Monday, October 20, 2014

After scandal, a simple mikvah proposal

[Update 8:09 AM - Within a few minutes of posting this, I received a notice from a rabbinic friend, who informed me that the "Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington" has already sent out a notice listing steps that they are taking. One of them is, "Male volunteers who assist MES with maintenance issues at the Wallerstein Mikvah will no longer be permitted to enter the mikvah without a woman accompanying them." Baruch shekivanti, although I believe that having a committee of women control access is a more practical method than accompanying, as outlined below.]

I am still processing the rabbinic scandal from Kesher Israel in Washington DC. (I am not hiding his name to protect him; I am refusing to type it because looking at it makes me ill.) I have many thoughts going through my head, but I'm not ready to post on it today. I'm not sure which ones are logical yet.

However, I do want to make the following proposal: No male should have unfettered access to a mikvah, even a supervising rabbi. 

Like any male, the rabbi should have neither the keys not the combination, whatever system of access is used. There should be a small committee of women who are licensed to let him in (and who will have the ability to inspect it after he leaves, should there be any concerns).

I say this as a rabbi who supervised a community mikvah for eight years, during which time we actually had two mikvaos – an old one, which needed halachic maintenance, and a new one, which needed the halachic attention that comes with a new mikvah. I had the keys and I used them, but in truth, I could have done everything I needed to do by working through a small committee of contact people.

Of course, men also use the mikvah, and the rabbi could have access like any other male during those times. But women should be in charge of making sure the mikvah is open during those times, and should be the ones to lock up, and check the facility as needed, afterward. [And where possible, the men and women should have dedicated changing areas, with the women's changing areas locked when the mikvah is in use by men. Where this is not practical, women should inspect the changing areas from time to time.]

This is not about accusing all rabbis, or all men, of impropriety and evil intent. Rather, it's like in hashgachah in the kosher food industry. Just as we recognize that a religiously observant business owner has a yetzer hara for profit, and therefore we don't allow him unfettered access to his food service establishment, so we must recognize that most males have a yetzer hara in sexual matters, and therefore we should not allow them unfettered access to a place where women are unclothed.

Does this make sense to you?


  1. > This is not about accusing all rabbis, or all men, of impropriety and evil intent

    Actually it is, but that's because enough rabbis/men have made such accusations necessary.

    1. No more than the laws of Yichud, or for that matter similar rules passed by many school boards here in the US for teachers alone with students, accuses all adults.

      Sometimes you need a rule to apply to everyone because if you cannot screen out in advance who is of the minority who need the rule, and they certainly won't admit it themselves.

  2. Mikvaot are often used by men in the daytime, and these are typically the same ones used by women at night. In such cases, restricting male access during the day looks impossible.

  3. Garnel-
    Are all owners and workers of kosher food facilities corrupt? Are all stockbrokers corrupt? Oversight is a caution because of a concern, not evidence of guilt.

    Not impossible at all; just make sure that a woman is the one to open up before men's hours begin, and to close it and inspect it when men's hours end.

  4. Leanyus daati, the ineffectiveness of the 2012 RCA investigation represents the malady of greater significance in gleaning any practical lessons for the broader jewish community from this story. There always remains an infinite number of unanticipated scenarios and iterations through which scandals can unfold. Sure, we should try our best to avoid there reoccurrence in each relevant context though we must acutely recognize our limits in this regard. Yes, we can and should focus on how to bolster the purity of our mikvaos at this point but more importantly the lesson of this story demands a wider lens, one that is often hidden and overlooked.

    We need to stop tolerating deviant behavior. It doesn't matter how prolific someone is. Mumar l'davar echod is kofer bchol hatorah. Such individuals cannot be rehabilitated. Misplaced mercy is certain cruelty. Understand that behavior of people in positions of power and leadership leave a vast wake behind it etc.

    My heart goes out to his family who don't deserve the unimaginable shock emotional trauma, and embarrassment they must be enduring at this time. As well to all those who were victimized by him. I further pray that his actions are viewed by the world as those of deviance and not in any way representative of the moral character of the Jewish world.

    1. Anonymous-
      Agreed entirely. I'm just not ready to address the broader issue; I have too many conflicting thoughts on it right now.

    2. One part of the broader issue is the frequent impression that insiders of organizations or professions look out for each other and not so much for the rank-and-file or clientele.

    3. While I agree that's the perception, that's not really the dynamic, IMHO.

      Rather, you work with someone for an extended time, build up a personal and professional relationship, learn to both respect and like them, and it colors your ability to judge them.

      It's not just true of the RCA, Lakewood, NSCY (where I knew those involved well enough to make the above assessment) or the Catholic Church -- it's part of being human. When it's someone you know, or think you know, you are more likely to see their side of the story or accept the validity of their attributing the problem to common human foibles.

      When the organization does find out, there ends up being one of two responses:

      If the individuals who were too close to the person personally to handle the problem before the news story / legal action now feel overwhelmed and strained, or unfairly made targets... In short, if they end up having reason to be personally mad enough to sever the relationship, then the organization will hang the perpetrator out to dry and launch PR initiatives, reorganizations, etc... Incidentally it may also restore their good name and protect the organization.

      If they aren't feeling much heat personally, the organization ends up maintaining a solid front for the perpetrator and against all accusations and accusers even after the scandal has gone public.

      In short, it's too emotional of a topic to end up being handled by an organization choosing a policy and strategy, and more ends up about the collective response of individuals who either support their friend or feel betrayed by him.

  5. I am a woman, and I am not in favor of banning men from the mikvah. i think it will have unintended consequences and make maintaining the mikvah more cumbersome than necessary. I also think that a maintenance guy can install a device without a woman knowing what he is doing even if she is standing right there. It gives a false sense of security. If the men use the mikvah at all for tevilla, then having shomrim at other times also makes it a feel good exercise rather than one that has an impact

    I would demand that mikvaos, all women's gyms and locker rooms and boys and girls bathrooms in schools and dorms have regular sweeps by security firms to check for hidden devices.

    1. I agree with your points, but I would still keep the access controlled by women, in addition to your points. I don't know what the cost of a sweep is, but I could easily imagine a community relying on annual or semi-annual sweeps, and I feel that this would be insufficient.

  6. > Are all owners and workers of kosher food facilities corrupt?

    Well apparently they just caught a kosher butcher in Germany who'd been selling glatt trief meat for the last years so yeah, there is a reason for concern and he's going to ruin it for the honest guys.
    Are all stockbrokers corrupt?

  7. I'd like to tear him from limb to limb. That said, any school that isn't teaching both boys and girls that there are voyeurs and pedaphiles and predators, and that there are signs, ways to know when one is near, is remiss. Not to mention higher education ethics classes that skip this part.

    And let's get the men out of the mikvah, stam. They can take a jump in the lake, but are now, because of this guy, officially pauter, exempt from this particular pleasure altogether. And more, unwelcome. Gartel or no gartel.

    1. Men's and women's hours do not overlap. What's your point?