By Naomi Marmon Grumet
Change happens in many ways. Sometimes it is through the bravery of leaders who fight for rights and bring about change by inspiring a movement. Sometimes there is a violent revolution that brings about rapid, drastic change. Sometimes there is a grassroots movement, where the masses demand that change take place. Eden is part of a quiet grassroots revolution that is happening with regard to mikveh. It is part of the movement for women’s empowerment in the Orthodox world, of taking back our sacred institutions, and making them places where we feel safe and that answer our needs and mores as modern women.
In 2009, as part of my doctoral research in sociology, I interviewed married men and women from mikveh observant couples to understand how Modern Orthodox couples practice the laws of niddah, how they think it affects them and their relationships, and ways in which it intersects with their identities. Through this research I began to understand the ways in which observance of mikveh can inform women’s connection to their bodies, to fertility, to sexuality, to ritual, and even to God. I came to understand the centrality of mikveh from a feminist point of view, as a tradition mediated, arbitrated, and maintained by women. I saw how observance of niddah may highlight difficulties, tensions, or crises in the most intimate, often unspoken, areas of life, such as miscarriage, marital strife, or negative body image. And I came to see the physical space of the mikveh as a tangible reflection of women’s status in the Jewish world, expressing much about women’s value and worth in the eyes of the community.
A Place by Women and for Women
As I began to share my research findings, I found others who joined in my passion for reinvigorating the mikveh as a greater resource, a place whose physical space reflects our beauty and worth as women and whose services provide a holistic Jewish response for body, mind, and soul. Out of these connections, Eden was founded in 2010 by women for women, with the goal of augmenting Jewish women’s health and well-being through the mikveh.
Eden imagines the mikveh as a focal point for addressing a variety of dynamics related to the Jewish woman and family, including intimacy and healthy relationships; infertility and miscarriage; healthy body image; sexual, physical, and mental abuse; and women’s health. As a Jerusalem-based initiative, we ultimately hope to create a mikveh–spa–women’s center that will become a new model for a mikveh, combining educational, health, and support services, to turn this uniquely Jewish, female space into a women’s resource center.
Eden’s primary focus today is on educational programming and advocacy, aiming to make the experience around mikveh more positive in several ways. We are now embarking on an intensive training program to create a cadre of hatan (prospective bridegroom) teachers who share our vision of shared responsibility in the realm of marital intimacy. In parallel, we offer supplementary training to experienced kallah (prospective bride) teachers to give them broad knowledge and confidence to address issues of intimacy and healthy relationships. This comprehensive program includes a range of topics related to sexuality, pleasure, and desire, as well as body image, abuse, common fears, and red flags. It also addresses birth control, miscarriage, infertility treatments, and their effects on couples. We are very proud that several yoatzot halakhah (halakhic advisors) are among our graduates. They are now able to connect their halakhic knowledge with general knowledge about sexuality to assist women in a much broader way.
Since 2010, Eden has reached more than 2,000 people directly and another 48,000 people indirectly, through professional training courses, support groups, lectures for the general public on issues of women’s health and sexuality, and a community advocacy campaign. We have broached sensitive topics including menopause, birth control, speaking with children about intimacy, fetal loss, and spiritual aspects of mikveh. Based on academic research that has shown the mikveh to be a powerful medium for allowing a space to connect in a meaningful and uniquely female way to spiritual aspects of our lives, we see the mikveh as a key resource for reaching out to Jewish women.
Program for Mikveh Attendants
In 2012 Eden developed a comprehensive program for Israeli mikveh attendants, who are an untapped resource as first responders for women’s health and crisis intervention. The course, which we are currently working to adapt to bring to communities in the United States, educates mikveh attendants to know how to identify crisis issues and connect women to professionals who can help them appropriately. Our program has rabbinic support across a wide range of communities, from hasidic rabbis to Rav Avraham Yosef, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Rav Yaakov Meidan, and Rav Yitzhak Breitowitz (among others). It covers topics from abuse and domestic violence, post-partum depression, breast health, and infertility, to communication and sensitivity and issues of physical, emotional, and sexual health. It instills awareness and teaches tools to identify issues. It encourages mikveh attendants to reach out to women in need, to advocate for intervention, and to know where to refer women. We have run the course in conjunction with local religious councils from the Golan to Holon. The course methodology, built on the model of facilitated group learning, empowers attendants to shift their vision of themselves into much broader communal resources.
