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The New American Mikveh

Once a bastion for strictly observant women, Jewish ritual baths are reaching out beyond the Orthodox

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Mayyim Hayyim, 2009. (Tom Kates)
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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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marjorie ingall says:

fascinating piece.

When you say that only 1 mikveh in the city accepts appts. for non-Orthodox conversions, are you saying “the City,” as in Manhattan? Because I thought that the mikveh in Riverdale at HIR did as well. That’s part of NYC, but it is in The Bronx. Or maybe they have changed their policies…I always found that mikveh to be warm and welcoming of all women. The attendant, back in the days I lived there, was explicit about being welcoming & non-intrusive, in a word, tzniusdik.

I wish we had one in Jerusalem where – unless you get a referral from an orthodox rabbanut rabbi – a Masorti or Reform person can’t get into a “public” mikveh. Brides/converts/nidah people have to go to springs in fields outside of town (romantic and all but…). It’s another way of excluding the non-orthodox population in the Jewish state. If there’s any funding left over for a mikveh in the Holyland, let me know.

surfer_dad says:

I LOVE this and am heartened to no end.

THIS is exactly what was missing in the non-Orthodox world, real, relevant ritual for our modern world. It’s isn’t about running FROM everything Orthodox, but re-imagening WHY and HOW we do the rituals to make them real to us and still Torah based.

When I became Jewish, the moment occurred at the Community Mikvah of the Conservative Movement in Wilmette, Ill. I’m Reform. The much-loved “mikvah lady”, Carol, is Modern Orthodox. And as I understand, the mikvah was established in the same sentiment of liberal protest as was Mayyim Hayyim. I’ve since established my practice to mark the date of my conversion by returning to immerse at the Community Mikvah. For ritual-oriented Jews like me, of whatever denomination, I can honestly say immersion can be quite a profound experience.

IAintNoPushOver says:

I have long claimed that the way for non-Orthodox Judaism to reverse its decline and to become dynamic, is to embrace traditional Jewish learning and ritual. These mikvahs are a good sign. They could represent a step toward a strong, vibrant non-Orthodox Judaism in the United States and elsewhere.

That’s so great to see the mikvah becoming something that more and more Jews are becoming aware of and are observing. Your readers will probably enjoy this mikvah video we just put out which takes the viewer through a tour of the mikvah and gives and explanation to the hows and whys
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge-RFQUbrFg

Yehudit Hannah Cohn says:

Really? I have never been asked “what I am” at a mikvah, or for what reason I am attending, I have simply gone and done it. For instance, try the one in Nahala’ot, near Bezalel. I admit that I had a rabbi in Arad who warned me to be careful, but if you don’t go shouting that you are different, there shouldn’t be an issue.

Once, a couple of years ago, I asked an orthodox friend if she’d ever gone to Mayyim Hayyim for her monthly immersion. I was surprised to hear that it was possible for a mikveh to be non-kosher. reading this article, I was pleased to hear that you now have orthodox supervision, since for me, it’s really important to have more ways for people from the different streams of Judaism to interact in a religious context. I hope that your influence will continue to broaden.

I’ll echo what Yehudit said– while it’s different for conversion purposes (and sometimes for brides) because of the differences between those immersions and the more common niddah ones, mikveh attendants are very discreet and rarely ask about religious affiliation or anything else. I have many Masorti friends living in Israel who immerse regularly in Orthodox mikva’ot; the only person I know who encountered a problem was a Kabbalist who is of Catholic descent and wore a cross into the waiting area.

While it’s outside of Jerusalem, the Masorti Kibbutz Ha-Naton has a mikveh, and I believe there are plans for a Masorti-run mikveh in Tel Aviv, as well.

“(Traditional rules for niddah and conversion require removing nail polish, as well as body jewelry, for an immersion to count as a technical mitzvah.) “My friend wanted a place where she wouldn’t be judged for not taking off her nail polish,” Luria told me. “So, I’m not going to proselytize for niddah, but I think there should be a place for progressive Jews who are trying to figure out how to live a Jewish life.”

It is very unfortunate that myths as to what is and is not a HaSiSa (halakhically significant buffer between a person and the water) persist to the degree that this comment, which no doubt reflects a concern that impacts many people on the fence about practicing Taharath hammishpaHa (laws of nidda etc), did not need to be fact-checked in spite of being completely non-factual.

If anyone came to use any Sephardic Women’s Miqwe in brooklyn not under black-hat hegemony, they would see women going in with nail polish and leaving with the same. Not because ours is a “progressive” community. Just we haven’t been fully afflicted by the insanity which afflicts others in their invention of laws our ancestors never heard of and our legal system never demanded.

The halakha is a lot easier to keep than what Orthodox culture has made it. There is nothing “non-traditional” about recognizing that halakha does not require removing your nail-polish, or your hair if it’s nappy (African-american women who convert to judaism and are unhappily forced to submit to the ignorant decisions of male rabbis without a clue as to what HaSiSa is and is not, are occasionally forced to *shave* lest their *hair* be considered a HaSiSa).

Nor do you need a “mikveh lady” to yell “kosher!” when you submerge. Nor do you need to go to a building called “mikveh” to do this. Any natural body of water will do, and nudity is *not* required — a HaSiSa is something that covers more than half the surface area of your body, or is something that you do not want on you. If you go to the ocean in a bathing suit and fully submerge, you have just gone to a mikveh.

Now, you can feel free to ritualize that, emotionalize that, do all the things that make attending the miqwe a new and meaningful re-addition to Jewish practice outside of more traditional circles — but for the love of God, don’t convince people that they’re not keeping the Law when they are, or make it sound harder to keep than it is. The hardest thing about these laws was always, and will always be, the duration of abstention from sex, but not silly modern inventions like stopping a woman from prettying herself up the way she wants before going to the miqwe

I don’t understand….why can’t you just go in and say you need to use the mikveh. I did that in numerous locations and nobody ever asked me what my religious associations were.

Ooh, exciting news about Tel Aviv. Thank you!

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The New American Mikveh

Once a bastion for strictly observant women, Jewish ritual baths are reaching out beyond the Orthodox