The Mikveh Goes Upscale


Upgrading mikvehs into sumptuous spa-like environments is the new wave these days, and the recently opened ritual bath on the Upper East Side and one being planned for the Upper West Side in the fall are no exception. On East 77th Street, the local Chabad house opened the doors last Thursday to a new $12 million mikveh, making it the only ritual bath on the Upper East Side. The new mikveh brings to four the number of public mikvehs in Manhattan, joining ones on the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights.

The Chabad mikveh is an elegant space clad in Jerusalem stone and glass, with recessed coves painted to look like a star-filled night sky above each of the two immersion pools.

“It’s a spa for the soul,” said Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, giving a visitor a tour. In the few days since opening, the mikveh — which has eight preparation rooms — has attracted about 10 women each night, says Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, the Chabad house’s director. “There is such pent-up need, and the younger generation is very open to mikveh,” he said. “It’s not like it used to be.”

While the mikveh is open nighttime for women immersing in the traditional way after their monthly period, and to brides before their wedding, men are able to immerse before the High Holy Days during the day, and educational groups have already visited, the rabbi said.

He will not allow conversions to happen there, however, because he prefers to send people to other rabbis to supervise them at the Upper West Side mikveh, which rabbis of all denominations use for their converts. The current Upper West Side mikveh, a central institution for observant Jews in Manhattan since 1936, will be closing down its 78th Street location in the fall, a couple of weeks after its new, much-upgraded location opens on 74th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

“The new mikveh is going to be much bigger, and clearly upscale,” said Elliot Gibber, president and chairman of the mikveh, which is formally known as the Jewish Women’s Club.

There will be three ritual baths designated for women’s use, one for men’s, and one for dishes and pots and pans being made kosher. Women will have 13 preparation rooms, said Gibber. Those rooms have bathtubs, showers and the other facilities needed to get thoroughly physically clean before immersing.

It will be handicapped accessible, using a platform that can lower someone who is wheelchair bound into the ritual bath. “It’s a state-of-the-art mikvah,” he said.

In the current location there are six mikveh pools, but only two or three work, he said. There are also 10 preparation rooms for women. Between 600 and 800 women use the mikveh on a monthly basis, and as many as 500 men use it around the Jewish holidays.

The new location is part of a swap deal struck between mikveh leaders and the real estate construction firm Metropolitan Housing Partners, which wanted the current mikveh’s prime plot on 78th Street, just off of Broadway, to build apartments.

In the trade the mikveh board gets the new facility, eight apartments upstairs and an unspecified additional substantial gift, Gibber said.

“This deal is worth over $10 million and it didn’t cost the community a dime,” says Gibber, who lives on the Upper West Side and runs Deb-El Food Products Co. in Elizabeth, N.J.

The current mikveh has two apartments above it, occupied by the venerable Mrs. Lobel, who has been the chief “mikveh lady” on the West Side for longer than anyone can remember. Gibber is unsure if she will make the move. “Mrs. Lobel will be retiring soon,” he said. It is a true community mikveh, used by everyone from Reform rabbis to the fervently Orthodox, and is supervised by Rabbi Haskell Roth, known as the Satmar Dayan, said Gibber.

The new location is expected to open in September, but, said Gibber, “It depends on how much rain falls before then.” He is hoping for enough to supply the natural water required to mingle with faucet-supplied water in the ritual baths.