Trauma and Tevila

Trauma is subjective and intimate to each person. This discussion will focus on cultivating sensitivity and attunement to trauma suffered by women at the mikvah, in the past, present as well as at the mikvah itself. There is no “antibody” test for trauma, to know by looking at someone, what she has been through, how it has affected her, or how it will in the future and to what degree. That is why mikvah leadership must be trauma-informed and sensitive to whomever walks in the door.

Trauma is a personal physiological and psychological experience.  Just as one cannot describe music or color to the deaf or blind, nor can one be sure if one’s experience of color or sound is even the same as one’s neighbors, so too trauma is something that cannot easily be understood by those who have not experienced it.  Religious trauma is most unfortunate because that which is transcendent and intimately spiritual has been sullied and contaminated.  

Inadvertently, aspects of the mikvah experience can be triggers for persons who have had body trauma such as sexual abuse, medical trauma as well as some who may be ashamed of their body weight or suffering from eating disorders.  It is not being naked alone that is difficult, it also can be triggering to “submit” for an inspection for chatzitzahs (barriers between body and the water) and being watched to ascertain proper immersion.  In 2014, women the world over were vicariously traumatized after learning that a renowned and esteemed rabbi of a prominent Orthodox synagogue was video recording women at the mikvah.  So on top of all the sexual abuse survivors, any woman, since that horrific crime became public, can potentially have a trauma reaction at the time of tevila. Leaving the mikvah in a state of distress places emotional roadblocks to reuniting with their husbands. 

click on this link to see a demo of EMDR and Trauma work: Chaya Feuerman EMDR Demo

My heart breaks when I hear stories about the indignities that dedicated, good Jewish women suffer at the mikvah. I write this article to give these women a voice. Women come to the mikvah to fulfill a spiritual obligation that has the potential to be infused with sanctity and connection to oneself and to G-d. The fact that some do not experience it in this way is a desecration of one of the most sacred of women’s mitzvos. What happens emotionally to some women at even the most aesthetically pleasing mikvahs, robs them of their ability to have a spiritual experience. It can be the small micro-aggressions of a gruff or rushed mikvah attendant, the degrading judgemental manner in which  an impatient dayan asks a question prior to immersion, or body inspections and quizzing by mikvah attendants. 

Women must be physically exposed in the presence of a mikvah attendant in order to ensure that every hair is submerged during immersion. This is a halachik requirement and the role of the mikvah attendant, because that one aspect a woman cannot see for herself. For many women this is difficult and for some, it is a re-traumatization of past body violations every month. 

Women want and deserve privacy and autonomy when it comes to their bodies. They also want and deserve privacy to honor their spiritual longings through prayer at this auspicious time. This is a woman’s time for spiritual hygiene. Some women might take advantage of the immersion moments to pause and meditate on this sacred ritual. Communion with G-d in this most intimate experience cannot happen when someone is standing over you, watching you and impatiently waiting for you to get out. And certainly, a woman cannot focus on prayer or connection to the immersion experience and to G-d if she has just been strip searched. She is rather likely dissociating to get through the ordeal only to leave in a troubled state instead of the mitzvah’s intended tranquility.

What actually happens in many mikvahs goes way beyond the attendant fulfilling her role to watch for stray hairs above the water, or checking the woman’s back which she cannot see herself.  

Let me pose a scenario. Tefillin is a non-optional commandment for Jewish men. That means it is a serious mitzvah to be performed every day without fail. It involves many detailed halakhic instructions and must be taught in advance to every bar mitzvah boy prior to turning thirteen. Tefillin must be placed and wrapped in specific and exact ways. The arm knot and head straps, if not wrapped and placed properly, renders the obligation of Tefillin unfulfilled. Are there any shuls in any community, that have protocols for men to be grilled about the placement of their tefillin prior to being admitted to shul or allowed to daven? As far as I know, this minhag has yet to be established in even the most stringent halakhically observant shuls. It is understood that each man takes responsibility for his own mitzvah of Tefillin. No one is hired to check on the daveners, and no one is asking intrusive questions.  From what I understand, in many shuls if a fellow davener comes over to point out that a person’s shel rosh is on incorrectly, many times the response is one of hostility.  People do not take well to being intruded on during their spiritual meditations.

