By Barbara Trainin Blank
Expectations don’t always tally with reality.
COVID-19 may have closed mikva’ot for a time—or, at the very least, reduced their usage, as women feared becoming infected. In particular, potential immersees frequently asked how it could be that using the same pools of water for person after person would be sanitary and not increase the chance of infection.
But at least one facility—Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C.—did not close at all, except for two nights for reasons unrelated to COVID. That was when the city was placed under a 6 p.m. curfew related to the protests against the killing of George Floyd. (And even then, Mikvah Chaim, as the facility is called, allowed daytime use.)
As to the need to avoid mikveh immersion because of danger from the water, Mikvah Chaim (and undoubtedly other mikva’ot as well) pointed out that the water is continuously being filtered and disinfected. Furthermore, during the early days of the coronavirus, when the experts focused on how it could spread through touch, shomrot at the mikveh constantly cleaned other surfaces.
Of course, usage of masks was absolutely required except during immersion. The shomrot were given gloves as well.
Health Measures Taken
In addition, one of the first health measures taken at Mikvah Chaim was limiting the use of the non-mikveh pool areas of the building, such as the waiting room. Women were required to do their preparations at home and to enter the mikveh pool as soon as they could. Only one immersee was allowed into the building at a time, to adhere to social distancing.
“Otherwise, we functioned normally, but changed the procedures,” said Maharat Ruth Friedman, maharat of Ohev Sholom, the Modern Orthodox synagogue in D.C.’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. “There was no closing, partial or otherwise, of our mikveh.” Another change that took place was that there was no physical checking of immersees by the shomrot. “We realized then we had to be very cautious,” Friedman pointed out.
Normally, the majority of mikveh users at Ohev Sholom follow the traditional practice of requesting a shomeret in the room when they immerse. However, because the mikveh rooms are small, some women were concerned by the lack of social distancing and gave up that practice—at least as long as the pandemic raged.
Another small group of immersees who preferred to continue to be accompanied by a shomeret temporarily went to another mikveh with more-spacious mikveh rooms.
Most of the immersees using Mikvah Chaim took the new situation and requirements in stride. Only a small number of women stopped coming to mikveh out of extra cautiousness, but “this number was minimal,” reported Maharat Friedman.
Safety precautions were determined by the maharat and the mikveh staff. Now that the pandemic has lessened and vaccination is available, the policy has changed. “And it is much simpler,” she pointed out. “We just ask that all users and attendants wear masks when interacting with each other, and that people not come if they have COVID symptoms.”
Use of the Mikveh for Conversion
One other group of mikveh users common at Mikvah Chaim is converts. In addition to individuals converted through Ohev Sholom’s clergy or with other Orthodox rabbis, the synagogue is one of the few Orthodox facilities that allows usage of its mikveh for non-Orthodox conversions.
Conversions of all kinds continued unabated during the pandemic, with the same safety precautions in place and now changing. Again, because of social distancing, the only persons allowed into the waiting room were family members of the converts. Often the rabbis and converts would meet outside. And masks were, of course, required and continue to be so. The enthusiasm about converting did not abate.
As health conditions have improved, mikveh use in general has remained strong. “I haven’t heard from anyone who is still afraid to go,” observed Maharat Friedman. “I think my biggest takeaway would just be all the flexibility it has introduced.” Thus, out of the adversity of the pandemic, some good has emerged.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance journalist based in suburban Washington, D.C., and author of What to Do about Mama?: A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members. ___________________
“We functioned normally, but changed the procedures. There was no closing, partial or otherwise, of our mikveh.”