November 1, 2004 | Issue 15

Mikvah Lady Shortage Hits Crisis Mode

NEW YORK, NY — [TheKnish.com] The Board of Rabbis of America (BRA) announced yesterday that the decline in the number of Orthodox women pursuing careers in Religious Hygienics (mikvah inspection) has resulted in a dire shortfall of "mikvah ladies," impacting the operations of dozens of mikvahs throughout the United States.

“We are functioning at full crisis mode,” admitted Rabbi Bezalel Carlucci, the BRA’s Director of Taharas Hamishpachah Operations – Night Governance (THONG). “At certain mikvahs in key metropolitan areas we have been forced to divert traffic from as many as three mikvahs to one central mikvah. The result has been a great inconvenience, to say the least. Women have had to cope with long lines inside the mikvah, and their husbands have had extensive traffic tie-ups and fender-benders in the parking lots.”

While a shortage of "mikvah ladies" was predicted for nearly a decade, the crisis was reached rather suddenly. Most industry analysts attribute the shortage to a combination of low wages, long hours and a general dissatisfaction with the role. Rebbetzin Green Blueberg, a noted Orthodox feminist, has been working in cooperation with the BRA to diagnose the challenges. “Women no longer want to work nights, especially since the advent of reality TV,” Rebbetzin Blueberg said.

A disturbing side effect of the "mikvah lady" shortage has been a rise in prices for mikvah services. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Zeev-Ber and Tiffany Schlosselmeyer who manage the Kesser Yankif Mikvah in Los Angeles admit that they have tripled prices over the last month and a half. According to Rabbi Schlosselmeyer, “We simply could not meet the local demand for services. Come evening the lines out the door might start at 50 women. And people were beginning to scalp. Tthey would get in line and sell their place to someone else at a 100% markup. We couldn’t make that kind of money even if we charged extra for using towels.”

The BRA has been exploring potential solutions for addressing the crisis. One approach, currently being piloted at a mikvah in the St. Louis area, is to introduce a “mikvah lady buddy system.” In this system, two women at the mikvah take turns inspecting each other, under the guidance and supervision of a single "mikvah lady." “We have increased efficiency by nearly 70%,” said Mrs. Breinah Charlop, the THONG supervisor overseeing the field pilot. “There are concerns about modesty issues, of course, so we encourage women to choose their own buddies, preferably someone they wouldn’t mind seeing naked.”

Also under consideration is a revision of the professional criteria for a "mikvah lady." “We would open the role to non-Orthodox women today if we thought it would solve the problem. But with the exception of a few women in Teaneck and San Francisco there hasn’t been interest in the role,” according to Rabbi Carlucci. “We are also exploring hiring non-Jewish women. In many ways, this is similar to the shabbos goy – once they know what to look for they are fine.”

But a visionary approach is being explored at the Eitz Hadaas Mikvah in Dallas, where digital cameras have been set up, linking the inner rooms of the mikvah via the Internet to licensed "mikvah ladies" in Israel, where there is no shortage. “The halacha never states that a woman must be touched during inspection,” explains Rabbi Carlucci. “So modern technology can help us bridge the talent gap.”

According to Rabbi Carlucci, the Dallas experiment opens up many interesting possibilities. “If we can get the Dallas pilot to work, and we can resolve the status of non-Jews serving in the role, we can outsource all mikvah inspection to India, where labor is cheap or perhaps Indonesia. This would allow us to expand the network of mikvahs operating in the United States. It would lower salary expense overall. It would also open new potential revenue streams for the BRA.” Rabbi Carlucci would not elaborate on his last point, citing competitive concerns.

And what of the actual users of the mikvahs and their husbands? Opinions of the crisis are decidedly mixed. Sheindel Bartholomew, a housewife and part-time sheitelmacher in Brooklyn, is reticent. “Look, my husband waits two weeks already. If he has to wait another couple of days, nisht gerferlech.” Mr. Bartholomew was unavailable for comment, as he was too busy banging his head against his shtender.

Shoshanah Measelschotz, of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, offers a different perspective. “This crisis has been a real tircha on my husband and myself. To be honest, once over the summer I went to a lake and had my husband do the inspection. The water was cold. And last week when I went to the mikvah it was really humiliating: I waited in line for three hours and afterwards my husband and I were arrested in the parking lot for indecency.”

Shmuel Zuckerkup, father of four and husband of mikvah-user Ruchel, sums up the sentiment expressed by most of the men interviewed. “Hey, the BRA has a golden opportunity to address this issue head on. I am happy to give them the chance. But if I have to continue to wait for a solution that is not forthcoming, I will end up taking matters into my own hands.”

Writer

Pencil Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein is a part time freelance journalist and the full time Rosheshiva (dean) of Yeshiva Chipass Emmess. His detailed analysis of the inner workings of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple era is being developed as a new reality series to be aired on FOX on Friday nights. He may be reached through his Yeshiva's website at http://www.geocities.com/npoj8/index.html


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