Mikvah Use Differs Across Country During Pandemic

By LILA SARICK

Jewish women are very worried about using a mikvah in the midst of the current pandemic, but despite their concerns, they are continuing to observe the monthly mitzvah, says the co-chair of one of Toronto’s ritual baths.

“Women are petrified,” conceded Lisa Berman, co-chair of the Maddie Leventhal Mikvah Centre at Beth Avraham Yosef of Toronto, a large Orthodox synagogue in suburban Toronto.

 “We’ve had some women who have foregone going to the mikvah for a month [because of health concerns] and then they return the next month,” she told The CJR. “Some people embrace it. They will do their utmost to come and they put their fear aside.”

Immersing in the mikvah is a monthly obligation for women, unless they see themselves living a “life of chastity with their husbands,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the BAYT, who likens the mikvah to an essential service. He said a number of women have reached out to him and expressed their concerns about visiting a communal bath during the pandemic.

“I completely sympathize with their anxiety,” he said. “At the same time, I explained and said ‘please look over the standards, they are meant to protect you.’ ”

The mikvah at the BAYT, like others in the Toronto area, has changed the way it operates after consulting with doctors and pool experts, said Berman.

Women must first call and answer a set of screening questions to determine if they can make an appointment, and some women who may have been exposed to COVID-19 have been asked to delay visiting the mikvah for a month.

Women are required to shower and prepare at home instead of at the mikvah, and then to immerse as quickly as possible.

Appointments are made to ensure that no two women are in the same area at one time, and mikvah attendants wear gloves and masks and keep their distance from the woman immersing.

While the mikvah has traditionally been a moment of respite in a busy life, that is not the situation right now, said Berman. Still, “99.9 percent of women have been onboard and they’re just grateful that we’re open.”

The number of women using the BAYT mikvah spiked in March, when it was one of the first in the city to adopt stricter hygiene protocols, but numbers have since returned to their usual levels, Rabbi Korobkin said.

About 140 women use the mikvah monthly, Berman said.

But the situation is not uniform across the country. In Montreal, police closed Mikveh Israel in Cote-Saint-Luc on March 31 because four or five people were there, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Other reports said officers found two employees, two volunteers and a woman inside the building.

Mikveh Israel could not be reached for comment.

Mikvahs in Montreal are officially closed, but it is clear that some are still operating, said one person who is knowledgeable about the situation.

Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, declined to comment on whether mikvahs were operating in the city. “We should be respecting the privacy of people and not publishing articles about it,” he said.

In Vancouver, the mikvah attached to Congregation Schara Tzedeck has remained open for use by women, although it is closed to men, who do not have the same halachic obligation to immerse, said Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt.

Early on during the pandemic, closing the mikvah was briefly considered, but the idea was rejected, since the water in the bath is chlorinated and does not pose a risk, Rabbi Rosenblatt said. As in Toronto and other locations, women in Vancouver are asked to prepare at home instead of at the mikvah.

However, not all mikvahs have remained open during the pandemic. The Toronto Community Mikvah (formerly called the Reform Mikvah of Greater Toronto) decided to shut its doors temporarily, said Robin Leszner, co-chair of the facility.

The mikvah, located in a school in Thornhill, Ont., has few monthly users but is used by Reform and Conservative rabbis for conversion. Women also use it before getting married and to mark significant events and transitions in their lives, such as after a miscarriage, Leszner said.

The mikvah is used by about 25 rabbis in the city and performs about 150 conversions a year. It hosts hundreds of parents, students and educators annually for visits.

“The rabbis are in support of this. They felt their conversions could wait until it was safer,” Leszner said.

After consulting with the rabbis who use the mikvah, it was decided to drain it and use the down time to do some needed repairs and cleaning, Leszner said.