Playing politics at the mikveh

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 19, 2008

A proposal for a ritual bath in Cambridge is being obstructed, for no good reason

Being an Oxford man, I do not travel to Cambridge very frequently. But there are some remarkable similarities surrounding the Jewish presence in both these ancient seats of learning.

Both have modest resident Jewish populations, augmented in recent years by young professional couples relocating from an over-expensive Jewish London. Both have growing hi-tech communities of post-doctoral expatriate Israelis. Both, of course, have Jewish dons, only a fraction of whom bother to take part in Jewish communal affairs. Both have large Jewish student populations which, by their presence, tend to dominate city-centre synagogal life - but only during the short university terms. And both have need of a mikveh.
Oxford has recently acquired one thanks to an initiative taken by the Lubavitch movement. But as yet there is no mikveh in Cambridge.

So central is a mikveh to the practice of Orthodox Judaism that communities are enjoined to erect mikvaot prior to erecting synagogues; indeed, a community may sell a synagogue in order fund the building of a mikveh.

The Cambridge Community Mikvah Charitable Trust (CCMCT) was set up in 1996 to finance the construction of a mikveh in that city. Currently it has funds in excess of £160,000 in its accounts. Some years ago it attempted to install a mikveh on the premises of the university's Jewish Society, but was unable to reach an agreement with others involved.

Then, in 2005, the CCMC Trustees found a splendid site for a mikveh in an existing detached brick-built building with utilities at 268 Milton Road on the outskirts of the city. The sponsors of this mikveh (which has full planning permission - paid for by trust - from Cambridge City Council) intend that it shall operate on renewable, including solar-thermal, energy; so its construction will attract government grants and it will be cheap to run.

The sponsors have also indicated their intention to donate the mikveh land and buildings to the charity once the mikveh is installed. The site itself is spacious, well lit and discreet, with off-street parking. The larger intention behind this initiative is for the mikveh itself to be part of a community centre which will also include the first Jewish nursery school in Cambridge, for which detailed plans also exist.

No other property or site that has been suggested for a mikveh in Cambridge has planning permission, let alone off-street parking. No other site would be mortgage-free.

When planning permission was granted for the Milton Road mikveh, an application was made to CCMCT for funds to facilitate its construction. The funds have not been granted, and instead the trust is considering a rival mikveh supported by the Lubavitch movement. But the Lubavitch scheme lacks planning permission, and earlier this year a "certificate of lawfulness" for the construction of its mikveh was refused outright.

Given the strength of entirely legitimate opposition from local residents to the Lubavitch proposal, I doubt that planning permission for it will ever be forthcoming. As the rival mikveh is in an unsuitable location in the heart of Cambridge's crowded (not to say rowdy) city centre and does not have planning permission, logic would dictate that it would be in the overriding communal interest for the trust to support the Milton Road initiative.

Given these facts, and given the urgency of the need, if I were a trustee of CCMCT I would not be inclined to devalue the trust's money and waste the community's time by waiting any longer for some other entirely hypothetical scheme to turn up. But it appears that a majority of the trustees are not of this view. To put it bluntly, the trust is in disarray.

Now one trustee, Cambridge-based lawyer David Gilinsky, wants to call his co-trustees to the London Beth Din.

There is another way in which the matter might be resolved. The Lubavitch movement could, for once, demonstrate its willingness to work in co-operation with other communal bodies by doing the decent thing and announcing its unequivocal support for the Milton Road initiative.

Last updated: 10:37am, September 18 2008