The New American Mikveh
Once a bastion for strictly observant women, Jewish ritual baths are reaching out beyond the Orthodox
Leah Chanin was raised in a traditionally observant home in Galveston, Texas, but it wasn’t until she was in her sixties and living in Washington, D.C., that she first performed one of the most ancient Jewish ceremonies: ritual immersion in a mikveh. “When I was growing up, no one went to the mikveh except the very Orthodox,” Chanin told me. “If someone said they were going, people would say, ‘That’s what my bubbe did—not me!’ ”
Now 82, Chanin is so enthusiastic about introducing younger Jews, women and men alike, to the practice that she volunteers as a mikveh guide at Adas Israel, a large Conservative synagogue in Washington. A retired lawyer, Chanin arrives in pantsuits and high heels, perfectly coiffed and turned out with bright red nails and matching lipstick, and patiently leads her charges through the small pool and adjacent shower area. It’s hardly glamorous—the dim, windowless mikveh, added in a 1989 synagogue renovation, is hidden on a lower floor beneath the main sanctuary, tiled in shades of beige under a yellowing plastic light fixture—but more than 400 people, many of them not synagogue members, venture in each year.
Some are in the process of conversion, but about half visit as part of bridal preparations, before their bar or bat mitzvahs, or to mark major life milestones. And a growing number come to observe some form of the traditional taharat hamishpacha, the rules governing bodily purity that have largely fallen out of the non-Orthodox American Jewish vernacular. “We’re seeing a big increase in halakhic use,” said Naomi Malka, the synagogue’s mikveh coordinator.
It’s part of a nascent movement among Reform, Conservative, and progressive Orthodox Jews in reviving the practice of mikveh, which involves bathing in “living water,” usually collected rainwater. (As Malka tells visitors, “You’re going to be in water that has existed since the beginning of time.”) Just as some not-strictly-observant Jews have adapted the concept of Shabbat by declaring Saturdays off-limits for email or the Internet, younger women and men whose parents might have dismissed the idea of going to the mikveh as hopelessly retrograde have begun exploring how to make the idea of ritual cleansing relevant to contemporary, secular Jews.
For traditional Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, mikveh is an accepted feature of adult Jewish life, just as it was to countless generations; one online directory lists 365 Orthodox mikvehs in the United States, ranging from small, aging facilities to plush bathhouses kitted out with special bridal suites. But where 20 years ago there were only a handful of Conservative and Reform mikvehs, today there are more than two dozen catering to Jews across the liberal spectrum, and groups from New York to San Diego are planning to build new facilities that would operate as spiritual clubhouses, with classes and therapy offerings alongside the ritual pools. The interest extends to Israel, where one group is fundraising for a new mikveh and women’s center in Jerusalem. These new attendees have brought novel rituals to the mikveh, changing some of the ritual baths’ longstanding customs; in return, the mikveh itself has changed the new attendees, opening up those longstanding customs to a new audience.
The philosophy tying all these projects together—using mikveh as a particularly Jewish place for spiritual renewal, a notion that owes more to yoga than to biblical commandments on bodily purity—has its intellectual home at Mayyim Hayyim, an independent mikveh that opened in 2004 in Newton, Mass., just west of Boston. From its earliest days, the staff worked with artists, psychologists, and other medical professionals to find ways to link the process of stepping in sanctified water with marking psychological or physical changes—to make the mikveh a place for individual prayer, rather than focusing solely on seemingly arcane rules of bodily purification. “Mikveh is our model, but it’s a paradigm for helping people find meaning in a ritual they haven’t felt is theirs,” said Aliza Kline, Mayyim Hayyim’s first executive director.
Mayyim Hayyim was created to serve the Boston community, but it quickly tapped into the unexpected reservoir of interest from communities around the world. In the past several years, Mayyim Hayyim has hosted conferences and developed training and education resources that have been adopted by other mikvehs around the country, including the one at Adas Israel, which serves a population stretching from Richmond, Va., to Baltimore. It has also begun offering consulting services to communities from San Diego to Raleigh, N.C., covering everything from the nitty-gritty of how to build and maintain a kosher mikveh pool to convincing Jews with no prior experience to get in the water.
This week, Kline will hand over the reins of the organization to her former deputy, Carrie Bornstein, whose plan is to turn the loose coalition of mikvehs around the country that have adopted aspects of the Mayyim Hayyim model into a formal network of affiliates sharing standards and practices. But the bigger task will be trying to elevate mikveh from a passing fad to a regular part of the non-Orthodox Jewish landscape. “Any 5-year-old in our Hebrew school can say Shabbat is grape juice, bread, and family,” Malka told me. “Our goal is for our 5-year olds to be able to tell you that mikveh is about water, blessings, and your body.”
The idea for Mayyim Hayyim came from the most urgent need among non-Orthodox Jews: conversion. “For me, conversion was the first thing,” said Anita Diamant, the author of the feminist Jewish novel The Red Tent and founder of Mayyim Hayyim. Diamant had accompanied her husband, Jim Ball, through his conversion in the early 1980s and felt that the utilitarian surroundings of the typical mikveh were an insufficiently grand, not to mention impractical, setting for the momentous occasion of welcoming a new Jew to the fold. Orthodox mikvehs often restrict hours for non-Orthodox conversions, and the beth din, or rabbinic examiners, are often accommodated in found corners. “I want a mikveh,” Diamant wrote a decade ago, in an early pitch for what became Mayyim Hayyim. “I want it to be a welcoming and inviting place, from the minute you walk through the door. A place for laughter and mazel tovs, with a gracious room in which to celebrate with brides and grooms, a place for the newly Jewish to raise a glass of wine.”
The result at Mayyim Hayyim looks on the surface like a high-end day spa, with limestone tiling, fancy bath products, and skylights open to the heavens. There are two pools, an event space that doubles as an art gallery, and a beth din room fitted with a circular table—a detail intended to make the conversion process feel less like a passing of judgment and more like a common enterprise. In Mayyim Hayyim’s initial planning stages, Diamant and her early backers also imagined that it could become a place for Jews to heal after, or during, illnesses, or to go in times of mourning—all nontraditional, and therefore uncommon, but allowable uses of mikveh. It was also crucial, Diamant said, that it be a place where gay, lesbian, or transgender Jews could also take part in ancient physical rituals without worrying about conservative-minded mikveh attendants looking askance.
But the idea of people using it to observe the mitzvah of bodily purification, in accordance with the halakhically mandated practice of niddah, or separation during a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle, didn’t enter into their minds. “We had this list of reasons to come, and niddah wasn’t even on it,” remembered Kline. “It was post-menopausal women starting this, so it was not their issue.” (Men also observe immersion rituals, typically before Yom Kippur, though in some communities it is common for men to visit mikvehs before Shabbat or even daily.)
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