Feature: Total Immersion
It is welcoming and elegant, enlightening and transformative. Does this sound like a mikve? If not, that’s because it’s one of a kind.
Gail smith waited for her hair to grow back. after eight months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the Wayland, Massachusetts, woman said she needed to hold off immersing for another two months. “I wanted to go in looking chic, not sick, feeling like myself again,” she explains.
A visit to the mikve was just what she needed “to seal the end of the process of [treatment for] breast cancer,” Smith recalls more than a year later. So she gathered all her newfound energy and the 20 friends who had run errands and cleaned her house for Passover when she couldn’t muster the strength. And, as her friends stood waiting on the other side of the door to sing to her, Smith descended into the warm waters of the Mayyim Hayyim mikve.
“For me, it was the last step of the healing,” she says, “the first time in almost a year that I felt healthy and complete and whole.”
Mayyim Hayyim–Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center, which opened its doors on May 14, 2004, was built for just such a life transition. Built to halakhic standards, the nondenominational mikve was designed to both honor and challenge tradition.
And the surprising lesson of this New Age mikve in Newton, just outside Boston, is that if you build it, and create a gracious environment for marking life’s major changes, they will come—even those who have never considered themselves the mikve type.
Mayyim Hayyim has broadened the role of the ritual immersion beyond visits for the traditional, monthly postmenstruation dips, by brides (and grooms), for conversions and High Holiday preparation to embrace a broad range of transformational moments including menopause, divorce, adoption, getting a Ph.D., retiring, becoming an empty nester or, as Smith did, taking back one’s life from the clutches of a terrifying illness.
This openness to all kinds of transitions means you will find at Mayyim Hayyim a pathologist who immerses each Friday afternoon to separate his work—handling the dead—from Shabbat, and a woman who lost so much weight that she wanted to begin life anew with her more attractive body image. There are also individuals marking the end of their mourning period; the breast cancer patient whose immersion was the last time she left her house; or those noting the end of a struggle with addiction or a fruitless infertility treatment.
Or even a 13-year-old who came before becoming bat mitzva.
“As I stepped out of the mikve…I felt changed somehow,” Sarah Berman said, seven months after her visit, “ready [for] the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood….” “It was beautiful when the first bar and bat mitzva kids wanted to come here,” says Sarah’s mom, Lisa Berman, coordinator of Mayyim Hayyim’s education center. “They chose that moment to be not public but private, a private affirmation of their Jewish identity they will never forget.”
Unlike traditional mikvaot, where privacy and speed are paramount, the building at 1838 Washington Street (617-244-1836; www.mayyimhayyim. org) reflects Mayyim Hayyim’s dual purpose. On approach, one sees the renovated 1860’s Victorian exterior. But the entry is around back, through the modern extension.
A broad landscaped patio fronts the glass-windowed entry, which brings visitors and clients into a homey reception room with couches set around an area rug and flowers atop a sideboard. You wait there until a receptionist introduces you to the guide who will accompany you into one of four elegant preparation rooms to the right, along the wood-accented atrium. The two mikve chambers are also elegant, their beige-and-brown-tiled floors and walls reminiscent of Jerusalem stone. The floor has radiant heat, and windows set near the ceiling bring in the view of outdoor foliage, while a tall, narrow translucent window allows in natural light without compromising modesty.
But most of those who enter Mayyim Hayyim never get wet. These visitors turn left, walking through the atrium to the education center specializing in the Jewish life cycle and spirituality. They may come for an Introduction to Judaism class or the monthly women’s Rosh Hodesh group. A popular project is “The Mikveh Monologues,” a song and story performance adapted from real-life mikve experiences; the second installment was held at Temple Emanuel in Newton in March.
Mayyim Hayyim’s art gallery recently hosted the center’s first show and silent auction, “Everything Begins in the Water,” a New England regional juried exhibit. And on May 21, there will be a Shavuot celebration cosponsored by Mayyim Hayyim and Reform and Conservative groups.
