By Toby Klein Greenwald
As a young bride, I remember the difficulty in getting used to everything surrounding taharat ha’mishpachah and attending the mikveh. Learning all the complex halachot, finding excuses to give friends or colleagues–and later, children–for my sudden unavailability, convinced that every person hurrying on that Jerusalem street was staring at me and knew exactly what I had in that tote bag (a sensation, I learned later, that was common to most new religious brides) . . . I didn’t enjoy sitting in the common waiting rooms, and although, with time, I grew to value, appreciate, and even cherish the quiet camaraderie of the women waiting with me, each with her own thoughts and prayers, it occurred to me more than once that someone less committed might find the whole experience too onerous and stressful.
I experienced a sense of amazement and the feeling “I wish this had existed decades ago” when I heard about the mammoth mikveh center planned for Jerusalem. Rabbi Pinchas Tenenhoiz, the spirited project manager, claims that it will be the largest mikveh facility in Israel and one of the largest in the world. Called “Taharat Yerushalayim” (The Purifying of Jerusalem), it will be located in the heterogeneous Romema neighborhood and serve the entire greater Jerusalem area.
The times are certainly ripe for this. One of the most startling phenomena of the last few decades is the new openness in Jewish communities of all types to the discussion of a topic that was once considered confidential and taboo in public conversation. The reason for the silent, secretive attitude to this subject had to do with the fact that anything pertaining to the private relationship between a married couple is considered off-limits, for reasons of modesty.
What has changed is that the issue of mikveh, previously so enigmatic and sometimes even distasteful to the stranger to religion, has taken on a new, almost romantic aura. There are women who are not Orthodox in other halachic behaviors, yet who have been drawn to the mikveh as a place of personal and spiritual fulfillment. Also, women now recognize that mikveh is more than the fulfillment of a ritual that is critically important for religious family life, but an opportunity, once a month, to get away from it all, to relax and to pamper themselves. This is important for every mother and wife, whether she has many children, few, or none, whether she is a stay-at-home mom or a busy career woman.
These private visits to the mikveh are the antidote to the large, boisterous events that are the everyday fare of the religious community. Whether joyous family occasions, concerts for thousands, consciousness-raising, rousing evenings before the High Holy Days, or conventions that promote family wellness, the usual atmosphere is one of loud and vibrant community participation. “Ah,” a Jewish woman may be thinking, “a visit to the mikveh–some peace and quiet!”
Taharat Yerushalayim will be large and luxurious. But what is even more astonishing is that, in our often fragmented Jewish world, in addition to its goal of outreach, this project has taken up the cause of “inreach” and has gone out of its way to make it acceptable and open to the heterogeneity of all halachic opinions. It will have seven pools, and they will cater to every halachic viewpoint–Ba’al Hatanya (Chabad), Divrei Chaim (Tzanz), and others.
In a city and country fraught with opposing outlooks on every topic under the sun, this is a revolution. Whereas this mikveh facility could have become one more insular piece of property, instead it will enable every single Jewish woman to feel valued and pampered, and her needs appreciated.
Rabbi Tenenhoiz proudly displays an artist’s rendition of a 950-square-meter complex, which includes 27 luxurious preparation rooms, including a super-lush bride’s mikveh room and private mikveh, all with the most modern fittings and piped-in music.
There will also be a mikveh designed specifically for the disabled. This part of the facility includes a private entrance which the woman will be able to drive up to in a car, take a ramp into the building, and the mikveh itself will be fitted with a hydraulic lift, if she needs to be in a wheelchair.
The balaniot, the “mikveh ladies,” who supervise the actual dunking in the mikveh pools, will be trained not only in the halachic issues but in psychological and sociological issues, to facilitate welcoming and connecting with the disparate parts of the Israeli population.
The center will include a beautiful lobby, individual waiting areas, separate hand-washing stands, a post-mikveh cosmetics and hairstyling room, a whirlpool, and the finest wall and floor coverings, furniture, and lighting.
One example of how the beauty of a mikveh and the attitude of its attendants can influence the decision to use it can be found in the Haifa neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan. Rav Peretz Mayer took upon himself, several years ago, to build a new mikveh in place of one that was closed, and he created a spa and retreat of luxury. The number of women using the mikveh in Neve Sha’anan rose exponentially.
To understand the impact that a luxurious mikveh, with specially trained female attendants and balaniot, can have on a population, I spoke with Rabbanit Chana Blumenthal, the director of the mikveh in Neve Sha’anan. “It is not built like a regular mikveh, but as a spa, intended to reach out to those who have not previously visited the mikveh; all of our activity is geared to women who are secular. Of course, anyone can use it, and it’s just a bonus for religious women, who would have gone anyway, and now have this gorgeous facility. It is in as perfect condition as it was on the day we opened it, the kashruth is mehadrin halachic, there is a separate well-staffed corps of cleaners, and in addition to the balaniot, we include bridal adviser-teachers who are trained in outreach, who are involved in the process of the bride or other women who are new to mikveh, every step of the way.” Blumenthal herself is also a marital adviser.
“Most of the brides who come really want to come to us and do not just see it as an obligation. One of our madrichot explains things to her even before the evening she arrives, and on the evening of her visit to the mikveh, she has a personally assigned escort, and while she is busy with the bride, a different woman explains the ways of the Jewish home to the bride’s female entourage, and that is how we create a connection with even more women. We feel that the Shechinah, Gâ€‘d, hovers over this mikveh, and the hearts of the women who come are opened. The trickle of secular women who tried it out has become a deluge. More than half our clients are not Orthodox. We do a lot of outreach on the topic of taharat ha’mishpachah–family purity–knowing that we can direct them to this special facility. When then come they don’t want to leave. We’ve witnessed a lot of emotion and tears. They come from kibbutzim, moshavim, from everywhere. It gives us a feeling of great satisfaction.”
Exquisite But Modest
Women demand modesty at a mikveh, and rightly so. Taharat Yerushalayim, says Rabbi Tenenhoiz, will provide multiple and modest entrances, including via five different elevators, curtains that divide the waiting areas, and passages coming and going to the mikveh pools that will enable balaniot to serve the maximum number of women without them meeting each other. It will be accessible through a shopping center, a privately owned building, and outside entrances.
The mikveh plans and the building process follow the decisions of all leading rabbis from all communities, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, in Eretz Yisrael. There will be a computerized system indicating occupancy of the rooms and the mikveh pools, and a computerized call system. Plentiful rainwater will be in the reservoir, which will be divided into two underground pools, so if for whatever reason one becomes unusable there is another. There will be a private generator, especially critical in the cold Jerusalem winters with their electric stoppages. (Almost every married woman in the greater Jerusalem area has a story about the night she dunked in the mikveh by flashlight.) There will be ample heating in the bath and shower rooms and heating under the floor.
More than 300 mikvaot have been discovered in Jerusalem that existed from the time of the Hasmoneans and until the end of the Second Temple period. This indicates just how significant the issue of mikveh is, and has always been, to Jewish national life. Talmud Yoma states, “Just as the mikveh makes pure those who are impure, so does Gâ€‘d purify the people of Israel.”
Rabbi Tenenhoiz appears to be aware of this golden thread that runs through Jewish peoplehood and history. He says, “We want to reach women who might not use it otherwise. This is important for all generations.”