In the mikveh, all of me is pure

By Anonymous

“In the mikveh, all of me is pure, acceptable, even perfect,” she said, clasping a plush white towel around her chest, drenched and smiling, having immersed just moments before.

As her guide, I nod, feeling the powerful sense of camaraderie that comes from shared experience. I know what she means. I’ve been there.

Every month for the past year and a half, I’ve gone to the mikveh as a part of my personal niddah practice. I’d undressed, washed and scrubbed, and immersed, welcoming the sense that the waters of the mikveh confirm the truth of my wholeness and beauty before God.

But unlike the woman I was guiding, stepping out of the mikveh is not a moment of smiling for me. I may have just been washed over with the sense that I was made in the image of God, emerging from the water of the mikveh like a newborn, and yet, looking up at my own guide, face hidden by my own white towel, that truth starts to ebb away with each step out of the pool.

For me, though the mikveh might affirm my goodness and purity, my ability to enter it is based on acting in ways that deny that belief.

I’ve been keeping niddah for a year and a half. I’ve been keeping niddah as a queer woman in a relationship with someone who is genderqueer and doesn’t have a mikveh to affirm their wholeness/holiness. When my mikveh lady, who I’ve gotten to know quite a bit over these months, asks me about my husband and innocently and excitedly want to know details about a Jewish wedding I never had, I stammer. I’m afraid. I feel guilty. To be honest, I hate myself in that moment. For being who I am. For wanting a place. For believing my tradition could speak to me and to my relationship. For stumbling through my efforts to do God’s will with little guidance I can trust.

But, if there is one thing I have learned as a mikveh guide, it is that it is actually the mikveh that is our guide. That might sound the worst kind of corny you’ve ever heard, but it’s helped me a lot. The mikveh tells the truth that we need. It tells me that I deserve its healing waters, and that nothing about me could change that.

“Exactly,” I say, smiling back to the woman I just led through her own practice. And, for her and for me, I believe it with my whole heart.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

Mikveh in the News

Last Monday, ImmerseNYC was profiled in The Jewish Week.
On Tuesday, mikveh was back in the news – but for all the wrong reasons.

Over the past week, as we have watched the story of the horrible violation of trust by a male rabbi at a mikveh in the DC area unfold, the modern mikveh movement and its allies have engaged powerfully in a conversation about the implications of this scandal.

Check out these articles to get a sense of our community’s reaction:

Why Rabbi Freundel Story Makes Me Physically Ill, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Breaking the Mikveh Monopoly, by Carrie Bornstein
Private But Not Secret: Sharing Mikveh Stories, by Rachel Rosenthal
It’s Time to Put Women in Charge of the Mikveh, by Beth Kissileff
Give the Mikveh Keys to Women, by Chana Henkin
A bill of rights for Jewish Converts, by Bethany Mandel
Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised, by Rabbi Haviva Ner David
Mikveh Needs To Be A Safe Place, by Sharon Weiss-Greenberg

In this mikveh moment, ImmerseNYC is proud to be building a community of people dedicated to the re-imagination of mikveh – a place of renewal for all Jewish people, a pluralistic space in which Jews of all genders, denominations and affiliations are welcome and safe.

Next week, in addition to holding 1-2 facilitated conversations as spaces for our community to share their fears and concerns about this crisis, ImmerseNYC will be training 20 Jewish leaders to facilitate peer-led conversations all over New York City on mikveh experiences and life transitions.

This recent news cycle has resurfaced what we’ve been hearing all along – that there are so many stories in our community that are not being told.

Through these conversations, we are inviting our community to join together to share stories of joy, struggle, loss, and celebration for the sake of deepening our connections to one another, in addition to our work of deepening Jewish ritual experiences at the mikveh.

Mikveh may soon move out of the headlines but we are committed to this important, Jewish-community-transforming work for the long haul.

With faith that after trauma, there can be healing, and with appreciation for your dedication and support,
Sara

Finding a welcoming mikveh experience (a mikveh guide’s perspective)

By Julie Sissman

10 years ago, I was about to get married in Florida, and I wanted to go to the mikveh. While I’d never been before and had no plans to go ever again, I wanted to mark this important milestone in my life in a Jewishly spiritual way. I thought that using the mikveh as a “breath” in the midst of wedding craziness – a moment to reflect on marriage as a transition and transformation – was a really important experience I did not want to miss.