On any given day, students from day and congregational schools visit to explore the intricacies of mikve principles, design and use throughout Jewish history; study life-cycle events; and go on scavenger hunts for ritual objects hidden throughout the building. “By the time they leave, they know more about mikve than 95 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish adults,” Berman says.
Sometimes the building’s two wings buzz with activity simultaneously. On a recent afternoon, as five people finalized their conversions, families and friends waited excitedly in the reception area. At the same time, a group of women from a local Hadassah chapter enjoyed a program on the history and laws of the mikve in the education center. “We are completely respectful of the privacy of the people who come here to immerse,” says Aliza Kline, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. “But we also know how important our educational piece is.”
Volunteer power has fueled Mayyim Hayyim’s success. With the establishment of its Healing Waters Initiative, doctors, nurses, rabbis and poets converged to develop immersion rituals to mark everything from miscarriage to recovery from rape. Two years later, they continue to generate new ceremonies for new needs.
They also developed seven kavvanot (intentions) meant to prepare an immerser physically and spiritually. “A powerful mikve experience doesn’t just happen,” says Kline. “We designed these intentions to enhance the experience. As Maimonides said, ‘If you don’t have the intention, it’s as if you didn’t immerse.’” (The kavvanot and other meditations can be read on Mayyim Hayyim’s Web site.)
With its nearly 2,000 immersions, Mayyim Hayyim has outpaced what many thought to be the ephemeral dreams of the fiercely determined group of women who founded it.
In the mid-1990’s, Mayyim Hayyim’s founder, Anita Diamant, best-selling author of The Red Tent (St. Martin’s), began imagining a mikve that was “welcoming to the entire Jewish community.” She shared the idea with widening circles of friends and colleagues, sparking a vision of what could be. Diamant became focused on the power of mikve while researching her book Choosing a Jewish Life (Random House). Accompanying rabbis to mikvaot, she found herself “underwhelmed by the welcome we were providing the new Jews.” And she recalled the mikve visit of her husband, Jim Ball, for his conversion 13 years earlier, which, though beautiful, fell short.
“In most mikvaot, you’re in and out before you know it and the only place to celebrate is the parking lot,” Diamant says. “I kept imagining what it would be like to have the time and place to truly honor the transformation, as well as a place to heal and mark all life’s transitions….”
Her timing was fortunate, Diamant insists: “There’s a whole generation of women who are learned and learning and feeling a new authenticity in their Jewish selves.” Boston, where she lives, appeared to be a natural breeding ground for such thinking, she adds. It’s an academically rich town and proud of its firsts—public library, public school, public transit system and Hebrew teachers college.
One of Diamant’s early partners was Paula Brody, director of outreach programs and training for the Northeast Council of the Union for Reform Judaism. These days, a tour of Mayyim Hayyim is a part of Brody’s programs for interfaith couples. Of the hundreds of her non-Jewish students who have been through these doors, more than half have returned to mark their conversions here.
By late 2000, there was a strong enough core of Boston-area women rallying around Diamant’s vision to launch the enterprise. With a few thousand dollars of seed money and office space at the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts headquarters, the group hired Kline and contacted Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman, a Los Angeles-based Conservative rabbi, mikve consultant, Talmud scholar and civil engineer. (Today the mikve turns to Conservative Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, for halakhic questions. Conveniently, he is spiritual leader of Temple Reyim, located across the parking lot from Mayyim Hayyim.)
The nearly yearlong search for a site eventually led to the 140-year-old Victorian. But it took four years of planning, with input from clergy and lay leaders across the denominational spectrum, to raise and borrow the $2 million needed before Mayyim Hayyim could open.
At the heart of mayyim hayyim are its mikve guides, who undergo seven weeks of training. Lisa Berman was among the first class of 40. “When Anita spoke to my sisterhood and told us of the idea of building this place, it absolutely resonated with me as a Jew-by-choice,” Berman, 47, recalls. “My [conversion] mikve experience was less than wonderful, and I knew it could have been—should have been. So, 23 years later, it was incredible hearing about this new concept of mikve being built in my hometown.”
