Humiliated at the Mikveh

Humiliated at the Mikveh

JewishMOM Hadassah Margolese is finally leaving Beit Shemesh, but in the end she’s not leaving because of her fanatical neighbors who made headlines last year for terrorizing her adorable daughter, Naama. She’s leaving because of the angry reactions of friends and neighbors to an article she wrote for Maariv this past May about a deeply upsetting visit to the Mikveh.

In that article, Hadassah writes:
“The last time I was at the mikveh, after I immersed I entered the bathroom and I broke out into tears. The humiliation and the pain were so great, and the tears flowed.

“On the day I go to the mikveh, I am filled with fear: “Who will be the mikveh lady?” I think. “Will she give me the privacy that I so need?” Each time I pray deep in my heart that the mikveh lady who turns her back and only looks at me when necessary will be on shift that night. In my opinion, and with all due respect to the mikveh lady, there is no need to have a babysitter there.

“This time, I opened up my mouth for her. But that wasn’t enough. The mikveh lady thought that I still had makeup under my eyes. I argued that I was totally fine, that I was clean. “Clean them again,” the mikveh lady insisted. And I insisted that I was ready to immerse. “I cleaned my eyes enough times,” I insisted. “This is my mitzvah,” I said. I felt certain that I was ready.

“For some reason, this mikveh lady felt that part of her role was to look at me before I immersed, and also after I exited the mikveh, and she didn’t turn around. She looked the whole time. I only have two hands, which don’t succeed in covering my whole body in order to get the privacy that I so need. It was stressful. I just wanted to finish this humiliating experience and go home. ..

“I’m supposed to feel clean after the mikveh. But I find myself feeling humiliated and not clean. I ask myself until when? When will things change? When will I feel that this is my mitzvah, and not the mikveh lady’s mitzvah together with me? When will I be able to immerse alone, without the mikveh lady’s certification of kashrut?”

It’s ironic. Last year Hadassah and her daughter were harassed because local fanatics felt that she and her family weren’t modest enough. And now she’s getting harassed because she is such a modest person that she doesn’t feel comfortable standing without clothing in front of the mikveh lady.

While I’ve never heard of a woman having this issue before, I am sure that Hadassah is not alone in her monthly discomfort. So this morning I spoke with senior Nishmat yoetzet halacha Laurie Novick, in order to find out what can be done to help women like Hadassah:

She told me the following: All that is required by Jewish law is that another woman over the age of twelve sees that you (and all of your hair) are fully submerged in the mikveh.

Halachically, this person confirming that you have fully immersed doesn’t have to be a mikveh lady—it could be a friend or any other Jewish girl/woman over the age of 12 with whom you feel comfortable.

“Mikveh ladies don’t have bad intentions. In general, they have a lot of mesirut nefesh for this mitzvah, and are highly motivated to help other women keep Torah and mitzvot. Over the years, the mikveh lady’s role has expanded and expanded, and in many cases women are no longer even aware of the minimum role required of them by the halacha.

“And the truth is that many women appreciate the mikveh ladies’ extra assistance. I, for example, once almost entered the mikveh with earrings on, until my oversight was pointed out to me by an observant mikveh lady.”

There are many communities where mikveh ladies are careful not to look at the immersing women when they are undressed outside of the water. “In my community, we have highly-trained mikveh ladies who do not look at the woman when her towel is off except when she is in the water. The mikveh lady turns her back when the woman is entering and exiting the mikveh.”

“The ideal, I think, would be for the mikveh lady to ask the immersing woman whether she wants her assistance before the immersion—whether she wants her to check her physically for loose hairs etc. or wants her to ask helpful questions such as, ‘Did you remember to take out your contact lenses?’ Many appreciative women would say ‘Yes,’ and some women, like Hadassah Margolese, would not. And that’s absolutely fine.”

As a final alternative, if a woman feels she is unable to immerse if another woman is watching her, there is a possible halachic alternative available for women to immerse on their own which a knowledgeable rabbi should be able to discuss with her.

Anyway, wishing a ton of blessings and hatslacha (and beautiful mikveh visits) to Hadassah Margolese in her new community:)

This inspiring 8-minute video features Mikveh pioneer Elisheva Mirvis who educates non-observant women about the spirituality and empowering potential of this mitzvah.