I asked a rabbi where there was a mikveh nearby, and he said he wasn’t sure he could help – that there was no mikveh in the state of Florida that was open to liberal Jews, and that he performed conversion-required mikveh immersions in the ocean. I couldn’t believe it! How was it possible that no place would welcome me for this important pre-wedding ritual? He suggested trying one specific mikveh – they might be somewhat welcoming. I called the number, and a woman answered. I told her that I was getting married and that I wanted to immerse. She asked a series of questions: “Who are you learning with? Who is marrying you? Where is he a rabbi?” I felt attacked, rather than welcomed, and I quickly concluded that this mikveh would not offer me the personally meaningful experience I was looking for.

So I went to the ocean, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, in January. I drove to a place where there weren’t so many people. I swam out far enough to be able to dunk fully underwater after taking off my bathing suit while treading water, but not so far that I thought I would drown. Did I have a meaningful experience? Yes. Was it anywhere near ideal or the spiritually fulfilling experience I’d been wanting? No. And I thought my mikveh stories would end there.

But when I was pregnant with my daughter, looking for a way to spiritually prepare for the journey that labor and birth would be and to Jewishly mark the transformation that birthing a child would be, I again thought of mikveh. How perfect! A ritual with me immersed in water, just as my baby was immersed in the womb.

I created a beautiful ritual with poems, songs and blessings, but again was confronted with the mikveh problem – where in New York would I be able to immerse? By this time, I had heard good things about one particular mikveh, so I decided to try it. I called ahead to make an appointment, and when I arrived, the attendant looked at me, 8.5 months pregnant, and said, “You’re not here for usual reasons, you can do whatever you want.” I spent time in the preparation room, and then the attendant walked me down the hall to the mikveh pool room itself. And then she turned and left. While I appreciated that she was friendly and hadn’t stayed to “watch” me immerse, I was tense. She had left the door open. What were the rules here? Could I close the door? If I left the door open, would anyone see me? Was there a time limit? If I sang out loud as part of my ritual, would I bother anyone? As in Florida years earlier, while I had a positive experience with my ritual, it was not ideal.

When I saw a posting last year from ImmerseNYC requesting applications for mikveh guides, my heart jumped. What an amazing opportunity to help other people to have a wholly positive mikveh experience. And because I knew how transformative mikveh could be for people who had never been before – if they had the right support – I was excited to enable others to have that kind of experience.

This past September, two of us mikveh guides served a group of women from a synagogue who came for pre-Yom Kippur immersions. Organized by the cantor, the women were a diverse group – some born Jewish, some converted; some with mikveh experience, some with none; some familiar with Hebrew, some not at all. Each woman took the ritual that ImmerseNYC provided to read in the preparation room, and each woman I guided asked something different of me. Some asked me to stay outside the room as she did her own spiritual “work” and immersed. One asked me to read the words of intention she’d written for each dunk; “Courage, Gratitude, Compassion,” I called out as she prepared for the first dunk. And each woman said something different as she completed her immersion. Some said simply, “Thank you.” One told me that it was 4 years since she was cancer free, and this was a closure for that experience. One said that now she felt “ready” for Yom Kippur.

One thing every woman had in common was that they all came out to the lobby when they were done getting dressed, and each woman was truly glowing, with a quiet, strong energy about her. And I wondered…”Maybe I should immerse, too…” So I spoke with the other ImmerseNYC mikveh guide, and we agreed to guide for each other after the group had left. I spent some time in the preparation room, and then walked down the hall with my mikveh guide to the mikveh pool room. She asked if I wanted her to come in, and I said, “No. Please can you wait outside?” She did, and I went in with the ImmerseNYC pre-Yom Kippur ritual, and took myself through it. I felt safe. I felt supported. And the experience was deeply powerful. I felt transformed. I felt like I was glowing. I finished and came out of the pool room, where my mikveh guide greeted me with a smile and said, “Beautiful.” Yes! It was. I let out a big sigh. What a different experience with ImmerseNYC there with me.  Thank you!