Her first experiences as a guide confirmed her sentiments. “When…someone goes down into the water, you are actively involved in her spiritual transformation,” she says. “You are in a place where God comes.” And sometimes when she is helping a convert, Berman will calm her fears, saying, “I’ve done it. You’ll be fine. And, if you forget a word of the prayer, I’ll whisper it to you.’”
Among the happiest people to use the mikve are the brides. In September 2004, Bostonian Lisa Mansdorf Pollack, a self-described “classically committed to Judaism but cynical Gen X girl,” arrived at the mikve with her mother and three friends, four days before her wedding.
Asked if she wanted anyone in the room with her, Pollack demurred, telling her guide she considers herself a private person. But after her preparation and reciting the kavvanot, something surprising happened. “I picked up the phone and, instead of telling the guide that I was ready, I heard myself say, ‘Would you send my Mom in?’”
Taking one look at her mother, Pollack promptly “lost it.” “We’re talking big racking sobs,” Pollack, 33, recalls. “I hugged her and told her she’d done a good job and she told me how proud she was of me. Normally there’s no way I would have ever done this. I’m not sure there is anywhere else I could have plumbed the depths that way.”
Leaving that day, Pollack knew she was ready to move forward in her life. “With all the wedding planning,” she says, “it’s easy to forget what it’s all about. Mayyim Hayyim gives you a sense of grounding in what really matters. Now I go every month and I see these girls like me—modern girls. It’s a tough world and you spend so much time and energy building up your defenses. Mayyim Hayyim dissolves them.”
Kathy Kates of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was also a bride whose last steps on her conversion journey led her to Mayyim Hayyim last July, a month before her wedding. “I really wanted to be Jewish standing under the huppa,” she says. “And all these months later I’m still glowing.” Accompanied by her fiancé, his parents and her two best friends, Kates was “overwhelmed by a sense of warmth and caring. Because of where it happened, my transformation into a Jew made me feel 100-percent accepted, like I was being welcomed into this big family.”
As director of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Discovery Institute, Rabbi Judith Kummer convenes many batei din (three-member rabbinical courts) at Mayyim Hayyim to preside at conversions. “This beautiful place deeply affects everyone who comes,” says Kummer, who is also a board member and cochair of Mayyim Hayyim’s ritual creation team. “Whether becoming a Jew or another transition, at Mayyim Hayyim, as we mark these changes Jewishly, we can see the holiness in all of our lives.”
Mayyim Hayyim has had its share of media attention; a cover story in The Boston Globe was devoted to one of the first brides to immerse. It has also been featured in The New York Times and, most recently, on the 13-part PBS series Boomers! Redefining Life After Fifty, about life transitions and reinventing aging in America (www.boomerstv.com).
Of the nearly 100 women who come each month to Mayyim Hayyim to observe the traditional immersion after menstruation, Kline estimates two-thirds started observing the laws because Mayyim Hayyim exposed them to the ritual.
While some 80 percent of immersers are female and women-only hours are set aside for them in the evening, there are men who use the mikve as well. In many Orthodox and Hasidic communities, men immerse before Shabbat, a custom adopted by Yossi Abramowitz and his 7-year-old son, Adar.
Each Friday afternoon the two wash away the stresses of the week, singing niggunim at the top of their lungs, before racing back home for candlelighting. Abramowitz, publisher of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility and CEO of Jewish Family & Life, calls the weekly visit to Mayyim Hayyim “an enormous blessing in our lives. It fills us both with a great sense of contentment.
“What Mayyim Hayyim does,” he says, “is reunite ritual with spirit and democratize access to this powerful tradition and the institution of mikve, recreating it in the image of today’s Jewish community.”
Rabbi Karen Landy of the Jewish Healing Connection, a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service Groups in Boston, has brought to the mikve bar mitzva students with developmental disabilities as well as those with psychiatric problems. “There’s something about being naked in the warm water—you let go, you face yourself,” Landy says. “The truth is that Jews, being a verbal and intellectual people, need the physical and spiritual grounding of a mikve.”