Related posts:

Life after Birth
Speaking with Kids about Personal Safety (33-Minute Video)
Another Gift I Want to Give out this Purim

41 comments

  1. thats so traumatizing! im so glad i live in a yishuv where i know the mikve ladies personally, and they would never humiliate me like that

  2. JewishMom

    My personal perspective.

    Some of my local mikvah ladies resemble the one that Hadassah met– but I experience them differently. I think they’re great and lovely women helping hundreds of women a year perform an important mitzvah and I love them and I enjoy immersing in the mikvah with their assistance.

    I think that since they see so many undressed women, they just aren’t aware that some women are uncomfortable being seen without their towels on. They also tell me when I’ve forgotten something, and I appreciate that. It doesn’t feel invasive.

    I just wanted to add this personal note since I think many mikveh ladies are like this one that Hadassah met. And there are many women who, like me, still have positive mikveh experiences with them.

    Though I definitely understand that immersing with mikveh ladies like this can be challenging for more sensitive women, and I strongly believe that there should be more awareness among mikveh ladies to accommodate them. I think Hadassah is AWESOME for being such a mover and a shaker– she sees an important problem she doesn’t just complain, she DOES SOMETHING!

    • I agree that some women are more sensitive than others. I completely disagree that it’s excusable if mikva women look a the immersing woman more than absolutely necessary. It’s inappropriate and not tzniusdik. I am a healthcare worker in women’s health, and I do not touch, look at, or otherwise infringe on my patient’s privacy without their express permission/request. Ever. It’s the height of disrespect and lack of tznius that these mikva ladies are so flippant about it. I also see women undressed very often. That is no excuse to lose our sensitivity and respect for the women we serve.

  3. Leah Levy

    Just have to comment that although I do admit to always being a little uncomfortable walking down the Mikveh stairs, I have Baruch H” been blessed that the ladies hold the robe in front of their eyes on my way down and up. I also do not enjoy the checks before immersion, but do understand that IF there is chatzitza, I am endangering my hubby and union with him and children that may come.
    In my experience, again Baruch H”, any situation I felt uncomfortable with, I just spoke to the head Rebbetzin of the Mikveh and asked for her help. Always proven to help and never felt alone.

  4. Hadassa Braun Margolese

    There are solutions for women, who like myself, would like to tovel alone. There is a hair net that according to halacha a woman can wear to make sure that all of her hairs are in the water. In Efrat I understand that women can now choose to tovel alone.

  5. Jewish Bubbie

    I agree with Jewish Mom above. I don’t think the mikvah ladies are trying to make anyone uncomfortable at all. I also learned from a Chabad mikvah lady that they check for hairs for two reasons; one, so you don’t have a chatzitzah and two, so the loose hairs don’t clog the drain of the mikvah. It may be our mitzvah, but if we don’t do it properly and it’s invalid, what is the point? I always appreciated having someone to tell me if there was something out of place.

    • The mikvah ladies may not be trying to make the mom’s uncomfortable, but they are. And if they are causing some women to not go to the mikva, that is a terrible thing. Also, halachically, hairs are not a chatzitza unless they are wrapped around a body part, such as a finger or toe. On the woman’s back is not a chatzitza.

  6. I once saw a funny skit by a womens drama group about going to the mikve. The balanit begins to ask the lady if she has checked her ears, nose fingernails and then she breaks out singing “head, shoulders, knees and toes” as she dances with the lady waiting to dip.
    I’ve never been looked up and down, I’ve been to mikvaot in many cities throughout Israel and I am always asked if I checked this and that, B”H I’ve only had good experiences. I just love the brachot that are “showered” upon me after I have dipped.

  7. Hadassah,

    I am so sorry you had this experience. Please know that there are lots of us out there working to make sure you never need to go through this again.

    Should you ever have occasion to visit Boston, I invite you to come visit us at Mayyim Hayyim. Closer to home, the good people at The Eden Center in Jerusalem are working to change things too. In the meantime, I thought you all might like to read a blog post I wrote on this topic: http://mayyimhayyimblog.com/2011/12/12/a-public-service-announcement-for-the-mikveh-world/

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Carrie

  8. I am so sorry this happened to you. I had the same experience at the same mikve and I’m sure you and I aren’t the only ones either!! GOod for you for writing this article and it should be publicized.

