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The New American Mikveh

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

Allison Hoffman
August 13, 2012
Tom Kates
Mayyim Hayyim, 2009.Tom Kates
Tom Kates
Mayyim Hayyim, 2009.Tom Kates

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.

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.”

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.

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