I want to talk about mikvah (ritual bath).
At the beginning of the pandemic, the conversation around mikvah by its users was fraught with urgency, driving the leadership to think through the halachic issues, come up with policy and procedure. People began working diligently (and still are) to keep a new level of cleanliness and hygiene. Questions abounded: Should the mikvaot have closed down? What changes had to be made to provide a safer environment? How should couples navigate their own relationship if the wife didn’t want or could not immerse? And who held the power and responsibility to make each of the decisions?
Months later, as cities and counties have fallen into a routine, and are simultaneously reopening and reclosing, the questions around mikvah safety remain. It seems like the halachic conversations are no longer in the public eye, and at this point we have women and their partners living with what going or not going to the mikvah looks and feels like during the pandemic. Many of the personal questions still remain. The questions about how to be intimate with one’s partner remain. The questions surrounding choosing to go or not to go remain. The fear, worry, anxiety that many felt remain. And yet, the conversation doesn’t seem to be public anymore (and was not so public in the UK even in the beginning, at least in my peer group). But the reality remains that going to the mikvah during this global pandemic still feels really, for lack of a better word, hard.
Covid aside, it is hard for me because there is not a mikvah in walking distance, and on a Shabbat or a Yom Tov, I physically cannot get there. Because of the added precautions necessary during COVID which includes scheduling appointments ahead of time, keeping the appointment post Shabbat or Chag is made more complicated because of lack of access to a car, and worries about taking public transport.
It is hard to know for certain which mikvah feels safest to go to. Ideally, it would make sense to go where the community’s confirmed number of COVID+ cases seem to be at their lowest, but then raises the question of how to get there and home again in a safe way. Do I go to the mikvah that is farther away, where there are fewer women using it on any given night? Do I continue to rely on friends to drive me there and back home again? Do I feel comfortable taking the bus? Is taking an Uber better? Is time of night a consideration and if so should my husband come with me so I don’t travel alone?
It is hard to know for certain which mikvah feels safest to go to. Ideally, it would make sense to go where the community’s confirmed number of COVID+ cases seem to be at their lowest, but then raises the question of how to get there and home again in a safe way.
I find understanding the protocol for setting up appointments unclear. At least with the mikvaot near me, one might be able to text to make an appointment, but too often that is not made clear on the mikvah website. And although there are guidelines written out, within the guidelines there are choices, and so each mikva’s protocol is different. One mikvah I’ve been using requires me to bring my own towels and slippers; another mikva wants us to only use theirs. I question (with no offense to the mikvah attendants) how much trust should I be putting into the mikvah? How much trust am I putting into the other women using the mikva to maintain their own social distancing practices?
There are many other women who have faced greater difficulties or additional barriers many of whom have chosen not to go to the mikvah at all during these past months. Some have chosen to modify their mikva experience or create a different type of mikva ritual in order to resume sexual relations with their spouse. Others have suspended going to the mikvah and are adhering to the laws of nida or are choosing not to be intimate with their spouses or modifying their level of intimacy, or setting aside observance of nida laws for the duration. There are women who are only now becoming used to the mikvah experience and physical intimacy with their spouses, and on top of that they are dealing with questions of health and safety. And there are the women who have been going every month, and each time worry that they will catch or spread the virus.
I don’t have any answers, nor do I think there is only one solution. I want to bring it up in conversation, because the concerns as they relate to mikvah during this global pandemic have not ended. I want to continue the conversation in the halachic realm, because we should still be thinking through the various scenarios of permitted mikvah use and how that will impact a couple and an individual. I want to continue the conversation on a personal level so we do not feel like we have to hide our fears. So that there is a place to discuss our frustrations, our anger, our sadness, and our personal choices. I want to continue these conversations so that other women (including myself) do not continue to feel alone.
I want to continue the conversation on a personal level so we do not feel like we have to hide our fears. So that there is a place to discuss our frustrations, our anger, our sadness, and our personal choices.
Whether you live in the midst of an active Jewish community or on the outskirts of town, women are sharing that they are feeling increasingly isolated, especially relating to mikva usage. Rabbi Eryn London of JOFA UK is collecting anecdotes. Do you have a reflection to share? If so, please take a moment to complete this form. We will protect your anonymity.
Rabbi Eryn London is the JOFA UK scholar in residence.
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