Immersion and Empowerment

5 December 2013

A new training program for mikva (ritual bath) attendants in Israel is an important step forward for women’s rights. The new training program, which will be run by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, was agreed upon following a campaign by Advot (Ripples), a group of women’s rights activists.

Advot formed three years ago when SHATIL organized a group of women activists to discuss issues associated with Israel’s ritual baths, the female attendants who staff them, and the potential for change. The group is composed of religious women, the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center, and independent activists. Advot aims to increase women’s decision-making over mikva policies — which today are determined by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate — and to expand the role and raise the status of the attendants.

Since monthly mikva attendance is a common practice among Orthodox women, the 800 mikva attendants across the country are well-positioned to assist women who come to the mikva by, for instance, directing them to social services if they see signs of domestic violence. Generally, mikva attendants are the only people who see the bodies of ultra-Orthodox women other than their husbands and doctors. Advot wants to transform the mikva into a space in which trained attendants facilitate discussions with women on issues such as domestic violence and women’s health.

After a year of roundtable discussions, Advot established itself as an advocacy group and held a conference in 2012 to raise issues regarding the mikva, including: the dilapidated conditions of many mikvas throughout Israel; the often humiliating treatment women receive from attendants at the mikva; and the work conditions for attendants.

Advot’s lobbying has made the problems of the mikva an issue that the government and the rabbinate take seriously. In October, a Knesset committee meeting was held to discuss mikva issues, with the leader of Advot giving the opening talk.

“Now it’s an issue that people talk about, it’s no longer under the radar,” said Anat Yona, who works in SHATIL’s religious pluralism section and consults to Advot.

Signs that the government has taken notice were demonstrated at the recent Advot conference in November, which featured MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Jewish Home party) as a speaker, and received a congratulatory video message from Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, deputy Religious Services Minister. Along with Jewish Home, members of the Yesh Atid party have also taken an interest in the mikva issue.

Following a series of meetings with the Ministry of Religious Services, the Ministry agreed to initiate the pilot training course to teach the attendants to identify potential problems in women’s lives and to provide both first-aid assistance and longer term support. If the pilot is successful, it will become part of the required training for all attendants. The program has the potential to transform Israel’s mikvas into safe spaces for women to discuss and deal with issues that affect them.