  9. heal sister heal

    there is something else going on here that I cannot exactly pinpoint. but toiveling on your own doesn’t seem like the ideal solution. i know there are many different types of mikvas, some for very frum neighborhoods. and some that are for less observant but for ladies who still keep going to the mikvah and get hardly checked. the mikvah ladies know that these ladies are at least doing the minimum required to go to the mikvah. you can even be up front with the mikvah lady and explain what you’d prefer to be done during the checking. what harrassment are we talking about here? this is the mikvah ladies’ job! granted this specific mikvah lady wasn’t so sensitive to the fact that you felt it was enough checking. this harrassment is getting blown out of proportion and based on the event that happened to Mrs. Margolese last year with her daughter its not surprising that every move you make is sensitive and appears to be going against you. it must be hard- but toiveling alone sounds even harder because you’re trying to run away from something that you probably need to work thru and heal.

  10. You’re gona let a Bully scare you out of town?

    This could probably happen anywhere, depends on the person/bully.
    Why don’t you just say thank you for your concern, I thoroughly checked it and am fine with it. It’s on my achrayut NOT yours!

    If she continues to argue, just walk past her dunk and leave.
    You need to show her that if she harasses people too much you will just ignore her. Just make sure your all dunked and if she doesn’t want to give you her blessings, sounds like you don’t really need it from her.

    What will she do try and stop you???
    stand up to thugs.

    Then spread the word and solution
    and she will stop doing this to people.
    Or complain to her bosses and try to get her fired.

  11. I totally agree with this comment. The mikveh lady is there to do a job, and that includes a physical inspection. Before I aged out of this mitzvah, I went to a mikveh where the lady checked for loose hairs. She also used a bleach solution on my callouses and under my finger nails, and checked any scabs to make sure they were tightly attached. I took no offense, any more than I do when the dermatologist checks my whole body and photographs moles (with a ruler in the photo) to compare the next time. I was more concerned about being meticulous about the mitzvah than any sense of false modesty.

    • No, friends, it is YOUR job to check your moles, scabs, dried skin, and loose hairs. Some women like the mikvah lady to double check for a feeling of security, but it is in no way required.

      Ensuring your hair is completely immersed (especially with long hair) is the only reason for a mikvah lady – which is why, in circumstances where a mikvah lady is not available, one may hold their hair underwater and let go once they are completely immersed, or wear a type of loose hairnet, as mentioned. Yes, this is mainstream halacha.

  12. Before having to dunk in front of 3 very frum men while covered in a loose robe (for my geirus), I was given the advice to just not look at them. I had no idea if they were looking or not (I can only assume they weren’t looking at anything other than the top of my head…). That’s how I’ve continued with all the mikveh ladies since I got married. B”H, no one has given me a hard time during the checking process before I go in, but once the towel comes off, I have no idea whether she is watching me or not. I trust she’s not, but it gives me a little semblance of privacy for myself no matter what.

  13. Some of the commenters here seem to have misunderstood the difference between being supervised to ensure no hair floats on the surface of the water and being EXAMINED. The latter is NOT the mikvah lady’s job – it is YOUR job. YOU must examine yourself, head to toe, to ensure there are no chatzitzos. If you choose to enlist the mikvah lady’s assistance, that is your prerogative, but not at all a requirement. Implying that without the mikvah lady’s EXAMINATION your tevilah is not kosher (ch”v) is completely incorrect and a dangerous statement.

  14. I just wanted to add to my disbelief that this lady went to media in order to spread her story- what about the traditional and non-religious women who would have considered Mikva before reading the article? I think she did a great misservice.
    I am not, in any way, trying to minimize her experience- as i said above I too have experienced similar, thought not such extreme circumstances- i just believe this should be dealt with in a different way- alert the authorities in your area, deal with it at a personal or/and communal level but why create a horrific name for Mikva-going in the secualr media?!