Healing has also been on rabbi Lauren Berkun’s mind as she’s watched Mayyim Hayyim develop from afar. “For years I’ve been disappointed that more liberal Jews weren’t able to appreciate the beauty of mikve,” says Berkun, a Conservative rabbi who works with cancer survivors through the Jewish Healing Center in Detroit. “The waters represent our powers to grow and change in life, to immerse in…this wonderful, warm embrace and be reborn. My hope, with the Conservative and Reform movements on the cusp of understanding the power of mikve, is that what Mayyim Hayyim is doing in Boston becomes a national model.”
Next month, Mayyim Hayyim is hosting a national conference, “Pouring Ancient Waters Into a Contemporary Vessel,” on reclaiming mikve. Unlike the nondenominational Mayyim Hayyim, however, Kline says most of the “progressive” mikvaot that are on the horizon will be associated with the Reform or Conservative movements. Though Kline insists there was never any doubt Mayyim Hayyim would be built to strict halakhic standards, to make sure both traditional and nontraditional immersers feel comfortable, not applying for Orthodox supervision was a conscious decision early on. “It would have detracted from the sense of ownership we wanted to give the liberal rabbis,” she says.
Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg explains that for thousands of years, mikve was a “brown-wrapper mitzva—hush-hush and very private, not unreasonable since mikve had to do with very personal matters. But the larger and essential meaning of mikve is and always has been tahara, purity, and kedusha, holiness.”
Greenberg says that mikve is a tough regimen—“not the immersion aspect but the period of abstinence associated with it”—that makes it a hard sell to anyone not totally committed to halakha, and that it is kept under wraps with no publicity makes it even harder. Which is why, with the advent of modernity, mikve fell into disuse, observed only by the Orthodox. “What Mayyim Hayyim has done is two things,” she observes. “The first is to make this core mitzva more inviting and accessible to the liberal Jewish community, the second is to creatively expand its use to alternate situations and new experiences.
“Some in the Orthodox community still feel a diffidence about making mikve so public. But I believe these innovations ought to be seen in the larger context: Whatever adds a dimension of holiness and purity to our lives—the essential Jew and human being—ought to be welcomed by all and celebrated.”
Traditional women tend to use the five mikvaot in Greater Boston that are under Orthodox supervision. But for at least one Orthodox woman, the lack of Orthodox supervision at Mayyim Hayyim doesn’t negate the mikve’s value. “I believe every Jew has the right to connect with Judaism where they are, that I’m not in the position to say it’s only permissible to connect where I do,” says Cookie Rosenbaum, an Orthodox mikve educator who trained Mayyim Hayyim guides (she herself was trained by author and noted mikve expert Tehilla Abramov in Israel).
The influence of Mayyim Hayyim was dramatically illustrated when Rosenbaum was speaking to a group of liberal Jewish women about mikve, and most of them not only knew what mikve was but had actually immersed or accompanied a friend or relative. “Even more astounding,” Rosenbaum says, “was that these women…were intrigued and positive, especially the younger ones. Twenty years ago, this never would have been the case. And it’s the impact of Mayyim Hayyim.”
What’s more, Rosenbaum, 54, insists, is that Orthodox mikvaot have something to learn from Mayyim Hayyim’s openness to new uses: “To incorporate education, to make the whole experience more beautiful, to be open to alternative uses, these would improve every mikve experience.” Her plan: to mark her menopause this summer with several friends in attendance—at Mayyim Hayyim.
Indeed, as you leave Mayyim Hayyim you feel a connection with the generations of Jews who have immersed in ritual waters before you. And you hear the words of the woman whose vision this place makes real: Despite the dizzying pendulum of joy and tragedy, Diamant says, with the sound of wonder in her voice, “there’s an incredible sense of serenity here. Each story is testimony that there was a need for this, an inchoate longing. Now my dream is to see more Mayyim Hayyims.”
And, if Anita Diamant’s previous dream is any indication, this one, too, is likely to come true.