Public Health England said it would be issuing guidance imminently on whether to close Jewish rituals baths during the coronavirus lockdown, as dozens around the country kept their doors open.
Some community members have expressed dismay that the baths have remained open amid synagogue and school closures, but the Office of the Chief Rabbi said guidance had been issued to the baths – or mikvehs – to increase precautions.
Among the measures being advised is the double chlorination of the water, but other suggestions appear less feasible, such as the attendant and visiting woman staying two metres apart at all times, even though the guidance advises the attendant to open doors for visiting woman.
Usage is currently by appointment only, with preparations such as showering required to be done at home, as large synagogue groups privately said they would close their baths if asked to by the government.
Public Health England (PHE) has no legal powers to order a closure but can advise religious groups to do so. A PHE spokesman this week said: “We are consulting with faith groups to develop guidance on infection prevention and control in faith settings. This will be published in the coming days.”
A mikvah is typically used by religious Jewish women in a purifying ritual following menstruation, enabling them to resume sexual relations with their husbands. For observant Jews, closing the baths could end physical relations with their spouse.
Jewish News contacted more than 15 baths this week. Almost all said they remained open. Most said users displaying any flu-like symptoms were being asked not to attend. Some said this applied if family members were sick. Only the smaller mikvehs said they were emptying the bath water between usages.
Several ritual baths for men and crockery were closed and most women-only baths said only two people were allowed in the building at any one time. Most said hand rails were regularly cleaned with hand sanitiser. Others gave additional stipulations and conditions.
For example, Craven Walk Mikvah in Stamford Hill said pregnant women were being told they could not use the baths at present, while in Southgate, where attendants are wearing masks and gloves, brides are not permitted because weddings are not currently supposed to be taking place.
There have been signs in recent days that Jewish communities around the world are beginning to close their mikvehs. Last week religious leaders closed all communal facilities including baths in Kiryas Joel, a Chasidic enclave north of Manhattan.
However the Eden Center, a Jerusalem-based group that educates women about mikvah usage, said there were government regulations and guidelines in Israel to make ritual bathing safe, and those must be followed.
“For many women and families this is crucial to the fabric of their lives,” said Dr Naomi Marmon Grumet, director of the Eden Center. “As long as it is safe we hope they stay open.”
The mikvah in Bournemouth is now closed, because it is located in the synagogue building, while the Birmingham Community Mikvah in Edgbaston said take-up was much lower than normal.
“Seeing as there are no out-of-town visitors at the moment, ladies usage is very low,” said a spokeswoman. “We have been having no more than two a week and almost never two in the same day. We’ve kept it open for ladies with very strict restrictions as per expert medical guidelines.”
Liverpool’s mikvah was closed while at Whitefield Hebrew Congregation Mikvah in Manchester, attendant Barbara Bernstein said they remained open, but someone else was covering for her since she was over 70 years of age. “I miss my regular ladies,” she said.