Julie Sissman is an organization and leadership development consultant, in addition to being an ImmerseNYC mikveh guide and advisory board member.  She’s also a board member of HEKDESH, a Jewish giving circle made up of alumni of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel, and she sings classical choral music.  Julie lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and two daughters.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

Just Me (a student’s perspective)

by Melissa Berkowitz

“Where did you rush off to this morning?”
“Stuff with my Rabbi…”

This response to my roommate was one of many ambiguous explanations I had given her in the weeks leading up to my mikveh visit.  Having lived with me for our entire four years at NYU, my roommate knew everything I did; we had become a married couple.  Keeping this secret from her was rare but, in my mind, necessary.

I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household where we kept kosher and were active members in our town’s synagogue.  I attended after-school Hebrew High School and read Torah and Megillah on Jewish holidays.  My roommate learned all about kosher laws, looked forward to the brisket I brought back when I went home for holidays, and even proudly chanted the prayers over the Hanukkah candles.  While Judaism played a visible role in my life, I never pursued the Jewish community at NYU.  Religion was always personal for me.  So for the weeks leading up to my graduation, my roommate was understandably intrigued by all the “stuff” I had to do with one of the rabbis from NYU’s Bronfman Center.

In my last semester of college, I applied to NYU’s Jewish Learning Fellowship and registered for the class “Sex, Love and Romance.”  I still was not looking for a community, but I hoped that this course would give me an opportunity to “return to my roots” as my college career slowly came to an end. Throughout the semester, I developed a close relationship with one of the two teachers of the JLF class – Rabbi Nikki.  We waited for each other every week after class and walked together to the subway to begin our trek back to Brooklyn.  Sometimes I enjoyed our personal discussions more than the ones we had as a group.  In class, I would think of things to ask Rabbi Nikki later and looked forward to her additional commentary on the texts we were tackling.

In one of the last classes of the semester, we focused on niddah (monthly immersion). Many of the themes we discussed for the mikveh seemed pertinent to my experiences as an upcoming graduate.  I never enjoyed formal ceremonies.  A part of me dreaded that the marking of my completion at NYU would occur both on the stage of Radio City Music Hall and in the stands at Yankee Stadium.  Having felt the need to find a personal way for me to work through my fears of graduation, I approached Rabbi Nikki after class.  At first, she offered to make an event out of it.  She recommended that we publicize it for anyone else with a similar desire.  She quickly saw that I was looking for something more personal and quiet and was immediately committed to helping create the experience that I needed.

My concerns leading up to graduation were not rooted in the fear of the unknown as they are for many people.  I was preparing to move home and immediately settle into a job.  I feared the daily routine.  I had spent my college career studying abroad, learning to live in West Africa and the Middle East and meeting people with different experiences and world views from my own.  I feared that I would return home and settle into a state of complacency.

Rabbi Nikki reminded me that, in fact, returning home can be a return to the very core of myself.  Perhaps, “return” would not be the right word to describe it.  Instead, graduation could be an opportunity for rebirth to unite the different me’s – both old and new – in order to arrive at a more complete self.  With this, the mikveh was not a celebration of graduating, but instead a renewal.

As Rabbi Nikki and I concluded our reflection on my immersion, we stood up and she put her hands on my head.  She recited the priestly blessing, the same that my parents recited to me when they presented me with my tallit (prayer shawl), and that parents say over their children as they start each new week.  It is not a blessing for what was accomplished in the previous week but a blessing for the future.

Rabbi Nikki asked what else I had to do before my graduation the next day.   I had to get my nails done and pick up my gold tassel.  The gold tassel represented my academic standing so that when I walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, everyone could visibly see my achievements.

Nobody, however, saw me, dripping wet from both the mikveh and from tears, with my head in my rabbi’s hands.  Not even my roommate knew about that.  This experience was for me.

Melissa Berkowitz recently graduated from New York University with a Bachelor in History.  Throughout her college career she studied in Ghana and Israel and focused her studies on cultural and religious conflicts.  She now resides outside of Philadelphia and works for a non-profit that provides in-home service care to people with disabilities. 
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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

When the Mundane Becomes Sacred (a rabbi’s perspective)

by Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi

We were sitting in the “hair-drying room” at the mikveh—a room with individual vanity stations, complete with mirrors and combs and wig-stands. It wasn’t glamorous, or particularly beautiful, or really very spiritual.