Why are women being grilled, checked, touched and having flashlights aimed at them? Are women not to be trusted with their own mitzvah? Do women turn into little children as soon as they cross over the mikvah threshold who need to be reminded to brush and floss their teeth? Why are women’s bodies being invaded at mikvahs through excessive inspections of areas the women could check themselves?  Why are women being second guessed? Why does a woman need to justify herself to a mikvah attendant? Which halakha requires it? Women should be trusted that they have sought their own rabbi’s direction. What status does a mikvah attendant have over a woman using the mikvah other than check for chatzizahs on her back and to attest that she has fully submerged?  Why are women instead not asking mikvah  attendants if they were REALLY careful to check that all hair was submerged and that they did not get distracted with the phone vibrating in their pockets?  

Let us be sensitized and aware of the potential distress and damage wrought by an unattuned mikvah process. Mikvah attendants should ideally possess personality qualities and communication skills that put mikvah users at ease and create an emotionally stress-free environment. Certain forward-thinking mikvahs have attendants who are exceptionally sensitive and seem to have received trauma informed training. But there also are mikvahs where the attendants have an unfriendly and stern-faced attitude reminiscent of a Headmaster at a Catholic boarding school for juvenile delinquents.

Women who come to the mikvah are already feeling vulnerable. Some of them are desperately trying to get pregnant while others are afraid of getting pregnant. Some will go home to loving husbands and others to harsh or abusive husbands. Some have struggled with months of bleeding and staining prior to getting seven clean days and others might be going to immerse for the first time in a year. Their bodies and private places are literally exposed but they are emotionally unseen. The ways in which women are inspected and touched in many mikvahs are dehumanizing. Some of the words used by women in my practice who have had such experiences are: “strip searched”, “violated”, “interrogated” and “degraded”.  Almost all women feel uncomfortable to some degree. Why exacerbate these difficulties with intrusive inspections and excessive scrupulosity?  

There seems to be no rabbinic consensus or agreed upon standards of an attendant’s role. In one mikvah, women’s navels are examined and cleaned by an attendant, in another mikvah a laser sharp flashlight is used to search a woman’s finger and toe nails and at others only a perfunctory examination is done. In one mikvah, questions about teeth being brushed and flossed and a long list of other items are asked, but not at others. One question may be asked at one mikvah, another question at another. 

As important as the details of halachik immersion are, providing an environment to immerse in peace and holiness instead of humiliation and psychological assault is of equal importance.  At the very least, it is incumbent upon rabbinic leadership to consider that women be allowed a few minutes to pray alone in the mikvah without a sense of being rushed to get your “kosher” stamp like a piece of Empire poultry. As well, consideration of women’s body autonomy and the physical intrusions that take place in many mikvahs need to be reviewed. 

In a recent discussion with a group of mental health professionals and Kallah teachers regarding these concerns, the following was stated by Lizzie Rubin, RN MS, AASECT from Jerusalem:

 
“I teach my kallahs and tell my clients that they should tell the balanit to stay outside till she gets into the water and that if she wants, she can even stand backwards ! When she's done the balanit can leave and the tovelet can get out by herself! Wouldn't that make it a lot easier?  It would be a lot more private and less triggering! Also...Anyone who has experienced sexual abuse should ask a Rav to use a loose robe [in the water] and anyone else for that matter can ask for the heter too, if there's a lot of shame involved, such as tattoos, body image issues, whatever”.
 

It is my hope, and the hopes of the Jewish women who fear and dread the mikvah experience each month that mikvah leadership take note of what women are afraid to say out loud.  Because mikva rites and its meanings are close to my heart, I want all precious Jewish women to have the best possible experience.  Mikvah’s should consider soliciting an anonymous survey of their clientele. The survey should ask if they feel pressured or rushed, if they feel respected or disrespected. It should ask if there are any aspects of the mikvah experience that feel hurtful or embarrassing and what improvements could be made.  Such feedback would surely be illuminating.

