The Day the Mikveh Went Dry
When a drought left Omaha’s ritual bath empty, refilling it required some imagination—and a ton of ice
Climate change has been blamed for a host of devastating events, from Hurricane Sandy to the evaporation of Greenland’s glaciers. But earlier this year, a dramatic weather event had a small but important impact on the Jewish community: In July, as a drought brought the effects of global warming to the Midwest, the only mikveh in Omaha, Neb., went dry.
The mikveh, a ritual bath, is an essential part of any Orthodox Jewish community, so when one goes dry, it’s a serious issue—especially in Omaha, where the next nearest mikveh is a state away. “The mikveh is one of the most basic institutions of any Jewish community,” explained Jonathan Gross, the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, Omaha’s Orthodox congregation. “How are you supposed to have young families if you don’t have a mikveh?”
Refilling a mikveh isn’t a simple matter of turning on a faucet; there are rules about what kind of water can and cannot be used. The community in Omaha prayed for rain—one of the approved methods for replenishing the water in a mikveh—and their prayers were eventually answered. But by the time those rains came, another solution was already in place, a solution that involved one ton of ice.
Mikvehs typically serve multiple purposes. The first and most important is as a place for women to purify themselves after completing their menstrual cycles; immersion in a mikveh is a critical part of the laws of Taharot HaMishpacha, family purity, and without immersion a woman is forbidden to have sex with her husband. New vessels, like pots and pans, must be immersed before they can be considered kosher and thus usable. And converts need to immerse to conclude their conversions. Customarily, men also dunk, before holidays and before their wedding day, although this isn’t mandated by modern Jewish law.
Like many mikvehs, the Omaha Community Mikvah is composed of two below-ground pools. The first pool fills with rainwater through a hole in the roof, and the second, larger pool is used for the actual bathing. To be considered halachically valid, a mikveh is required to have at least 40 se’ah of natural water. A se’ah, a unit of halachic measurement, corresponds to roughly five gallons of water, according to one stringent opinion—meaning that 200 gallons of natural water are required for a kosher mikveh. The water must fill the mikveh through naturally occurring sources, either by rain or through a connection to a spring or river. Water that is transported to the mikveh through direct human means—in buckets, for instance—is called she’uvim, drawn water, and cannot be used to fill a mikveh. Tap water is also forbidden, though this wasn’t always the case—and tap water can be added to the mikveh once the required 200 gallons of natural water are present.
In July, Omaha’s mikveh was accidentally emptied when a maintenance crewmember thought that cleaning the mikveh meant emptying it completely. In most circumstances, a mikveh can be refilled relatively easily through rain or snow, but this summer’s drought made that impossible. “Had this happened in January with all the snow we would have been filled up in a week!” Gross lamented on his blog.
The mikveh was out of service for almost two months. Women traveled to the next closest mikveh in Des Moines, Iowa, or Kansas City, Kan., each more than two hours away. Dishes went unpurified. The receptionist at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, where Omaha’s mikveh is located, received calls every time it rained an inch, asking if the pool had somehow miraculously filled. As the weeks passed, different ideas were thrown around: The supervising rabbi of the mikveh suggested the community pray for rain. They did. Another rabbi tried to open up a larger hole in the roof to allow more water, but that didn’t work. Some scientific-minded congregants suggested lighting giant Bunsen burners, evaporating water and then allowing it to condense over the mikveh; this was deemed impractical and was never tried.
The town finally turned to Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, 34, the pastoral service coordinator of the Blumkin Home and one of the supervisors of the mikveh. Another rabbi brought up the idea of using ice to fill the mikveh, and Weiss began looking into it. Using ice was a sort of loophole or leniency: Since the ice was solid and not liquid, if it was moved into the mikveh while still in its frozen state, when it melted it would be considered non-she’uvim water, and the mikveh would be kosher. This procedure, while not common, is almost universally accepted.
“I know it had been done in Nova Scotia once, but I had never heard much about it prior or since,” Weiss said.
Weiss called Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, two important legal minds at Yeshiva University in New York. They referred him to a mikveh expert, Rabbi Yirmiya Katz, who went through the exact requirements of filling the mikveh with ice.
Weiss’ first thoughts were to use the large ice machines in the Blumkin Home, but that plan was quickly vetoed since the ice would have melted too much by the time they put it in the mikveh. Weiss, with Katz’s help, figured out that he’d need a lot of very frozen ice put in the mikveh very fast.
Weiss called every ice company in Omaha (“Did you know that while there are many ice companies—Arctic Ice, Omaha Ice, Glacier Ice—they are all actually the very same place?” he wrote on Gross’ blog) and finally found one that could deliver the required amount: 250 10-pound blocks of ice. The ice was paid for by the Jewish Federation of Omaha, on whose campus the Blumkin Home is located.
On Friday, Aug. 24, Weiss and a group of volunteers wearing special gloves that wouldn’t melt the ice amassed outside the mikveh at 8:15 in the morning. But the truck showed up an hour late, and by the time Weiss opened the first package, the ice melted in his hands.
“Apparently this was their version of solid blocks of ice: It was a block of crushed ice pushed together in a brick,” explained Weiss. “It doesn’t stay as cold as a real block of ice.”
Weiss went back to the drawing board where he found Muzzy Ice, an ice company that makes blocks of ice for ice sculptures. He had found them earlier but decided against using them given the large size of their ice blocks. “I didn’t want to risk damaging our mikveh,” Weiss said, but he relented once he realized that was the only option.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 11, a Muzzy Ice truck pulled up to the mikveh. Inside the truck were seven 300-pound blocks of ice. An extra 100 pounds of dry ice was shoved inside the truck to ensure that nothing melted.
In less than an hour, staff members of the Jewish Federation moved the ice into the mikveh. Along the way, little pieces of ice would chip off and fall on the stairs; Weiss and a colleague would rush to pick them up to make sure that the chips wouldn’t liquefy and contaminate the mikveh water. “It was very intense and very stressful,” recalled Weiss. “[But] it was quite an experience. I’ve never dealt with a ton of ice in a small contained area.”
Once all seven 300-pound blocks were moved, the question became how long the ice would take to melt. Estimates ranged from two days to a week.
They never got to find out.
The next evening a huge torrential storm hit the Midwest. In several hours, the bor z’reih, the place where the rainwater collected, was filled to capacity and the first pool was filled. “I went in the next day and said, ‘Wow.’ ” Weiss told me. “Now our only problem was our mikveh was filled with ice.”
Both Weiss and Gross said that the whole effort pulled Omaha’s roughly 6,000 Jews together and led to a newfound curiosity about the mikveh, even among those who don’t really use it.
“Was it a waste of energy and time? Or conversation and money?” Weiss considered. “We often say that our efforts and actions have repercussions for good and bad and perhaps this was a repercussion. It’s a community mikveh and it’s integral to us. Perhaps by showing how much it means to us, I think … we saw a response or sign from God. For our action, we have God’s reaction: ‘I’ll give you the rainfall you were looking for.’ ”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Jewish teaching and public health agree: Vaccinate your kids. What should be done about the opt-outers?