Going to the mikvah can make a Jewish woman feel spiritually exhilarated and physically pampered. This Torah-mandated water ritual prepares her to resume intimacy with her husband after a period of abstinence following menstruation or birth.
But depending on her personal circumstances, “mikvah night” also can make her feel anxious and vulnerable. She may be struggling with infertility, postpartum depression, cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or body-image issues. If her husband is abusive, she may be afraid about what will happen when she goes home.
Or perhaps she’s simply feeling overwhelmed or exhausted that particular night.
One person is in a unique position to affect how each woman will feel about the experience. That’s the mikvah attendant, the woman who first checks that the client prepared correctly for immersion and then immerses in the pool properly. She answers “amen” to the client’s blessing and envelops her bare body in a sheet or robe afterward.
Dina Leffel, a Fair Lawn mikvah attendant for the past 18 years, said she is “always open to hearing what advice people have about how I can do the job better.”
Ms. Leffel was among 40 participants in “Sense and Sensitivity,” a recent professional development session for mikvah attendants sponsored by the year-old Orthodox Union Women’s Initiative in New York.
Topics included choosing words carefully when speaking to clients, addressing the medical needs of ill clients, supporting obsessive-compulsive clients, and understanding how to relate to clients at different stages of a woman’s life.
Ms. Leffel, who also has been an attendant at mikvahs in Englewood and Paramus, said that she encounters a very diverse population of clients in Fair Lawn. She is well aware that the attendant can make or break a woman’s experience and overall attitude toward this religious practice, which is considered a cornerstone of a Jewish marriage.
“Sometimes women come to our mikvah rather than the one where they live,” she said. “I’ve heard people say it’s because they don’t like the mikvah lady in their own town.”
Dr. Adina Shmidman, the founding director of the OU Women’s Initiative, said that 21st century women have different expectations about their mikvah experience than women in previous generations have had.
“There is more of a relationship between attendants and clients, so the attendant needs a high emotional quotient,” she said. “It’s not a business transaction. People are looking to feel nurtured, uplifted, and religiously touched when they leave, and the mikvah attendant plays a role in making women feel safe and supported.”
Dr. Shmidman, who is co-chair of the Lower Merion Synagogue Mikvah in suburban Philadelphia and rebbetzin of the synagogue, is an educator whose Ph.D. is in educational psychology. She said that mikvah attendants “are a core pillar of our communities,” and the Sense and Sensitivity program was part of an effort to standardize and professionalize the work they do.
“We deeply appreciate mikvah attendants, and we’re here to support them and enable them to serve their role effectively and impactfully,” she said. “I know from our own mikvah that when attendants feel they are equipped with knowledge and confidence they’re playing at the top of their game.”
One of the training sessions Ms. Leffel found “extremely helpful” suggested appropriate ways of speaking to clients coming to the mikvah after a miscarriage or stillbirth — if the client chooses to share that information — emphasizing acknowledgment and empathy for the loss.
Another addressed OCD, a disorder that can cause clients to take an unusually long time preparing for immersion because they may check over and over that each step, from bathing to removing impediments such as makeup and stray strands of hair, has been done correctly.
Melissa Rosen, director of national outreach at Teaneck-based support organization Sharsheret, outlined the needs of mikvah clients with breast or ovarian cancer. For example, it may be best for the attendant not to react when encountering a woman with a bald head or an implanted port under her skin.
Avital Levin, director of education at Shalom Task Force, an organization that serves Jewish individuals and families struggling with troubled relationships at home, talked about how to be on the lookout for signs of abuse and what to do about it. (Many mikvahs display literature or posters with the number of the Shalom Task Force Domestic Abuse Hotline.)
Psychologist Ditza Berger of Lander College for Women spoke about anxiety, OCD, water phobia, and related mental-health issues relevant to using the mikvah. Registered nurse Estee Silver, who works in a medical practice serving women experiencing infertility, talked about what mikvah attendants need to know about clients in this situation.
Cheryl Epstein, co-chair of the Lower Merion Synagogue Mikvah, addressed the needs of the typical client and encouraged attendants to employ empowering language to help women feel more in control of the mikvah experience, even when there are no extenuating life circumstances.
Ms. Leffel said that the importance of sensitivity in choosing what to say to clients cannot be overstated. “I have learned to take my cues from the women who walk in,” she said. “Sometimes they are hyperventilating from rushing, a stressful day, difficulty finding parking, etc. I tell them to relax for a moment or two or ask them, ‘Did you have a stressful day?’” Sometimes a hug is in order, she added.
Dr. Shmidman said that based on the positive feedback from attendees, the OU Women’s Initiative is planning similar programs in Silver Spring, Maryland, and in Central Jersey, as well as a webinar series for mikvah attendants anywhere in the world.
“It’s important that mikvah attendants are viewed as professionals, and having professional development gives them the support they deserve,” she said.