And it wasn’t what I had planned, but there was a beit din (rabbinical court) in the lobby with a conversion candidate, and so for privacy we were quietly (and kindly) ushered into the hair-drying room. We sat across from one another in ordinary chairs as my student explored her reactions to the immersion ritual I had just witnessed, and which I had created with the help of ImmerseNYC.

On campus at New York University, I’m “Rabbi Nikki”—sometimes also dubbed “the Campus Mom.” It’s a role I’ve eased into over the year, letting go of the need to be “cool” and understanding that, at my best, I can be a nurturing, guideline-setting, and unconditionally-loving source of comfort, tradition, knowledge, and even discipline for the students of NYU’s Bronfman Center, which serves several downtown-area campuses. Most days my job involves teaching and mentoring and pastoring to emerging adults in a pluralistic Jewish atmosphere, though my particular focus is with the newly-resurrected Reform Jewish community and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer Jewish community as well.

Many of my students shy away from anything that smacks of “organized religion,” blindly-followed tradition, or “outdated” rituals that inherently or historically exclude wide swaths of the Jewish family. But the mikveh has quietly creept into my one-on-one conversations with students who spend so much time worrying about their intellectual acheivements, GPAs, and future salaries that they have little time (and no practice) for fostering meaningful spiritual experiences that are non-rational. These are not students who necessarily pray every day, or ever week at Shabbat, or who turn of their cell phones for 25 hours each Friday evening, or who understand much of Judaism’s ritual and sacred language. Or they’re the students who were raised in yeshiva and who dutifully go through the motions, yet seek help in connecting at a deeper, more personal level. Either way, they’re all asking questions: How can I get past the feeling that the mikveh is sexist? Isn’t it just for people who think women’s bodies are dirty?… I’m sort of jealous of converts, because they get to have this spiritual thing with the mikveh, and I only know I’m Jewish because my parents told me I am… Can I really use the mikveh if I’m Reform and I don’t believe in all that other stuff?…

One evening, after a session on niddah (monthly immersion) in the Jewish Learning Fellowship course “Sex, Love, Romance,” which I co-teach with JLF creator Rabbi Dan Smokler, a student quietly approached me, asking, “Could I use the mikveh for graduation?” Her small question led to big conversations and emails between the two of us as we crafted a ritual that would help this young, adventurous woman prepare to leave what has likely been the most life-changing period of self-discovery, challenge, and intellectual and emotional stretching she has experienced in her life thus far.

“I am afraid I am not ready,” she wrote. And that was the key to why mikveh would indeed be a beautiful way for her to face this change. Because the mikveh, like the womb, encircles us with living waters. And it feels like everything we’ve ever known. But it’s the moment just before we are propelled into a world about which we know nothing at all—except that those who came before us seem glad to welcome us, and invested in how we will carry on the family story, and eager to help us discover all that is new and old and recurring.

I like to write, and so I wrote a lot for that ritual—just for this student and for her fears and her hopes. But on that morning I found that it wasn’t the words I had prepared that mattered most. It was the tone in which they were delivered. It was a gentle hand on her shoulder as I walked her to the preparation room. It was taking a moment and asking her to sit, and close her eyes, and let go of all the barriers that remained.

The ritual was beautiful, and vulnerable, and nurturing—all those things that just seem to happen when a human being is naked and descends those seven steps and takes a breath and plunges into the water to float, like we each floated in our mother’s wombs. There were blessings, and words of reflection, and Modern Hebrew poetry, and tears.

But for me what was most remarkable was the thin line between sacred and mundane. What was most remarkable was how the sacredness seemed to linger, floating in and out like a gentle fog. It wasn’t always or only there in the pool, in the living waters. It was in the hair-drying room, too, as I watched my student cry and laugh. It was there as she sat across from me in the most ordinary chair talking about how the ritual was both less and more than what she had expected and hoped. The fear didn’t just magically wash away.

No, I thought, the fear doesn’t wash away.

