Orthodox Jewish Women Are Facing an Impossible Choice Right Now

Women who observe the Jewish laws of sexual purity have to immerse in a ritual pool after their period. Doing so during an outbreak is complicated—and potentially risky.

Person on a bus
Damon Winter / The New York Times / Redux

Around the country, Jewish communities have all but shut down, closing synagogues, canceling Passover seders, conducting funerals by Zoom. Yet one kind of Jewish public space has remained mostly open: mikvahs, or pools used for ritual immersions.

Each month, when they get their period, some Jewish women observe a time of niddah, or ritual impurity. As long as they’re bleeding, and often for at least a week afterward, they can’t have sex with their partner. Many couples won’t hug or kiss, sleep in the same bed, or even pass objects to each other. Under any circumstances, this can be challenging to maintain. Imagine what it’s like under quarantine.

In order to exit this state of niddah, women must visit the mikvah, usually a small, humid, windowless room where another woman watches them dip, naked, into a pool of water that maybe a dozen other women have already used. For many who observe the laws of niddah, the prospect of immersing during the COVID-19 outbreak is terrifying: Many mikvahs are highly trafficked spaces that involve extensive bodily exposure. But the alternatives may seem equally untenable: remaining separate from their partner indefinitely, or violating a central commandment of the Torah. For these women, the quarantine has set up an impossible choice between protecting their health and upholding their faith.

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A couple of days before Passover, Aimee Baron, a mother of five, steeled her nerves and decided to visit the mikvah in her neighborhood in the Bronx. Her family has been leaving the apartment only once a week since the outbreak began; getting her kids, including her 6-year-old twins, through the hallways and lobby without touching anything can be a daunting task. Normally, the mikvah would provide everything she needed to prepare for her immersion—a bath where she could soak before, floss for cleaning her teeth, a comb to untangle her hair. This time, though, she brought her own bag and towel. Her immersion would be quick, but even that was anxiety-producing.

“Every time any of us go outside, we’re all just petrified about touching, petrified about breathing,” she told me. At the mikvah, “there are a thousand surfaces that I have to put my things down on that could have been contaminated.” Like many other mikvahs, the facility in Riverdale has been screening women for symptoms, sanitizing its rooms between uses, and strictly limiting the number of people who can be in the building at the same time. But when the mikvah is the one public space a woman has visited in several weeks, it’s hard not to be wary. Like other Jewish communities, the large population in Riverdale has been hit hard by the outbreak: Some of the first cases of the virus in New York involved SAR Academy, an Orthodox day school in the area. “We know many, many, many, many, many people who have been sick, who have been on ventilators,” Baron told me. “And we’re praying for them.”

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, approximately 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox—roughly half a million people. Although Orthodox women are by far the most common mikvah users, the pools are also used for Jewish conversions, life-cycle events such as weddings, and men’s immersions before prayer. By and large, these other uses have been put on indefinite hold. “There are a lot of fixtures of Jewish life that Jews can actually live without,” Rivkah Slonim, a Hasidic woman who has written and lectured extensively about mikvah use, told me. “We can be without synagogues. We can be without a Torah scroll. We cannot, in Jewish law, move forward as a community … without a mikvah.” Immersion is a commandment that comes directly from the Torah, and the punishment for violating it—being cut off from God—is severe. That’s why many communities have kept their mikvahs open even when everything else is closed.

Many Jewish leaders believe mikvah immersion is safe. Lila Kagedan, a rabbi who works as a bioethicist at several hospitals and universities in New York and Boston, has spent recent weeks advising rabbis and mikvah directors around the country about how to handle the coronavirus crisis. She constantly monitors the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local governments. Mikvahs are not distinctively risky spaces, she told me. She pointed out that many more people go through a grocery store on a typical day than through a mikvah where women are spacing out their immersions, and mikvah attendants aggressively wipe down surfaces and treat the water with sanitizing chemicals. Even so, scientists are still determining how the coronavirus travels through the air and how much danger is involved in different activities. And people who appear to be healthy can infect others, according to the CDC. “I can’t say that there’s no risk,” Kagedan said. “There is risk when we go for a walk around the block.” Ariel Sadwin, a regional government-affairs liaison for Agudath Israel of America, a large umbrella organization of Orthodox Jewish communities, has not heard of state governments threatening to shut down mikvahs, he told me, but many rabbis are fearful that this could happen.