  15. I think that the majority of the people with problems are having a culture clash with Israeli mikvah ladies. In Israel, people are much more “body positive”, and think nothing of being naked in front of the same sex if you are in a parve environment. Ever been to the spa at Ein Gedi? Naked women everywhere, just lounging around without a care in the world!

    Another cultural difference is that to an Anglo, the Israeli is “staring at them”. To the Israeli, she’s just taking a careful look, and most likely not thinking anything except her job – and maybe what to fix for dinner.

    If you really hate the mikvah lady, report her to her supervisor. Complaining about her to other people won’t help anything. 1. You’ll still feel like a victim, and 2. You’ll just be leaving the mikvah lady not knowing what she did that upset you, and possibly upsetting other people with delicate sensibilities. I don’t see either of those being a practical solution, do you?

  16. Ahavya HaLevy

    I don’t want to belittle her experience at all but imagine if this article caused even one woman not to go to the mikva at all. The media is looking for juicy articles such as these and we have to be careful not to feed them. There are many other ways of solving this issue and the media is not one of them.

  17. I hope it will become the woman’s right to ask for help or denigh it.
    but i think her comunaty was angry because she went public with her feelings, and it makes mikva look like a horoble and tromatic thing. which for most woman it’s not.

  18. I completely agree with this last point- I hear you Chana Jenny that this woman is a mover and a shaker, and it is commendable that she stands up for what she believes is right, but taking this to the non-religios media only does more harm than good for us a whole.

  19. I think she did offer a positive solution- go to rabbis and mikvah personnel. not anti-chareidi media that may very likely turn people away from this extremely precious and important mitzvah.

  20. Miriam, a very important point which also bothered me immediately when I read this post. I actually just heard a shiur where the speaker spoke of someone who did not have a religious upbringing, and when this person learned the details of bris mila, she was repulsed. However this same person had no problem wearing revealing clothing in the summer. Healthy body image and our relating to our body as a kli for kedusha and fulfilling Hashem’s Will, as opposed to an object to either display or be ashamed of, will help us all to connect to the mitzvot that may be hard for us to understand naturally after being raised in Western culture.
    I apologize for the angry tone of my first post, I was really upset by this. I still stand by what I said, though I do feel bad that Hadassa had a negative experience and hope that she will one day become comfortable and confident enough to be able to achieve the correct balance of Torah-true modesty with feeling dignified and respected at all times.

    • Tzippy-i agree with everything you wrote originally-and think you expressed it very well

  21. Wow, this post sure has gotten some attention! I just can’t help but wonder why she didn’t speak to the Mikva lady or the supervisor, or go to the Mikva on the other side of Beit Shemesh. I hope tht she will find the strength to face her trauma, and the Mikva and those that proceeded, and get the kind of help that can really heal.

  22. I have been blessed to always have a super positive experience when visiting the Melbourne Chabad mikveh. Our mikveh lady is the most sensitive, generous, thoughtful and approachable woman. Granted we went to school together and belong to the same community yet I know from sharing stories about the mikveh with many women that they have had and have the same positive experiences at the mikveh with her.
    I know that if the mikveh experience were not positive I would mention my concern to the mikveh lady and that she would listen with love and concern. In Israel, in Haifa, whenever I went to the mikveh I was made to feel welcome but it didn’t feel as special as my mikveh lady in Melbourne makes the experience.

  23. diane rabin

    the shomeret is there to ensure that you immerse completely–not to “check you out” or create stress. I have covered as shomeret many times and always hold the towel/robe up when the woman walks into the mikveh and emerges from, so as not to make them embarassed. this is an issue the mikveh board needs to take up w/their shomerets, and it needs to be addressed. no one should be questioned as to whether or not they removed their eye make up to someone else’s standards, etc. Why didn’t the write confront the mikveh board and discuss the problems with the shomerets?

  24. JewishMom

    AN ANNOUNCEMENT REGARDING COMMENTS ON THIS POST:

    ON THE ONE HAND, I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT THAT WE JEWISHMOMS HAVE A PLACE TO VENT AND DISCUSS IMPORTANT ISSUES. ON THE OTHER HAND, I THINK THAT TOO MUCH NEGATIVITY COULD END UP DOING MORE HARM THAN GOOD. FOR THAT REASON, I’VE DECIDED TO REMOVE SOME NEGATIVE AND CRITICAL COMMENTS.

