Inside a room at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a large Reform synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a group of people of various ages, gender identities, and Jewish backgrounds giggled nervously, gathered in the center embracing one another. They were symbolically recreating the mikveh ritual, together. Then, they were read a blessing: “We hope through guiding, and through being guided, you feel deeply connected to yourself, to your communities, to your ancestors, and to that which connects us all.”
The event, called Water and Wine, was hosted by ImmerseNYC, a pluralistic, Jewish, feminist mikveh project founded by Rabbi Sara Luria. It was a sort of graduation for the new guides, and also a chance to publicize how far the organization has come. Luria, after interning at Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim, recognized the need for a similar outlet in New York. Four years ago, Chavie Lieber covered the fledgling non-profit when they had only 28 volunteer participants. Its new cohort totals around 40; since its inception, they’ve trained over 100 guides. Each ImmerseNYC volunteer is helping to deliver the organization’s mission: to redefine how a mikveh can be practiced.
Typically, men and women visit a mikveh to mark a major life event, such as a bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, birth, or death. Or, in essence, only when Jewish law commands us to. But Luria sees a greater potential in the practice. “Judaism isn’t just for public ritual. Judaism is for our everyday experiences,” she said. “So if you move in with someone, or you lose your job, or you experience a miscarriage, or you are mourning the fourth anniversary of someone’s death… this is a place in the Jewish community where you can come.”
The mission of the organization attracts people from all walks of life, such as Jules Skloot, one of the new initiates of the fourth wave of guides who decided to participate after a friend told him that ImmerseNYC wants to include transgender and gender non-conforming people in the organization. Skloot was surprised to find that in learning how to help others, he also learned something about himself: Talking about spirituality and vulnerability reinforced his dream of becoming a chaplain.
Skloot’s experience in the training shows how ImmerseNYC has evolved over the years. The first wave of guides were instructed on what a mikveh is and how it’s been traditionally used, but now, they focus on teaching the guides how to be emotionally supportive, too. Luria and several volunteers talked throughout the night about active listening, a counseling skill that helps them make visitors feel heard and validated. Peninah Engel, who’s been a mikveh guide for two years, described this training as “a real gift.”
Once, a middle-aged woman came to the mikveh with friends to mark her remission from cancer. Engel was in charge of playing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” a request from the woman participating in the mikveh so that when she emerged from the water, she could dance joyously. But the experience turned out a little differently. Rather than reflecting on her recovery, the woman felt like mourning the death of her sister-in-law, who had passed away while she was in treatment, instead. “I very quickly in the moment had to switch from this triumphant mood of coming here to celebrate her, to this really very sudden onset of mourning that she hadn’t expected,” Engel said. In the end, the woman was able to process her emotions and they all danced together.
Luria used a Jewish teaching to explain what they expect from their guides. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa carried two slips of paper in each pocket, one saying “the world was created for me,” while the other said “I am dust and ashes.” He took a slip out of his pocket when he needed one as a reminder. For the guides, Luria has these metaphorical pieces of paper: “One, I’m committed to my own healing, and in the other pocket, I’m committed to the healing of my community.”
For the volunteers of ImmerseNYC, guiding people through visiting a mikveh is as meaningful for them as it is for those going under the water. Engel referred to being a guide as “the most rewarding spiritual experience that I have in my life,” saying that she doesn’t have the outlets that many other people seem to use for fulfillment. “I’m not a shul member, I’m not a parent… This is my that,” she said. “I feel like I’m like I’m good at it, I feel that it’s something I can offer to others, and I see it making a difference in other people’s lives.”
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