The Mikvah User's Bill of Rights - a Guide for Rabbinic and Lay Leadership

Mikvah is an extraordinary mitzvah set aside for women which, if some modifications were made, would provide an opportunity to connect with G-d in the most intimate way. It can be a treasured oasis of quiet,  personal time to pray for healing and growth for one's self, family members and special people in our lives. No other mitzvah, including challah and candle lighting - which take place in the presence of family members and others - affords the same opportunity of spiritual connection without distraction.

From this perspective, it is crucial that Jewish communities take the mitzvah of mikvah seriously when it comes to the emotional and spiritual experience for the thousands of women who invest time and attention for mikvah preparation and immersion.  As well, in the wake of recent and disturbing abuses that took place in one mikvah of national prominence, it is an opportune time for tikkun and soul searching regarding crucial, but possibly ignored aspects of mikvah observance. Therefore, we urge mikvah Boards as well as supervising Rabbis to reflect upon the following concerns that have been expressed by many mikvah users.

Due to time pressures and short staff, unfortunately and inadvertently, in some mikvahs, users report feeling rushed and that the process of mikvah attendants fulfilling their duties seems to be a burdensome chore for them.  It is important to note that the Halacha frowns upon circumstances that would make a woman feel rushed during her mikvah process, (see Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 198:34, although the reason specified there is somewhat more technical, it still holds true that a woman should not feel rushed.) Such attitudes in the mikvah environment can create a sense of personal violation for many women due to the rushed, tense and uninviting atmosphere. The mikvah attendants, due to their own time pressures and limited or no support staff may not be attuned to the sensitivities that go along with the vulnerable state that a woman experiences being physically exposed in the presence of another person.  

The following is a draft of a proposed 'Mikvah User's Bill of Rights', developed collaboratively, with feedback from a group of mikvah users that include both lay as well as mental health professionals.  This is a work in progress and comments are welcome by mikvah users, mikvah board members as well as rabbinic leadership.

