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Jerusalem Woman Removed From Mikvah Premises by Police After Demanding Private Immersion

A woman seeking to immerse in a mikvah without a female mikvah attendant present was prevented from doing so at two separate mikvaot in Jerusalem on Thursday night, and the police were called by mikvah staff to remove her from the premises of the second mikvah building.

The woman is one of a small number of women in Jerusalem who do not wish to be naked in the presence of another woman, particularly a stranger, when immersing, but wish to use the public mikvaot to perform their monthly ritual immersion.

Mikvaot are funded and maintained by local religious councils, which are themselves funded by the Religious Services Ministry and the local municipal authority. A small fee is also charged to women every time they use a mikvah.

Local religious councils employ female mikvah attendants to assist women in correctly performing their ritual immersion, and the presence of such attendants is, in ideal situations, a requirement of Jewish law so that the attendant can ensure that the immersion was done correctly.

Some women, however, are extremely reticent to immerse naked, as is required by local religious councils, in front of another woman, for several reasons. Two organizations helping such women, Immersion in Quiet and the ITIM religious services advisory group, say that among women who have approached them for assistance have been women who experienced sexual abuse, some who have had a mastectomy, and other who are insistent on their own privacy, or wish to immerse by themselves to allow them greater spiritual concentration.

Many local religious councils, which manage public mikvaot, including the Jerusalem religious council, do not permit women to immerse alone since the accepted practice within Orthodox Judaism has been to have a female attendant present.

The religious councils therefore instruct the mikvah attendants not to allow women to immerse alone.

Roni Chazon-Weiss, the head of the Immersion in Quiet organization which helps women who wish to immerse alone, said that she receives at least one complaint every week from women wishing to immerse alone but who are refused.

On Thursday night, the woman went to two separate mikvaot in Jerusalem but was not allowed to immerse alone in any of them. At one of the mikvaot, the attendants called the police in order to remove her from the premises, although no physical coercion was used.

The woman was eventually able to immerse on Saturday night at a public mikvah in Jerusalem, albeit two nights after the end of her 12-day separation period from her husband should have ended.

“The commandment to immerse is a private and intimate commandment between the woman immersing and her husband and God, and the trust in fulfilling it is between them,” said Chazon-Weiss, who also serves as the secretary-general of the Yerushalmim political faction in the Jerusalem Municipal Council.

“The responsibility for the immersion is on the woman, and it appears to me to be unreasonable that for such a private commandment there should be such gross intervention. A woman should be allowed to choose how she immerses, if she wants an attendant, or to immerse with a friend or completely alone.”

Chazon-Weiss also insists that immersing alone is acceptable in Jewish law under certain conditions. She said that if women are totally unwilling to immerse with a mikvah attendant present then according to Jewish law it is preferable for her to immerse alone instead of not immersing at all, as occurred with Sarah on Thursday night.

Rabbi Menachem Blumenthal, the head of the mikvah department at the Jerusalem religious council, argued however that the mikvaot are institutions designed to be used in accordance with the instructions of the chief rabbinate and that, like other public institutions, mikvaot are subject to regulations which are applied to anyone making use of them.

He insisted that the directives to mikvah attendants were drawn up as sensitively as possible and with the minimum possible demands on women immersing.

“These women can go to the sea or a natural spring if they do not want to use the mikvaos in accordance with Jewish law. This is gross antagonism. The mikvah attendants are taught to be extremely sensitive and to respect a woman’s dignity, and this is how they act.”

Blumenthal nevertheless said that if a woman came with a letter from an authoritative rabbi allowing her to do so and who gave specific instructions how to perform an immersion alone, then an accommodation could be made.

The office of Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern said in response to the incident that Stern himself was notified of the issue late Thursday night but at a stage when it was too late to help.

Although Stern is opposed to women immersing alone, a spokesman for the rabbi said that he had assisted some women who approached him to be allowed to immerse without the presence of an attendant.

“It is a shame that on Thursday the woman in question did not come to Rabbi Stern earlier, like other women whose problem was solved without involving the police and without confrontation,” said the spokesman.

He added that Stern will propose this week that a committee of women be set up to evaluate the requests of any woman wishing to immerse alone.

Elad Caplan, an attorney with the ITIM organization, strongly criticised Thursday night’s incident and the actions of the Jerusalem local religious council.

“The violation of women’s rights in mikvaos is one of the worst violations of human rights by a public institution in Israel,” said Caplan.

“Religious institutions should provide a service to women who want to keep a religious commandment and not threaten them. Women have the right to privacy, dignity and religious autonomy,” he continued.

“The mikvaos in Israel are run by the local religious councils which are public institutions and paid for through taxes and public funding, and each woman should be given the right to use the mikvah, just like every man can pray as he wishes in the synagogue, and like every member of the public can eat in a kosher restaurant without being investigated as to whether they have waited the requisite number of hours required by Jewish law between meat and dairy food.”

ITIM submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice in May 2015 on behalf of 13 women, including Sarah, to force local religious councils to allow women to immerse alone if they so wish. The case will be heard in March 2016.

By Jeremy Sharon/Jpost  
(printed with permission)

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