances the ritual is practiced exclusively at night. This measure, she said, will allow more time to sanitize between clients and will allow those subjected to a curfew (including women in New Jersey) to honor local health recommendations.
Despite effort to get the word out, she has been fielding calls around the clock from women questioning if mikvah attendance is still “safe.”
Every woman who chooses to attend mikvah must know that she is responsible for the woman who submerges after her.
“We’re living through an unprecedented time in our living history,” said Marmon Grumet. “As a community, we have to protect one another. Women displaying even the slightest symptoms should not attend the mikvah. Every woman who chooses to attend mikvah must know that she is responsible for the woman who submerges after her.”
Amalia Mark, a 29-year-old rabbinic intern at Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah in Newton, Mass., that welcomes those of all genders, orientations and ages, is also remaining open for immersions, though the adjoining education center has ceased all classes. “Intense” hygiene practices are being used, said Mark, including filtering the water in the mikvah twice a day and encouraging people to prepare at home.
“There has been so much anxiety about the mikvah closing,” said Mark, who said many people turn to the mikvah as a “way to cope with life’s unpredictable circumstances,” including infertility, miscarriage, birth, illness and other momentous life-cycle occasions. (Mayyim Hayyim provides 68 different kavanot, or intentions, that users can recite upon submergence.) “We are committed to staying open unless the health department instructs us otherwise.”
“While so much else is now unavailable, the mikvah remains a space that can hold people.”