The ritual I had so lovingly and carefully crafted was, technically, finished. We were “just” sitting and talking in the hair-drying room. But the sacredness was still there. And so I responded to that sacredness. And I asked my student to stand in front of me, just as I stand with my son each Friday evening, as I put my hands on her head, hair still wet, and blessed her, as a mother blesses her child, as the priests blessed the people…

Yivarechecha haShem viyishmerecha… may God bless you and keep you…

Rabbi Nikki Lyn DeBlosi, PhD, currently serves as Manager of Religious Life at NYU’s Bronfman Center. She was ordained from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York campus in 2013 and holds a BA in Women’s Studies from Harvard University and an MA and PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn with her wife and son.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

 

Mikveh at 56

By Barbara

At age 56, I experienced mikvah for the first time.

It was a rare, perfect day. As I started my drive into the city, a bright bolt of lightning streaked across the sky directly in front of me. Then, as I drove up the New Jersey Turnpike, a rainbow filled the sky; its arch swept from high to low, its width expressed the full spectrum of color against a backdrop of light blue sky and shades of grey-filled clouds. It stayed with me until I could no longer see it at my approach to the Holland Tunnel.

My traffic-filled drive up the West Side Highway was spent reviewing my prayers. Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu bi-t’vilah, b’mayyim hayyim. Hineni. And the Shehekeyanu.  And my personal prayers to mark this transition.

I had thought a lot about my prayers, and why I was choosing mikvah at this point in my life. Raised as a liberal Reform Jew, mikvah was never something I considered. My family was culturally very Jewish, but spiritually I think I was the only one who believed in G-d, or deeply felt the connection to past generations. Over the past decade, I divorced and life often wasn’t easy as a single parent, and as a woman returning to the dating world. I’ve had much love, and lust and loss, and these experiences dredged up past heartaches and traumas from earlier times.  My best friend of 40 years had recently died from cancer. I was emotionally distanced from my siblings, who were not intellectually nor spiritually inclined. Darkness had crept into my body and soul.

I had become the emotional container for my family, and carried a history of trauma that my grandparents brought with them from Lithuania and Latvia. Sometimes I felt my relatives were calling out to me. Sometimes I felt haunted by their cries. And then it occurred to me that my immersion was not only for myself, but for my namesake, Breina Freidel, and the women in her short-lived life, whose spirit I embraced, whose darkness I carried along with my own.

After I immersed three times and said my prayers aloud, I turned in the other direction and closed my eyes, felt the warm water surround my body, and contain me.  First I prayed for my children – for them to be happy and safe and at ease. Then I spoke to Breina Freidel. I gently told her it was okay now, that I heard her cries and she could rest. I hoped that maybe I could rest too.

The next morning when I woke, I felt happy – more at peace than I had perhaps ever felt.

Mikvah was both a spiritual and sensual experience for me. I understood that I was renewing and cleansing more than just my body and spirit, but also the spirit of the women in my family who had cried out to me.  I embraced their darkness with light.

I believe the heavens called out to me on that rare, perfect day.  The lightning bolt and the rainbow guide led the way, imprinting my memories, on a screen of light blue sky and shades of grey-filled clouds.

Barbara is the mother of two children, living in suburban New Jersey. She is a psychotherapist and practices yoga, meditation and continuum movement, and writes poetry. She believes true healing occurs in time through compassion, courage and creativity.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

Caleb’s Inner Strength

Written and delivered by Rabbi Sara Luria at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York Annual Meeting, June 12, 2014

In her book on self-esteem, Gloria Steinem quotes a young woman who says, “I thought I wasn’t strong enough to be a feminist – but now I see that feminism is about strengthening women from the inside too.” (Revolution from Within, p338).

A few weeks ago, during a conference’s “getting to know you” opening session, I was sitting next to a woman who I admire and have known for almost 10 years. She shared, “No matter how successful I am, no matter how much praise I receive – I started a thriving organization, I am nationally understood to be a leader in my field, I’m a gifted trainer and entrepreneur – really there could be 15 wonderful things said about me, but I hear the 1 negative. No matter how hard I work, I still find fault, nothing ever really feels like enough.”