A well-informed, well-trained attendant can be an agent of change and awareness within segments of the population that are generally inaccessible, such as ultra-Orthodox and hasidic communities, particularly regarding abuse and breast examinations. This is exactly what happened in one of our first courses: One mikveh lady, “Malkie,” was working in the mikveh when a woman came in who didn’t make eye contact even when addressed directly. As a result of attending our course, Malkie recognized this as a potential warning sign. Before the woman left, Malkie took her aside and said, “I feel that something is bothering you. Is everything okay?” When the woman brushed it off, Malkie said, “I’m here to listen if you want to share. You shouldn’t go home from the mikveh feeling upset.” By sensitively raising a question and leaving the space to talk, Malkie discovered that the woman’s husband, a well-known ultra-Orthodox rabbi, beat her and their nine children. The woman confided that she had never shared this before, both because she felt she would not be believed because of her husband’s stature, and for fear that it might harm her children’s shiddukh chances. Malkie was the first person ever to reach out to her. Malkie reassured the woman that she didn’t have to go through this by herself and gave her the number of the Crisis Center for Religious Women, where she could speak anonymously to someone. The woman, who said she never knew of the existence of the center, was very thankful and took the number.
Graduates of Eden’s mikveh attendant training report feeling empowered in new ways, as expressed by one participant, Gila: “I’ve been a mikveh lady for twenty five years. … This course helped me to look at my job in a new light, and realize that I can make a significant difference. … In the past, if a woman came to us suffering from postpartum depression, we’d give her a cup of water, and make sure she didn’t have any hatzitzot [physical obstacles to be removed before immersion], but we never knew that we could send her to Nitza (the Israel Center for Maternal Health). If we came across an abused woman, we recoiled. And if a mother of a bride told us that the bride had previously been raped, we didn’t know that there is an organization that can help and support such women, so that that young bride can really build her new house without that hanging over her. Today, we know better how to handle these situations, how we can really help women in the community in a pleasant, quiet way, sometimes with just a phone number.”
The success of the program is as much about creating sensitivity as it is about referral. For example, one attendant told us that the course had changed her overall approach to being a mikveh attendant: “I used to see it as my responsibility to make sure everything was okay. To check that everything was up to standard. The course switched my thinking; this is actually the woman’s mitzvah, and I am here to help her, not to impose my standards. I learned to relax, to go by her cue, and recognize that it’s ultimately her responsibility to fulfill the mitzvah, and I’m here to facilitate it.”
Likewise, course participants become more sensitive to issues of privacy and boundaries. One issue that has arisen several times has to do with asking for a ride home. Often, attendants ask a tovelet (an immersing woman) for a ride at the end of the evening. Many ask when she is still in the mikveh or as she is just coming out. After a discussion about vulnerability, power relations, and boundaries, attendants in several courses decided to try making their requests after the woman had dressed and was passing the reception desk on her way out. Attendants have been pleasantly surprised at the positive reactions of women who say that they would be happy to give a ride, but feel more respected and gracious at being asked in way that gives them space, allows for the sanctity of the moment, and leaves open the possibility of saying no.
Seven successful programs have graduated 140 attendants throughout Israel—who ultimately will serve tens of thousands of women.
As we work to bring the attendant program to more communities around the world, we encourage each community to think about how to enable women (and men) to feel safe and reach out to its members in times of need. Whether people have questions about abuse, cycles, relationships, or other sensitive subject matters, they deserve a mikveh that can provide for them and be a safe place to bear their burdens.
We are doing our best to create change around mikveh because it is a beautiful ritual, something to be proud of, and something that Jewish women have always treasured. Mikveh will continue to preserve and nurture our heritage for generations to come, but it will impact us all the more profoundly if we update it by being sensitive to the needs of women and communities today.
Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet is the founder of the Eden Center and director of the Training Program for Mikveh Attendants. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Bar Ilan University and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children.