by Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet
Today we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (the day Jerusalem was reunified in 1967), and the miracle of sovereignty over the wondrous city of Jerusalem. I think that sharing this blog about a program that emanates from Jerusalem is a wonderful way to celebrate!
Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows about the incredibly powerful moments that can take place in the mikveh (from celebrations to mourning), and about the role that the mikveh and its holy water can play in our support and embrace. No less crucial is the role of the guide (or mikveh lady in traditional circles) in facilitating a pleasant and meaningful experience.
But how does a guide learn to be sensitive, and respect the personal boundaries of the person immersing? How does the guide know what issues might need special care when someone comes to the mikveh? How can a guide serve as a community resource in times of need?
In Israel, these questions are particularly crucial, since the mikveh is a state-supported institution, and the job of the mikveh attendant (it would be a real misnomer to call them guides!) has become a low-paid bureaucratic position, often filled by poorly educated, Ultra-Orthodox women from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. In many instances, mikveh attendants are very different from the women using the mikveh. Because the most salient qualification for the position is often a high degree of religious fervor, attendants often lack the resources to assist a woman dealing with spousal abuse or OCD.
Eden, a mikveh based in Jerusalem, aims to reinvigorate the mikveh as a positive and sacred space for women and as a resource in our spiritual, personal, marital and communal lives. Eden has developed a course for mikveh attendants that emphasizes skills for good communication, and gives guides important information and tools which can help them to cope in a variety of situations. In addition to helping attendants provide better spiritual care, it allows them to function as community resources, knowing how and where to refer people for the support they need.
One attendee told us how participating in our course gave her the life saving ability to identify the vicitim of spousal abuse:
“M” was working, and a woman came to the mikveh who didn’t look her in the eye. As a result of several sessions, “M” recognized this as a sign that something could be wrong. “M” said to the woman, “I feel like something is bothering you. Is everything okay?” When the woman brushed it off, “M” said,” Listen, you shouldn’t go home feeling upset. I’m here to listen if you want to share.” They started talking, and it came out that the woman’s husband, a well known rabbi, beats her and her nine children. She is scared and embarrassed to say anything, lest it tarnish her husband’s reputation or the shidduch (matchmaking) chances of the kids. “M” reassured her that she doesn’t have to go through this by herself, told her that she’s not alone, and gave her the number of the Crisis Center for Religious Women, where she can anonymously speak to someone. The woman was so thankful and took the number. She said she never knew of the existence of the Crisis Center.”
Each session is made up of a lecture and group processing. Lectures cover topics from sexual abuse and domestic violence, post-partum depression, breast health and infertility, to basic first aid, and issues of physical, emotional and sexual health. When woven together, the topics and group work help sensitize guides to the range of realities that accompany a person who comes to immerse, and can have an invaluable impact.
The pilot program that ran in two Jerusalem neighborhoods has so far produced profound results: Women immersing in that mikveh have reported dramatic change in the attitude of and interactions with mikveh attendants. Additionally, the mikveh attendants themselves report feeling empowered in completely new ways. Gila, one of the participants, said, “I’ve been a mikveh lady for twenty-five years…and like all mikveh ladies, learned the laws of immersion in depth…But, if we came across an abused woman, we recoiled…if a woman came to us suffering from post-partum depression, we only knew to give her a cup of water, but we never knew that we could send her to Nitza (The Israeli Center for Maternal Health)… Today, we know better how to handle these situations, how we can really help women in the community in a pleasant, quiet, anonymous way— sometimes without even saying anything—just by giving them a telephone number or a little business card.”
The mikveh attendants thus function as “first respondents” to delicate issues which are often too intimate to be shared anywhere else. This is yet another aspect of the healing and empowerment that can emerge when the institution of mikveh is re-imagined in terms of modern Jewish society. It is our hope that in the future we will be able to make this program available throughout the Jewish world ki mitzyon tetzei torah, so that Torah emanates from Jerusalem.
Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet is the founder of “Eden” and its “Crisis and Health Intervention Training for Mikveh Attendants.” Naomi completed her doctorate in sociology at Bar Ilan University, researching contemporary mikveh observance. The mother of three, Naomi has lived in Jerusalem for almost 20 years.