I recently participated in a rabbinic fellowship’s alumni gathering (with really wonderful young Reform rabbis). As we were all catching up between sessions, I noticed that many of the women mentioned their unhappiness with their own body – either something about not being able to lose the baby weight, or comparing themselves to other women’s bodies.

The theme that runs through these stories, and a challenge that I think particularly women face, is our capacity to access an inner core of strength – a love for ourselves that is not based on how hard we are working or how our bodies look. Just love because we are. I believe confidence, deep confidence, comes from that strength and that love. And we need that kind of deep confidence to be the visionary leaders for all of the organizations, companies, and synagogues that need us.

So how wonderful it was to turn to our sources this week and read about Caleb, who, as God says in our story, had a “ruach acheret,” a different spirit (Num 14:24), the kind of person who trusted his own experience and inner voice. Caleb was sent out by God and Moses to scout out the land of Canaan with the 11 other chieftains. 10 of them insisted that it would be impossible to conquer the current inhabitants of Canaan. Caleb (Joshua later, but Caleb first) hushed his fellow chieftains and said in very sure terms – let’s go there, it’s gonna be great. The Hebrew demonstrates his certainty by using emphatic, repetitive language –

Alo, naaleh, let’s definitely go up
yachol nuchal, because we can surely do this
tova ha’aretz me’od me’od, the land is very, very good (Num 13:30)

I have some questions for Caleb:

How did you know to trust yourself?
How did you know to ignore what everyone else was saying and listen to your inner voice?Why do you feel so confident that your experience is true?
Were you scared to speak up, to say, “I don’t agree, we might’ve been in the same place, but I had a different experience of the situation?”
Were you scared that people wouldn’t like you?
Were you worried you would lose your status, your friends, your credibility?

It was because of you, Caleb, because you were able to hush the voices of doubt and negativity and fear that we eventually did “go up” into that land.

I imagine that you are here in this room because you envision a Jewish community that creates and cultivates environments in which women can build deep trust in ourselves and our experiences. I pray that our work, as Jewish women and men, and as feminists, will be imbued with a ruach acheret, a spirit of confidence and love. And I pray that my almost 5 year old son, who happens to be Caleb, will know a world in which women can access and, then lead from, their wells of inner strength.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

A Mikveh Salon

By Hillary Chorny

It was mikveh night, and I wondered if I should bring snacks. I’ve done mikveh many places, many ways: a quiet bungalow in Ontario, Canada; the beautiful mikveh in Nachla’ot where they forgot to give me towels; and, just once, the Atlantic ocean, with my mother-in-law holding a lantern and towel. A few weeks ago, for the very first time, I went to a “mikveh salon”. Suddenly, mikveh was new again. Mikveh was social.

I’ve been a mikveh lover for almost a decade and a mikveh user for a few years. More recently, I became a mikveh guide with ImmerseNYC. It was a step akin to earning a black belt on the path to mikveh ninja-hood, a ninja who smelled of chlorine and grew wrinkles on her fingertips. On a hot summer day, we bathed in the air conditioning of aManhattansky-rise and opened ourselves to learning for the sake of leading. Our initial cohort of trained guides shared a palpable eagerness for mikveh. Like me, they had felt the pulse of mikveh quicken, had sensed the beginning of a trend. We all wanted in.

During our first training, Rabbi Sara Luria asked us to prepare ourselves as containers: big, wide, open containers ready to receive the complexities that our immersees carry into the mikveh. We were trained to embody safe space. On the evening of the mikveh salon, in that small neighborhood apartment, we built a container. There was a sense of padding, a soft muteness that covered the place. A cat mewed softly behind a closed door. There were a few ladies gathered to share, to immerse. Just walking in the door, we shed something. Behind our quiet smiles we acknowledged our vulnerability. In some ways, we were already naked.

Two head coverings, five wedding rings, and seven pairs of eyes: we turned to our host. The talking began from a place of inward focus. Some of us literally curled in on ourselves, hugging our knees as we shared our mikveh stories. Our hostess invited us to explore her apartment and browse dozens of quotes and pictures about immersion that she had taped to her walls. She asked if anyone minded if she played a little soft music. We nodded, and soft rock swelled in the background.

