The Mikveh Ladies, by Ellyse Borghi
This week I attended a round-table meeting at the Shatil offices with many different womens organisations to discuss issues relating to mikvaot in Israel. I learnt many interesting things at this meeting. For example: that women who work in these mikvaot (balanit – single, balaniot – plural) have no training and get paid minimum wage. They have no days off because mikvaot need to be open every day of the year (except for tisha b’av and yom kippur). Furthermore because they only work at night, even if they work 5 hours every day of the week, they are defined as part time workers and don’t get full pension and healthcare benefits. The majority of the women are sephardi, come from very low socio-economic backgrounds, have low levels of education, have many children and are generally the sole providers for their large families. They provide for their households via this work. Furthermore these women are not unionised and do not have a representative on the council’s religious matters board. Indeed when they sought help from rabbis for their working conditions, they were told to leave the issue alone because their reward will be in the world to come. We were informed by the women making the presentation and who had also conducted this research of how unco-operative the head of the religious affairs committee was and the balaniot as well. She explained how there is unchecked nepotism enabling some women access to these jobs and then to more pay or having shabbatot and chaggim off.
We also discussed (briefly in the meeting but also outside of it) religious coercion in the mikvaot. All Jewish women getting married have to visit the mikva before they are permitted to marry in this country. This means that no matter if you have blue hair, a million piercing and tattoos, eat bacon and eggs for breakfast and have already 3 children outside of marriage, if you want to get married in Israel you have to go the mikva. What happened to freedom of conscience? This is problematic enough but more than this, there are lots of different ways to go to the mikva. There are different laws and practices regarding the preparation process. What if you would like to keep one practice but the balanit would prefer if you observed another? What if you’d prefer that she doesn’t cut your nails for you? Or insist that you shave your legs? Or file away the callouses on your feet? Perhaps you’d prefer her to not watch you while you are naked at all? These are all legitimate concerns affecting many brides and women in Israel. How can we maintain their right to autonomy within this system where religion and state are still not separated? For one woman’s experience see this.
There was one woman who made a presentation about how she is attempting to fix the problem. She is a Rebbetzin in Tzfat and has established a course for Balaniot. At present anybody could become a balanit without any training at all. So this course is important whether they are just starting out or have been working in the area for a number of decades already. This course taught them the laws relating to ritual immersion but also other really vital skills. They were taught how to be personable, how to talk to people and make them comfortable. Also significantly, they were taught how to pick up signs and recognise domestic violence or other forms of abuse and how to deal with such situations. The course also enabled a sharing of stories and information for the women in the area who otherwise are very isolated in their work. It allowed for camaraderie which is sometimes difficult to engineer in women’s lives.
Ultimately, I left the meeting realising how much work there is yet to be done. The mikvaot need to be safe places for women, free from religious coercion. The women who work there need to be trained and given dignitary in their employment conditions. Most importantly visiting the mikva needs to be a woman’s choice. The state should have no say in whether or not she participates in these very personal rituals. But to my deepening frustration this cannot happen while there is no separation of religion and state in Israel.
Ellyse Borghi is currently a second year law student in Jerusalem. She volunteers with CWJ and teaches informal Jewish education on the side. She loves every type of cheese and would like very much to travel in Eastern Europe.