Some mikvahs have found the risks of immersion to be intolerable. Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralist, egalitarian mikvah in Boston, decided in late March to close for the duration of the pandemic. “The board ended up being really split over what to do,” Carrie Bornstein, the executive director, told me. “There was just a really strong feeling, ultimately: If even one person could have the risk of being exposed because of coming to Mayyim Hayyim, we just don’t want to take that risk.” Because Mayyim Hayyim serves a more liberal Jewish population than the typical mikvah, not all of its users abide by the same rules restricting their sex lives as women who observe niddah. But for all of them, the closure is a burden. A prospective Jewish convert may be disappointed to delay a long-awaited conversion ceremony; a bride might mourn her carefully planned pre-wedding immersion. And queer couples who used Mayyim Hayyim’s mikvah to observe the laws of niddah now face a challenge of their own: finding a facility in the mostly Orthodox-run network of mikvahs where they feel comfortable immersing.

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The mikvah dilemma is especially excruciating for women who are trying to get pregnant. If they don’t immerse after their period, they can’t have sex, meaning that they may have to delay conceiving. For most women who observe niddah, skipping immersion and having sex anyway is likely out of the question: “It would be like eating pig,” Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox Jewish sex therapist, told me. Since the pandemic started, social media has been flooded with women debating what to do about immersion. “It’s wrenching,” Marcus said. “Do something that you feel religiously not okay with, or do something that makes you feel unsafe? Neither of those are good options. They’re terrible options.” The pandemic has already created immense challenges for women struggling with infertility: In mid-March, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued new guidelines advising doctors to suspend new IVF cycles and cancel elective surgeries and embryo transfers. For women who want to be pregnant, the mikvah can be another reminder that they are not. “My community is in a tremendous amount of pain,” said Baron, the Riverdale mom, who leads an online community for women dealing with fertility issues.

Secular news outlets have widely condemned people in New York’s and New Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods who have refused to comply with stay-at-home orders, gathering by the hundreds for funerals and weddings against strong government advice. Simcha Eichenstein, the New York State assemblyman who represents the densely populated Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood in Brooklyn, told me that the majority of residents are adhering to New York City guidelines, and many large families are isolating in small apartments to stay safe. Women who otherwise don’t go out at all are still venturing to mikvahs, though. The Crown Heights Mikvah in Brooklyn is seeing 20 to 25 women each night, which is when women typically immerse, said Leah Yechielov, an attendant there. This is a significant reduction in the average traffic to their three pools, but still means that roughly 150 women are going in and out of the facility each week.

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Channie Rappaport, who runs a small mikvah associated with Congregation Zichron Rabbeinu Moshe Feinstein in the suburban-Brooklyn neighborhood of Mill Basin, said that her small facility typically opens only on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and her husband, the congregation’s rabbi, treats and changes the water himself. But the pandemic has brought them more business than usual: They’ve opened up for daily immersions so that local women don’t have to drive to bigger mikvahs 15 or 20 minutes away. “There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety,” she said. She’s gotten panicked calls from women whose children have health issues, women who have asthma, and women caring for family members who have had cancer. Although people outside of the Orthodox community might say that these women should just stay home, going to the mikvah is not optional in the way that praying together in synagogue or attending family gatherings is, according to Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a clergywoman at Ohev Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. “I very much understand the impulse to see religion as more symbolic—something that we do when we’re able to, but in a time of crisis, we put aside,” she told me. But “you can’t cancel” the commandments governing sex, she said. “That’s the word of God.”

These are strange times for most families. Spouses have been forced to sleep in separate bedrooms when one of them falls ill. People are sensitized to every touch and aware of every object that might have been handled by someone else. Across America, quarantined families are experiencing the intimacy of distance, finding ways to convey love even when they can’t touch or share space with one another. For now, everyone, including the women who observe niddah, remains suspended in this in-between space, with no clear answer on how to escape from isolation.