People usually don't frequent restaurants in which they see insects crawling around every time they enter. So how can we expect observant women to look forward to going to the ritual bath known as the mikveh when this is exactly what they get to see there?
Naomi Grumet, a Jerusalem resident whose doctoral thesis analyzed women's feelings toward mikvehs, found that in her hometown they are often run-down and neglected, negating any desire women might otherwise have to spend more time there than necessary. Perhaps even worse, a Jerusalem mikveh experience "is often uninspiring and even degrading," she says.
That's why the 37-year-old last year initiated the creation of the Eden Center, a state-of-the-art mikveh with spa and gym facilities to be built there. In addition to "a welcoming and respectful environment," the center promises the services of halakhic guidance counselors, dietitians and psychologists providing couples therapy.
"The aim is to empower women over their bodies and provide a safe place for women to reconnect with themselves and their heritage," Grumet, a mother of three, says. "Let's transform the mikveh from an obligation to an opportunity."
Jewish religious law forbids sexual relations from the moment a woman starts to menstruate until after she immerses herself in a mikveh, usually about two weeks later. For countless women who go to the mikveh out of routine or a sense of religious obligation, the act of immersion merely signifies the moment she is allowed to resume sexual activity with her spouse. But the quality of the mikveh is directly linked to the quality of what happens afterward in the couple's bedroom, according to Grumet.
"My research showed so clearly that what happens in the mikveh affects people when they go home," says Grumet, who last month presented her project at PresenTense, a Jerusalem-based think tank for social entrepreneurs that supports her project. "Think about a person when she comes back from the mikveh: Is she energized? Is she excited? Or does she need an hour [to calm down, saying] that was so disgusting and I feel horrible and I want to take a shower?"
A bad mikveh experience does not only turn off the one who was in the water, Grumet adds - men pick up the bad vibes when their wives say they're not looking forward to mikveh time.
"The Eden initiative wants to change the mikveh from just a ritual location into a center for women that thinks about them as whole beings," explains Grumet, who was born in Germany but grew up in the U.S. and Britain before immigrating to Israel in 1994. "Women deserve more. The needs of today's women are not met by going to a pool with dirty water, standing in front of somebody who looks over their body when they're naked and whose main concern is whether they have lint between their toes." According to halakha, nothing may be between a woman's skin and the water. Since most Jerusalem mikvehs are run by the local religious council, which is dominated by Haredim, many so-called mikveh ladies are preoccupied with following the letter of the law instead of making sure the women have a positive spiritual experience, she says.
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