[Read: Our pandemic summer]
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.