Wandering the room with stacks of colored sticky notes and pencils, we held a silent conversation. There, between a wedding picture and a framed mirror, was a quote from Rachel Adler next to an excerpt from the Mishnah. On the heating pipe was something that looked like a long quote from the Mayyim Hayyim website. Turning and turning, we scanned the many faces of mikveh.

Returning to the center of our safe space, we reflected on the walls, now papered in colorful opinions. We revealed ourselves and unraveled one another’s identities, taking note of consensuses and divergent thoughts. Gingerly, we brought our own stories into the space, then ourselves. One of us saw herself in the picture of a woman bent over her toenails, and we talked about the frustrations of removing fresh polish. We spoke of the scrubbing, all kinds of scrubbing, and of the time it takes out of our evenings. We laughed about late tevilah, how summertime dips eat into our nighttime hours. We became a collective, a vulnerable collective. We huddled and murmured, comforted by stories that resembled our own.

There were echoes of our partners in the room. We spoke of the unspoken things, the ways in which we form and reform, shape and are shaped by the culture of touch in our homes. How we own our bodies more through mikveh and how we love and resent and feel completely overwhelmed by that ownership. We spoke of niddah, of love, of wet and damp and loneliness, of renewal, of meditation, of water. We spoke of reclamation and resentment, foolishness and rebirth.

I am a container, but even containers need their very own containers. When I step into the mikveh, I leave nothing between myself and the water. Not a single barrier – no chatzitzah – remains. That night, sitting in the mikveh salon, I learned to enter a circle of holy conversation in the same way. No polish, no scabs, no barriers. Just us.

Would that we could all enter into community so stripped of pretense that we could not help but emerge as changed individuals. We are containers in search of larger containers, seeking spaces in which we can simply be.

On mikveh night, I ask the waters to hold me, the most raw form of me. I ask them to hold me in suspension so that I can pause, reflect, and emerge a changed person. Six women in a quietManhattanapartment gave me that same gift. They held me. They embraced me, like a warm mikveh.

Hillary Chorny is currently completing her cantorial investiture, rabbinical ordination, and a Masterʼs degree in Sacred Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. This August, she will begin her tenure as the new assistant musical clergy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, CA. Hillary is enjoying her third year as the cantor at White Meadow Temple in Rockaway, NJ, where she recently published an original “Scrapbook Siddur” in cooperation with the community.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

A New Mikveh Guide In Town

By Tehilah Eisenstadt 

I’ve seen many kinds of Mikveh Ladies: the Good the Bad and the Soul-Crushing.  Mostly I’ve seen the latter. Mikveh Ladies who have been given minimal ownership over the knowledge behind their function, and maximum authority to wield their half-halachic-truths.

I met a Mikveh Lady who grumbled to herself after a woman’s sobs met me through the thick walls of the preparatory rooms. When, as a newly-wed and new mikveh user I got up the courage to ask the Mikveh Lady: “Is that (still sobbing) woman ok?” she signaled that I was intrusive and that “some husbands were just more strict with their wives than others.”

One friend met a Mikveh Lady who questioned why this friend was childless. Another friend met a Mikveh Lady who told her to lose weight to achieve the pregnancy she so longed for. One friend met a Mikveh Lady who told her that despite her allergic reaction to chlorine she was still forbidden from showering after immersion (and before sex).

I’ve also seen a Mikveh Lady, despite being touched by her own public tragedy, welcome me every month with a genuine smile and help me transition after every immersion with the most gentle of blessing. I’ve met Mikveh Ladies who told me to take a moment, no matter how rushed they or I seemed only moments before, and in that gift of a moment I could meditate solo in the ritual pool.

As a result of more of the former than the latter descriptions I’ve been searching for a way to meet this (among other) challenge of mikveh for 10 years.

Now that there’s a brand new Mikveh Guide in town, namely those trained by ImmerseNYC, I am filled with gratitude that something so fraught for me is now available without the majority of obstacles my friends and I previously experienced. I think it is also profoundly important that there are guides available for male and transgendered individuals to partake of this ritual.  Perhaps ImmerseNYC even prompted Justin Bieber to consider a transformational dip of his own, though I think ImmerseNYC takes zero credit for this.