  25. Bluma Chaya

    What a overstatement! The woman that stays on the mickvê is there to help us, she sees thousand of womans, she is there to make sure that the mitzvá is being done on the right way, and not to see if we are fat or skinny.

  26. If you are lucky enough to still be in the Yerushalayim area, I always had really good experiences at the mikvah in Katamon. The ladies there are very “hands-off” and just ask you to call them when you are ready. They ask if you want them to check you, and then if not, they don’t. They also don’t stare at you going in or out of the water.

  27. I just want to state that I too live in Bet Shemesh, and I probably go to the same mikveh..I have only had positive experiences there. There are more ‘laid back’ mikvehs one can go to, but I like knowing that I have a second pair of eyes–it allows me to be more relaxed while preparing. In all my years in Beit Shemesh, I have NEVER encountered such an experience, and have only been checked by women who have respected my privacy to the utmost. Sometimes bringing these things to the open causes a tremendous chillul Hashem, and only fuels the fire between the religious and non-religious camps…all I can think of is my secular Israeli family tsk-tsking over their issue of Maariv, saying, “there go those crazies in Beit Shemesh sgain!”Not all things are meant to be shared with the rest of the world, especially when it can cause more harm than good.

  28. Another Jewish Mom

    I am so pained to hear of the distress and humiliation Hadassah suffered. Noone should be hurt in the process of preparation for tevilah- is there any debate about that? Hope not!
    Still wondering however why so many of us are sharing and comparing without any mention of the forum where the disturbing experience was posted. Hadassah has every right to contribute to any publication she chooses. It seems difficult however to pinpoint the toelet of having this article appear where it did.
    BEH Hadassah will find a Mikvah which is truly beautiful in all the important ways.

  29. as a mikveh user, and former mikvah lady for many years in two different communities, i view this post from two different perspectives.

    as a mikveh user i too have been traumatized by mikveh ladies. for a number of years during my mid-30’s i cried before i went to the mikveh and i cried all the way home too.

    the well intentioned mikveh ladies at my community mikveh were holocaust survivors. hardened, rough, curt, cold and unsmiling. every single one.

    they never had a problem with my preparation thank G-d, i tried to make sure that they could never fault it. but, i had a problem with them. big time.

    despite being dan lkaf zchus each of them as holocaust survivors, going to the mikveh became something dehumanizing and horrible to be endured with great mesiras nefesh in those years. mikveh night cast a pall on my marriage.

    i vowed that if i ever got the opportunity to become a mikveh lady i would treat women very differently.

    H-shem took me up on it. i became a mikveh lady who was very, very different from those mikveh ladies that i had feared and i must confess at times loathed.

    as a mikveh lady i found out that an astonishing number of women were halachically ignorant, careless, and unprepared to use the mikveh. (i am simply conveying my actual experience. not insinuating anything, nor passing negative judgement on hadassah margolese because i too have had horrible experiences with some mikveh ladies and my preparation was, thank G-d, excellent.)

    as a mikveh lady my job was to make sure, as much as possible, that every woman’s teviloh was halachically kosher. failing to do my job meant looking the other way/ ignoring issues that could invalidate a woman’s immersion with catastrophic spiritual consequences to her, her husband and any child arising from their union.

    consequently, i never asked anyone if they needed my help or wanted it. it was my job to help them!

    like the mikveh lady in the post i found myself– more frequently than i could have ever imagined– respectfully requesting in the kindest way possible while still being firm that eye make-up remover be used again, that rough skin be smoothed, that stained hands be scrubbed again etc. etc.

    hundreds of times i lovingly and gently helped women prepare for teviloh when they were either unable, unwilling, uncaring, or just too lazy to do a better job of preparing themselves.

    i had a printed check list that i went over with every woman. and, i was quick on the draw to call a rov. i know that some women’s feathers were ruffled (and a few egos bruised too) but i had a clear conscience that i had done my very best for H-shem, for every woman, husband, and potential child.

    being a mikveh user and a mikveh lady taught me that to some extent every woman has the ability to shape her own mikveh experience. knowing the following is empowering:

    #1) do your bedikas. know enough halacha to realize when you have a shailoh. ask your shailohs to your rov before you get to the mikveh. don’t assume anything.