  1. At least one Board member should be a relatively young mikvah user herself. 
  2. At least one board member should be a female mental health professional who will be attuned to the subtleties and nuances of the physical and emotional atmosphere of the mikvah, the attitudes of mikvah attendants as well as the actual protocols implemented from the moment a woman walks into the mikvah building until the moment she walks out.
  3. All Rabbis who are involved in mikvah leadership should avail themselves of psycho-education regarding the lifelong effects of sexual trauma. This can take the form of workshops or webinars (one possible resource is Nefesh International nefesh.org). 
  4. Special focus and consideration by the board should be paid to the immersion experience itself that takes place only between the mikvah attendant and the woman immersing which possibly can be a function performed without oversight and supervision. 
  5. Initial Sensitivity Training as well as ongoing meetings should take place for all mikvah attendants.
  6. The mikvah building and preparation rooms should be an aesthetically pleasing and nurturing environment, not simply utilitarian. Maintenance and cleanliness is of course vital, however the atmosphere should be pleasant and relaxing for women who are dedicating time and attention toward preparing for the physically and emotionally vulnerable act of immersion. Examples of this are paintings and murals in hallways and private rooms, soft relaxation music piped into preparation rooms, heated floors, superior shower heads and water pressure, jacuzzis to replace old fashioned bathtubs and aroma therapy. This is a mitzvah worth investing in. Meaningful events that are to follow with both immersion and re-unification in the marriage bond should compel a process that is one of calm and not tension.  The amounts of financial resources invested in communities on homes, shuls and wedding halls should be the barometer for the kind of financial investment appropriate to help women have a special experience in what can potentially be their treasured monthly mitzvah. 
  7. There should be multiple immersion rooms at every mikvah and immersion rooms should be directly connected to preparation rooms to avoid having to walk down a hallway in the presence of others.
  8. No-one should ever be told to “take a number" and have to wait in a waiting room. Women deserve privacy and that does not include forced social interaction with other community members. Appointments should be made in order to provide as much privacy as possible.
  9. The following protocol should be an integral part of training for mikvah attendants: As a women disrobes for immersion, the mikvah attendant should assure each woman, EVERY time, that her eyes will be averted as well as a robe held up to block her view, until the woman immersing indicates that she is about to be completely covered by the mikvah water with the words “ok, I'm ready” before the attendant begins to watch for total immersion. In most mikvahs, attendants do hold up a robe as a woman walks down the mikvah stairs however, there needs to be verbal assurance of total privacy given to every woman, every time. While one might argue with the rationale that it is not uncomfortable for a woman to be unclothed in the presence of another female, this is not realistic because it is basic human nature that women fully unclothed feel self-conscious about their bodies. Respect for this sensitivity would provide a mikvah experience of emotional integrity to the same degree that halachic aspects of mikvah are observed. It has also been reported that some mikvah attendants do not actually avert their eyes and the robe being held up for privacy does not in fact block the attendant’s view. There should be an option for women to request that a Mikva attendant leave the room and only return when a woman states she is ready and submerged.
  10. It is important to note here that there are mikvah users who have been traumatized by some type of sexual abuse, including childhood incest, molestation and rape. Unfortunately, this is by far not a rarity as virtually all mental health professionals treating women in the Jewish community can attest. While it is highly unlikely that survivors of sexual abuse will make their trauma known to any mikvah attendant, this issue is vital to include in sensitivity training for all mikvah attendants. The emotional vulnerability of these women around their bodies and especially physical exposure is even more heightened than that of women who have not had past sexual trauma, especially given the context of this mitzvah taking place prior to resumption of physical intimacy. Being obliged to be unclothed can trigger intense reactions with serious ramifications, often not understood by lay people as well as many rabbis who have not had training in these areas. Mikvah attendants need to be sensitized to this segment of the population and may need to take things more slowly and gently, despite the time pressures.
  11. Women should have the right to have their request for a few minutes of prayer in solitude honored with dignity and respect. These are precious moments for many women who wish to use their mikvah experience in the fullest most spiritually meaningful way. There are many women who come to the mikvah filled with hopes, fears, and unspoken prayers.  When they are rushed, or in any way treated with even the smallest lack of respect, warmth and understanding to their sensitivities by either the mikvah attendants or the general mikvah environment, there is the risk that instead of coming home to their husbands feeling spiritually and emotionally renewed and connected, they can feel even more despair.  While not every woman wishes to pray in the mikvah waters, we have heard from many who have shared their intense yearning to do so, and yet are pressured and rushed by attendants to leave as quickly as possible. Women have shared their deep disappointment in being told that their request cannot be accommodated. This is understandable from the perspective that there may be many other people waiting to use the mikvah and at the same time tragic and disturbing.
  12. Mikvahs should be sensitive to persons with all kinds of disabilities.  Easy access via ramps, lifts, grab bars, and other means, including braille are important aspects of dignity that persons with disabilities deserve, both in ambulating in and out of the mikvah building as well as in preparation rooms and immersion rooms.  It is not respectful that a person be hoisted up stairs or some other awkward experience.
  13. A woman has a right to body autonomy. She should not be touched. If a mikvah attendant notices a hair on a woman’s back, she should ask for permission to remove it. Furthermore, any part of a woman's body that can be checked by herself should not be subject to inspection by a mikvah attendant. That means that only a woman's back need be checked and permission to do so should always be obtained first.
  14. Lastly, there ought to be annual satisfaction surveys covering all aspects of the mikvah experience – physical, emotional and spiritual. These should be reviewed by the boards of every mikvah and the results publicly disclosed.  Accountability and transparency is a form of checks and balances and should be implemented as with any other service. Women should look forward to engaging in the mitzvah of mikvah without any fears, emotional upheaval or deprivation of spiritual fulfillment. 

 

Photo credit:  Kerem Karaarslanon unsplash