Submerging safely: Accessing the mikvah with a disability

Submerging safely: Accessing the mikvah with a disability

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Although recently renovated and the only mikvah that allows use for conversions—no questions asked—the West Orange Mikvah is not handicap accessible. Photo courtesy West Orange Mikvah
Although recently renovated and the only mikvah that allows use for conversions—no questions asked—the West Orange Mikvah is not handicap accessible. Photo courtesy West Orange Mikvah

Naava Hess, a mikvah attendant in Linden, recalls the time she had to help someone with a physical disability into the pool of water. “It made an impression,” she told NJJN. “There are ways to do this if you’re semi-mobile. It’s a bigger issue when you’re completely paralyzed from the waist down.” 

Sharon Rosenhaus, administrator of Mikvah Bais Chana Lubavitch in Morristown, a ritual bath built about 28 years ago, has a clear understanding of the need for accessibility: After suffering a stroke, her niece, became disabled. When she went to a mikvah with a lift, the lift broke, and her mother had to help her into the ritual bath. “It was so traumatic,” said Rosenhaus. Nonetheless, the Morristown mikvah is not handicap accessible; approximately 20 women use it each month. “We may never have a call for it,” she said. “If someone is that disabled, they’d have to go to Mikvah Chana in Livingston. We’re just a little town here.”

There are currently eight mikvahs in the Greater MetroWest area, which includes Morris, Essex, Sussex, Union, and part of Somerset counties, with five having opened in the last decade or so. Mikvah Chana, which opened in 2007, is the only one that is fully accessible. 

The importance of an accessible mikvah shouldn’t be understated. A mikvah is essentially a pool connected to a reservoir of rainwater, and according to Jewish law, women are required to immerse themselves on a monthly basis following menstruation in observance of the laws of family purity, or taharat hamishpacha. Immersion is also required for conversion; brides use the mikvah before the wedding; and there are other reasons one may elect to use it, such as to mark the end of a serious illness.  

For many new Jewish communities, it is the first structure built; in 1938, just three years after Rav Pinchas Mordecai Teitz became the leader of the Elizabeth community, he constructed Mikvah Tomer Devorah (now Mathilda Goldflies Mikvah Tomer Devorah) one of the town’s two mikvahs.

But until recently, handicap accessibility was not on the community radar, nor was it considered when three of the older area mikvahs were built, Mikvah Bais Chana Lubavitch in Morristown in the late 1970s, the West Orange Mikvah in 1976, and Mikvah Hadassah in Millburn, no longer in use. 

The issue arose during the planning for some newer mikvahs, but often the lack of immediate need drove the discussion. For example, when Linden’s Congregation Anshe Chesed — Hess’s husband is the rabbi — built a mikvah, accessibility was on Naava’s agenda. “It was something I wanted to do,” she said. 

But the cost proved prohibitive and other limitations were difficult to overcome. Moreover, no one in the community of 35 or so families needed it. So they compromised. Ziga Roshanski Mikvah opened in 2015, and it’s partially accessible: one of the bathrooms and preparation areas is accessible, and designers left enough room on at least one side of the mikvah to install a chair lift should they ever have need. “It’s doable, but expensive,” said Hess, who added that to do it properly would require some added construction costs. 

Joel Shulman, a Springfield architect who designed Mikvah Yisroel of Springfield, told NJJN that new buildings must meet standards for accessibility set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the mikvah itself, as a religious structure, is exempt. They would have had a hard time doing it in Springfield, regardless, given the limited space of the site, he said. 

The conversation was different for Mikvah Chana in Livingston. The driving force behind that mikvah has long been Toba Leah Grossbaum. She and her husband, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, founded and run the local Friendship Circle, which offers programming and respite care for children with disabilities and their families. They are now in the process of building LifeTown, expected to open this fall. Because of their work with the Friendship Circle, Toba Leah could not conceive of building anything in the community that is not accessible. 

“For Zalman and myself…we spend our lives working for programs for kids with special needs,” she told NJJN. “Our attitude was how could we not do this?” When asked to provide a breakdown for how much more it cost to make it handicap accessible, she said she could not; it was simply built into the budget from the outset. She acknowledged that they may not have done so had there been another accessible mikvah in the area.

Mikvah Chana has a lift that hooks onto the floor and can be lowered into the mikvah. Support staff can lower individuals down, and help them off the chair to submerge before returning them to the lift. When not in use, the lift folds away into a closet.

About 70 people use Mikvah Chana each month. In 10 years, the lift has only been used a handful of times, according to Toba Leah, including by a bride with a broken leg and a woman who had suffered a stroke. 

“Thank God we have not used it so much, but from time to time someone has a broken leg or a ski accident and the chair makes it safer,” she said.

According to the Cornell University 2015 Annual Disability Status Report, 7 percent of U.S. residents reported having an ambulatory disability. The numbers are lower in New Jersey, however (7 percent of residents reported having some kind of disability — but this could include a visual, aural, or cognitive disability, as well as an ambulatory disability). 

Mikvah Mei Menachem in Rockaway, which opened in 2009, and Mikvah Yisroel of Springfield, which opened in 2008, decided against building fully accessible ritual baths with hydraulic lifts. They and others reasoned that there wasn’t enough need to justify the cost.

“We discussed the possibility at length at the time of construction, but determined that it would not be practical and that anyone with a disability using the mikvah would be more comfortable with other options,” said regional director of the Chabad Center of Northwest NJ, Rabbi Asher Herson, of Mikvah Mei Menachem in Rockaway. “Our practical experience has proven this to be correct. The mikvah is accessible to people with disabilities but we do not have a hydraulic lift.” He noted that a hydraulic lift at a mikvah “is quite rare.” 

At Mikvah Yisroel of Springfield, administrator Rachel Kohn said, “Although the building entrance has wide doors and no steps, the mikvah pools do have steps and no ramps. I don’t know how a person who could not navigate the steps would enter the pools.” She estimated that about 25 people use the mikvah on a monthly basis. While she is uncertain what the mikvah attendant would tell someone who called with a disability, she said, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no one in our synagogue (under the age of 65) with this type of need and it’s possible they never have received such a call.”

The Chai Center had a mikvah in Millburn before moving to its current location on Jefferson Avenue in Short Hills, but it was in a basement, requiring steps, not only to get into the mikvah, but to get downstairs, and it was not large enough for a lift. Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky told NJJN that were they to build a mikvah at their new location, “I don’t think we’d consider making it accessible. We never had the need for it in all the years we had it,” he said. Further, he pointed out that should an individual require one, there are other handicap-accessible mikvahs. 

Rabbi Elazar Mayer Teitz, who now leads the Elizabeth community, said, “I imagine if it did come up we’d have to do something. To put it in — I don’t think we’d do it just in case.”

Accessibility is an issue not just for new mikvahs, but for those that have been around for decades, as well. Built in 1976 and renovated around 2005, the accessibility of the West Orange Mikvah was on the agenda at a Feb. 2 executive committee meeting according to Mikvah president Rivka Hindin. On that date, the group decided not to install a lift, “since Livingston is so close and can so well accommodate those with special needs,” she said. Echoing the comments of others, Hindin said, “The demand is not overwhelming enough for us to consider putting a second [lift] in the same community.” However, the West Orange Mikvah is the only one in the area that is permitted to be used for conversion by any area rabbi, no questions asked. Acknowledging that, Hindin added, “We are committed to helping anyone that we can who would prefer, for whatever reason, to use the West Orange mikvah.”

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