Two out of three public ritual baths, or mikvehs, in Israel operate without a license and without sanitary supervision, data from the Religious Services Ministry obtained by Haaretz shows.
Most of these Jewish ritual baths are for women, who are the only ones required to use them for purposes of fulfilling requirements of Jewish law. There are also hundreds of private mikvehs – their exact number is not known – that operate without any supervision.
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Under the regulations governing the coronavirus pandemic that went into effect in September, ritual baths were exempted from sanitary supervision and remained open during the lockdown. That was also the case during the lockdown in the spring, when the ministry said that the chlorine used in the baths would destroy the virus.
The Religious Services Ministry is supposed to monitor the mikvehs, which are operated by local religious councils.
According to figures from the ministry’s department of religious buildings, out of Israel’s 776 public mikvehs, only 259 – roughly one-third – have a valid license. Of the 47 public mikvehs in the Tel Aviv region, 72 percent are licensed, compared to just 4 percent in the Jerusalem area. The lowest proportion of unlicensed mikvehs after Jerusalem is in West Bank settlements, at 16 percent.
A Health Ministry study that was reported by Haaretz earlier this year said: “The quality of sanitation [at the mikvehs] is not satisfactory. Especially the water quality as well as the operations.” Data gathered by the ministry show that in 2019, 29 percent of samples required by the law were taken. These rules require a daily sample of the water tested externally once a month. The reliability of these tests is also doubtful.
A source involved in operating the ritual baths who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity said that the situation in the public mikvehs is terrible, “and in the private mikvehs, most of which are intended for men, the situation is even worse. There is almost no supervision at all,” he said.
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“The operators are so far from the facility that they don’t even know that they are supposed to do tests and sampling. It’s extraterritorial, there is nobody to talk to and nobody wants to deal with them,” he said.
Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber, the director of ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life, said the figures paint “a picture of chaos that puts the women who use the baths at risk, all the more so during the coronavirus period. The publication of strict rules isn’t enough.”
Tehila Friedman, a lawmaker for Kahol Lavan, said that the conventional wisdom according to which the mikvehs are not a source of coronavirus infection is false, and it seems the situation is worse than reported. “A woman [who breaks] quarantine [to go] to the mikveh is putting the public at risk, it’s a matter of life and death that should supersede everything.”
The Religious Services Ministry said it rejected the cited figures.
“Sanitation is supervised at all the mikvehs in the country and there is joint supervision [with the] religious councils, the ministry, local government and the Health Ministry [regarding] water quality, sanitation, hygiene and the buildings’ physical space. The data on infection does not identify mikvehs as a source of infection, data which also states the obvious.”
In response, the Health Ministry acknowledged that mikvehs require a business license to operate, which is issued by the local council after an approval from the Health Ministry is obtained. “Mikveh operators are responsible for meeting the standards, including obtaining a license and renewing it, monitoring and supervising water quality, handling public complaints, routinely supervising the sites and handling sampling results.”