Ritual Baths in Israel Open During Coronavirus Crisis Despite Hygiene Shortfalls

'The risk of infection with the coronavirus is clear,' one expert says. 'If the chlorine level or acidity level is off, the danger is there'

Aaron Rabinowitz
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A mikveh in the central Israeli city Elad.Credit: Nir Keidar
Aaron Rabinowitz

Most ritual baths in Israel operate without a business license and with substandard sanitary conditions and little oversight, the Health Ministry says, but the authorities are still letting them operate during the coronavirus crisis.

Nevertheless, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have asked their followers to stay away from the ritual baths, mikvehs, as much as possible, to avoid infection with the virus.

A Health Ministry report on the issue, submitted to the Religious Services Ministry in March 2019, concerns only public mikvehs, which are usually only for women. Most men’s mikvehs are private and are not supervised by the Health Ministry.

“The sanitary quality is not satisfactory, particularly the water quality,” the report states, noting that the tests are of questionable reliability. The law requires that samples of mikveh water be taken monthly.

It’s both the health and religious service ministries that are letting the mikvehs operate during the coronavirus crisis.

Israel has an estimated 750 mikvehs for women, nearly all of which have at least two immersion pools, meaning that at least 18,000 water samples are supposed to be taken annually. But the latest figures show that only 5,270 samples were taken.

“The numbers clear. The situation in the public mikvehs is dreadful, and in the private mikvehs the situation is much worse, without even minimal oversight,” said a source familiar with the system.

A mikveh in Rishon Letzion
A mikveh in Rishon LetzionCredit: Nir Shmul

“The mikveh operators don’t even know they’re supposed to do testing and sampling .… No one deals with them …. The risk of infection with the coronavirus is clear. If the chlorine level or acidity level is off, the danger is there.”

The report also questions the quality of the disinfection methods and cites “a lack of knowledge on the part of the mikveh attendants regarding operation and maintenance.”

The source familiar with the system added: “The mikveh attendants are the ones who put in the chlorine and do the disinfecting, but hardly any of them ever receives any training about how to do it properly and what kind of tests to do.”

Contrary to the law’s requirement that samples be taken during hours of operation, samples are being taken early in the morning when the water is still relatively clean, the report found.

According to the law, mikveh water should be changed daily, but this does not appear to be happening.

“Two weeks ago, a new directive was issued that in a mikveh with a water filter, the water only has to be changed every two weeks,” the source said, adding that in men’s mikvehs the water is changed every other month, on average, and in women’s mikvehs, once a month. And if there is no filter, then once a week.

The Health Ministry said in a statement: “The report highlights problems we identified at the mikvehs to improve the situation. Our recommendations, as written in the report, are to increase awareness on the part of the men and women using mikvehs, increase instruction and training for mikveh attendants and technical staff, and establish a mechanism for arranging business licenses and enforcing the regulations.

“The coronavirus is mainly transmitted through droplets from person to person. The virus is sensitive to chlorine and is not known to be transmitted via disinfected water. The approval that was given limits the number of people in a mikveh to three, while maintaining a 2-meter distance between one person and another.”  

The Religious Services Ministry added: “The state comptroller said in his report on the subject that the local authorities are responsible for issuing business licenses to mikvehs. The Religious Services Ministry has acted on this matter even though it was not obligated to do so.”

As for the mikvehs’ operations during the coronavirus crisis, the ministry said: “The mikvehs received new instructions regarding disinfection, changing the water and the activity of the mikveh attendants. The ministry is working to protect the health of women who visit a mikveh, and water quality testing kits were distributed last month.”

The ministry did not specify which testing kits were distributed and whether the mikveh attendants were taught how to use them.

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