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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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It was only after Mayyim Hayyim opened, Kline said, she and her staff began to look for a broader purpose. “Our first mission statement was to build and operate a kosher community mikveh open to everyone in greater Boston,” Kline told me. “But then it was like, ‘Well, now what do we do?’ ” The answer lay in re-examining halakhah around mikveh, which many Jewish feminists had long since dismissed as inherently sexist and irreconcilable with modern ideas of womanhood and marriage. “We realized that we as progressive Jews have ownership over the halakhah, too,” Kline said. So, rather than calling each mikveh attendant shomeret—literally a guardian, whose responsibility is to make sure each immersion meets halakhic standards—Mayyim Hayyim began calling each one a guide and recruited successive cohorts of volunteers to fill the role, rather than relying on a handful of frazzled paid staff. “It becomes the place where women come that’s safe for thinking about intimacy, body image, fertility, infertility,” Kline explained.

Yet because Mayyim Hayyim made no secret about being founded in the spirit of protest against existing Orthodox mikvehs in the Boston area, it struggled in its early years to attract progressive-minded observant women, people for whom mikveh was already part of their regular Jewish routine. In 2005, Diamant staged a reading of a play she had written, The Mikveh Monologues, whose characters included a lesbian bride who was told by the attendant at an Orthodox mikveh that she would not be welcome to do a traditional pre-wedding immersion for her same-sex ceremony. “I don’t think the play’s portrayal of Orthodoxy in general, and Orthodox mikva’ot in particular, was particularly kind or even appropriate,” blogged Shanna Giora-Gorfajn, a lawyer who was a regular at Daughters of Israel, a local Orthodox mikveh, and who went to see the play. “I want to be a part of your world,” she wrote on her blog, addressing Diamant’s play, “and invite you to be part of mine.”

Today, Mayyim Hayyim operates under Orthodox rabbinic supervision, a step that was taken in part to extend an olive branch to Orthodox women. “People don’t want to be just squeaking by on the kashrut of their mikveh,” said Miriam Segura-Harrison, a medical student at Boston University who has taught bridal classes for Orthodox women and regularly visits Mayyim Hayyim. But it was also part of a maturation within the organization. “We want to be explicitly as open as we can for the whole Jewish community,” said Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s new director. “But part of what it means for us to be welcoming is providing gender-reassignment ceremonies, so it was about looking at the Jewish legal system to figure out what we needed to do to fulfill the letter of the law, but also to see what’s open for interpretation.”

And it was the newfound commitment to observing the halakhic aspects of mikveh practice that enticed Mayyim Hayyim’s supervising rabbi, Yaacov Love, to step in and supervise the construction of a new mikveh last year in Raleigh, called Libi Eir, which consulted with Mayyim Hayyim throughout the development process. “It’s because I care about taharat hamishpacha and not because I’m into helping people just because they want to have a mikveh,” Love, who is chair of halakhah at the progressive Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, told me.

His participation was essential to the project. “There are very few people in the mikveh world willing to supervise the construction of a non-Orthodox mikveh,” said Jenny Solomon, Libi Eir’s director, who is an ordained Reform rabbi. Since Libi Eir opened last fall, fewer than half of its immersions have been for what Solomon described as “creative” reasons, including one person who wanted to celebrate getting a new Hebrew name after completing gender reassignment. The rest of the visitors have been brides and grooms preparing for their weddings, converts, and women observing niddah.

But while Libi Eir fills a gap for non-Orthodox Jews looking to visit a mikveh in North Carolina, other alumni of Mayyim Hayyim are hoping to fill the most surprising vacuum of all: New York. While the city has more mikvehs than anywhere else in the country, it does not have a mikveh explicitly catering to non-Orthodox Jews. Only one mikveh in the city, the West Side Mikveh in Manhattan, regularly takes appointments for Reform and Conservative conversions, or for people coming to mark milestones like divorce or recovery from cancer. (Conversions can also be done in open bodies of water, including the ocean.) “Niddah has entered more parts of the community than I would have imagined,” said Sara Luria, a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College and former Mayyim Hayyim intern who is currently conducting a feasibility study about mikvehs in New York, underwritten by the Dorot Foundation.

But many people follow the tradition in idiosyncratic ways, including one woman Luria knew who had hesitated about going to the mikveh the day after getting a manicure and pedicure. (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.”

Meanwhile, Mayyim Hayyim’s influence is permeating the mikveh world in other ways. At Adas Israel, Naomi Malka—who attended a training conference at Mayyim Hayyim four years ago and keeps in regular contact with staff there—recently won a $5,000 grant from the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation to launch a mother-daughter class on using the mikveh to build a positive body image. “Before, I thought of this as a really interesting part-time job,” Malka told me. “But they opened me up to the full potential of what was here.”

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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

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