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Friday, July 26, 2013 

Hadassah Margolese leaving Beit Shemesh because her own community insulted her

The woman whose daughter was terrorized by Haredi hoodlums in Beit Shemesh is leaving, but it's not because of that. It's because she feels she was discriminated against by her own community at a mikve (ritual bathhouse), and this reveals a very alarming problem:
So I was surprised to learn, from a source close to Margolese, that her decision to leave primarily stemmed from a feeling of being attacked, not by the ultra-Orthodox extremists – but by members of her own national religious “knitted kippa” community. This past May, after an upsetting experience at the mikveh, she wrote an op-ed piece in the Hebrew-language newspaper Ma’ariv describing how she left the ritual immersion weeping, and feeling “pained and humiliated.”

She described how the on-duty female mikveh attendant, known as a "balanit," insisted she was wearing eye makeup even though she knew she had scrubbed it off. The balanit stood her ground and so did Margolese, as she described in the piece: “For some reason the balanit felt it was her job to watch me before and after my immersion, without turning around. Looking at me the whole time.

“I was nervous; I just wanted to end the humiliating ritual and go home. I didn’t tell her to turn around even though she had no reason to stand there and stare at me. But if she would refuse to let me immerse, I’d just have to find another mikveh where I could find myself in exactly the same position. So I kept quiet,” Margolese wrote, declaring that she deserved privacy and “did not need a babysitter” in the mikveh.

Her goal, she said, was to help focus on the issue of making the mikveh experience public and meaningful.

The behavior of mikveh attendants has been a hot topic among modern Orthodox women in recent months, culminating in a petition submitted by the Itim advocacy organization to the Religious Services Ministry declaring that the ‘interrogation’ of women by mikveh attendants violate women’s dignity and right to privacy, and detailing the multiple complaints they have received on the subject.

The question under debate is the extent of the attendant’s responsibility – whether she is to play a minimal role in assisting women when requested and maintaining the facility. Itim has received complaints from women like Margolese who feel violated when they are forced to stand naked – or wrapped in a towel – and answer questions that ranged from inquiries about their of birth control, to how thoroughly they cleaned their bodies in preparation for immersion, or be denied them immersion because of a body piercing.

Mikvot are used primarily by Orthodox women who observe family purity laws, and immerse themselves following their menstrual cycle before they resume marital relations with their husbands. Some attendants, presumably instructed by their superiors, are extremely pro-active in "helping" the women determine whether they are ritually pure enough to immerse.

The Itim organization contends that women should not have to sacrifice their privacy for the privilege of immersing in a mikveh, and asks that the Ministry instruct the attendants to better respect this value.

After Margolese’s piece was published in Ma’ariv, she posted the article on her Facebook page and so did her husband. While she had experienced hostile confrontations coming from outside her community regarding feminist issues such as Orot Banot and Women of the Wall, she was deeply thrown by the angry comments from those she considers friends and members of her community regarding her writing on the mikveh.

The source close to Margolese said that hostile comments were posted both on her and her husband’s Facebook page, accusing her of lying about her experience, exposing the community to public shaming (even though the piece did not mention the city or the specific mikveh) and calling the balanit “twisted” for staring at her, as well as other “name-calling.” She was surprised that after the national religious community had criticized the haredim for trying to cover up what needed changing and refusing to speak out, but when she spoke out in an effort to change something in their community, she was accused of airing dirty laundry, painting the mikveh experience as negative, and giving ammunition to anti-religious political groups.

Although those who were supportive in Beit Shemesh outnumbered her detractors, and her rabbi expressed explicit support, Margolese was deeply upset by the anger directed at her, and rarely left the house since the incident, the source said.
If this accurate, then they've revealed a most galling behind-the-scenes problem: even modern Orthodox are suffering from serious problems of failure to recognize rights to privacy, instead of letting the Lord be the one to judge. Those apologizing for the behavior of mikveh managers have embarrassed themselves by acting very much the same as the Haredis themselves - as though being religious literally makes you a saint. And just what was the big idea the balanit had for staring her into humiliation? Is that how a religious rep ensures confidence and friendship? The balanit sounds like a pure dummy.

Now, thanks to this, they could end up jeopardizing support for them, and risk Judaism's reputation for that matter. What disgusts me here is how even among modern Orthodox, there's at least a few who embraced beliefs contradictory to both Judaism and rights of individuals. Maybe this is why somebody's going to to start forming clearer sects like some Protestant congregations in the USA - Baptist, Presbytarian, Episcopelian, etc. To date, I don't know if there really are any different ones here.

Maybe some people who've taken offense at this violation of privacy will also start pondering a turn to the kind of Conservative Judaism my grandmothers adhered to. Not that they should really have to, but if this mishmash goes on and nobody admits it can be a problem for some women, then there will come followers of sects other than Orthodox Judaism here.

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