And so, there’s a new mikveh, within the mikveh you might already know about. And there’s a new Mikveh Lady/Mikveh Guide alongside those you already knew. As a newly minted Mikveh Guide, who only seems to guide or be guided during snow storms, I’ve created a motto:

“Neither snow, nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, slow subways, nor mucky paths, pre-conceived notions about what mikveh is or is not, will keep these guides from the steady, calm completion of our appointed rounds (including referrals when requested/needed).” (based on the US Postal Service motto)

I celebrate that ImmerseNYC Mikveh Guides and new attitudes and conversations about mikveh offer a unique opportunity for the female Jewish community/communitas. I am grateful, honored and relieved to be a part of the new Mikveh Guide team in town.

Tehilah Eisenstadt is a Jewish educator, consultant, community builder and storyteller. She has worked in various leadership roles with prominent Jewish educational agencies and non-profits: Covenant Foundation, Huntington Jewish Center, Pardes Institute and Storahtelling. Recent projects include helping to open Kings Bay Y’s new community center in North Williamsburg, creating programs that serve multi-faith families. She has been hosting mikveh conversations on and off since 2005. If you have questions or comments please drop her a note.

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.

Touching the Water

By Rachel Figurasmith, MeetUp Coordinator at the Jewish Journey Project

On Sunday, January 12 a small group of sixth graders took a special field trip to learn about the mikveh. The cars travelling from the JCC in Manhattan to Temple Israel Center in White Plains included five students, two faculty members, a parent, and a mikveh guide. On our drive up, the sixth graders asked what we were doing, why we had to be in the car for “so long,” and if this was going to be “any fun.” By the time we got back to the JCC, the answer to that last question was a resounding “yes!” (and the ride didn’t seem that far… at least not for the car that didn’t get lost).

As the coordinator of MeetUps at the Jewish Journey Project, I had the privilege and pleasure of coordinating and co-facilitating this new experience for our sixth grade group. The Jewish Journey Project (JJP) is a revolutionary approach to Jewish education for children in third through seventh grade. In addition to elective-based programming, each synagogue or JCC hosts MeetUps—monthly, weekly, or bi-monthly; this where I come in. JJP@JCC’s MeetUps take place monthly and is grouped by grade level. Our sixth grade students are learning about Jewish lifecycle—which we could do from a classroom, but we choose to take it on the road!

After much conversation and planning, our group decided to go to the mikveh at Temple Israel Center. In addition to being simply beautiful, TIC is incredibly welcoming and the mikveh is completely private and allows for all genders to enter the same space. Along with Stephen Figurasmith, an ImmerseNYC Mikveh Guide (and my husband), we made the choice to take advantage of the privacy and openness that TIC is able to offer.

Our program began with us asking our group to talk about what is special about what water is for- what to do we do with it, how does it sustain us, and so forth. We asked the group to use clay to mold their ideas of “living water” into art. Stephen taught us about what a mikveh is (and is not—you can’t ruin a mikveh by being in it the “wrong” way!), then got to hear some personal stories from our group. One of the young ladies with us shared that when she was adopted, her mother brought her to a mikveh; another said that she knew her mother had been to a mikveh before getting married.

From there, we went into the mikveh itself and went on a mini-tour of the small space. The students each wrote their own intention, keeping the idea of transition in mind, and read them aloud or to themselves. The most exciting part of the evening for our groups was just after everyone had read their intentions. We all did a mini-immersion, putting our hands in the water and quietly reflecting in the space. The students seemed to really be moved by this quiet, reflective moment where we were all connected to each other.

By the time we got back to the cars, three of our five participants were sold: they’re going to immerse before their Bat Mitzvahs!

Rachel Figurasmith is a Jewish educator and teacher trainer, working in communities all over the metro area. A long-time New Yorker, Rachel holds a BA in Urban Education from Hampshire College and has worked as a camp director, caseworker, synagogue school coordinator, and after-school director. She is currently completing a Masters in Jewish Educational Leadership at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Special Education Certificate at Hebrew College. 

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The Mikveh Musings Blog is a forum for members of the community to express varying and divergent experiences and opinions. The ideas expressed in this blog post are the author’s. ImmerseNYC is proud to host this open conversation.