    #2)know the halachos of preparing for immersion, and thoroughly prepare.

    #3)a mikveh lady should do this automatically without being asked but some clueless ones won’t behave differently unless you respectfully request that she avert her eyes and/or hold up the towel (demonstrate if necessary) so that she will not be looking at you as you enter and emerge from the water.

    what’s important is getting the mikveh experience you need. dont care what the mikveh lady thinks about you. it’s irrelevant whether she understands your sensitivities or not.

    #4) ask the mikveh lady in advance to leave the room after she says “kosher” to give you some personal space if like me you want to use the eis ratzon that teviloh presents to daven in the mikveh for yourself or others who need yeshuos.

    #5) if the mikveh ladies at your community mikveh make your mikveh experiences miserable, don’t tough it out like i did for way too long. spend the time, money, and gas to travel to a different mikveh. the mitzvoh is worth it, your marriage is worth it, and you’re definitely worth it too!

  30. Chana Jenny I think that YOU are the one that took correct action: you went to a source of Halacha to discern the balanits halachic obligation and by doing so and publishing it on your blog, empowered many women to avail themselves respectfully of this information should the need arise.
    Complaining to the secular media, no matter how eloquently, did not help her fellow women one iota.
    But I do respect your attempts to judge her favourably. I’ll try to do the same.

  31. Hadassah, I am so sorry you had a negative experience! I was a Mikveh lady for 15 years. The working principle was ‘I only see what you show me.’ A woman remains in her towel until she goes down the stairs, and I turned my back until I heard she was ready. When she exited the pool we were taught to hold the towel up high with our head turned to the side to provide as much privacy as possible. If I saw eye-shadow I would ask if it was permanent.
    The questions that we asked were pertinent, even if people find it silly. Having assisted a Mikveh lady when she toveiled, she thanked me as she actually forgot one of the things on the list.
    Having said that, it is not the responsibility of the Mikveh lady to insure you have prepared. It is a favor she does for you only, since you are the one totally responsible.
    I am surprised and shocked that Hadassah chose to take her issue up via the newspaper. Did she contact the Moatza in Beit Shemesh? Did she ask about registering a complaint? What a shame to air the complaint in a non-supportive press. Couldn’t anything else be done first?
    I would like to address this forum on behalf of MIkveh ladies, attendants and staff. For those of you that use the mikveh, when was the last time you complimented them? Are you always on time? The mesirus nefesh spoken about in other comments is truly what happens. How often women would show up at closing time and then expect to take a leisurely bath. Did you know that Mikveh women have families and often need to use a babysitter for her work. If the Mikveh lady comes home late she pays more. Each woman that comes late thinks it is a one-time occurence, it might be for her. The next night it will be someone else.
    I remember my children crying that every night I will be home to say goodnight only to get home 2 hours later than I was supposed to. The Mikveh lady is paid minimum wage with no overtime.
    Most Mikveh attendants are caring and sensitive individuals. Sadly there are a few that aren’t. Isn’t that also true in every profession? Don’t we have an occasional insensitive doctor, dentist or secretary?
    A wonderful lesson I learned in life was to stand on the other side. As a young mother I would pick up my children when it was convienent for me, often stopping to chat with a friend on the way. Once I became a teacher it was so painful to see parents come an hour late to collect their children. A short term job in a store taught me to thank the checkout lady and give a compliment…
    If we would only compliment as much as we complain we would receive better service, our service people would treat us better and things all round would be wonderful!
    Thank you for letting me share my thoughts!

  32. Thank you so much for posting the video about the Tzfat Mikveh. This is so beautiful.

  33. One thing has been bothering me. Why did she write the article? I don’t believe in hiding things, but it seems to me that publicizing what the mikveh lady did rather than talking to her or her supervisor was potentially hurtful to the mikvah lady, the community, and to religious Jews who go to the mikvah. Confrontations are hard, but the only way to potentially bring shalom and fix what was done.

  34. 3rdMarlena

    The author of”Humiliated” erred by publishing her tome. Her letter should have been directed to the vaad that oversees the mikvah, and the mikvah ladies, themselves.

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