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. 

Here I am

By: Faith Brigham Leener 
Soft, wet skin wrapped in gently folded cloth
Waiting.
Tender footsteps on cold marble
Where are you?
הינני (hineini, here I am)
An ancient journey begins anew.
In solitude,
but not alone.
She guides me to the water’s edge,
A translucent mirror of past, present, and future.
Prayer whispered
On bare breath.
Open your gates God -
Let these words rise, reach, and be noted.
May my body testify on behalf of my soul
May these waters envelope me as your light fills the world
May I be granted the renewal of your grace
May those I love be safe and whole
May wisdom and humility illuminate the way
לך-לך (lech lecha, go forth)
תבילה (tevilah, immerse)
שהחינו (shehecheyanu, bless God for bringing us to this moment)
אמן (amen).
Faith Brigham Leener is the Coordinator of CLIP: Onward Israel, a collaborative program between The Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, UJA-Federation of New York, and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Onward Israel initiative. Faith is also a full time Master’s student at NYU Wagner and NYU Skirball, pursuing degrees in Public Sector & Non-profit Management and Policy, as well as Judaic and Hebrew studies. Faith is interested in strengthening institutional capacity for social impact. Faith holds a B.A. Phi Betta Kappa from Brandeis University and is a Charlotte, NC native. She lives on the Upper West side with her husband Jon. 

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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 as a Recharge

By Anonymous 

To me, mikveh is a reset button. It’s a spiritual refresh. A great way to set things back to the way they were before I got lost in the too-often Godless maze of the week.

I usually dip on Friday mornings, in keeping up a custom instituted for me by a rabbi in my yeshiva in Israel, who stated so beautifully that “One of my major goals in life is to ensure that every single Shabbat I experience is better than the one preceding it.” Mikveh, he said, was essential for this. An inimitable way to make a physical transition from the wildness of the week to the stillness of Shabbat. When things worked well, a mental transition would follow, neatly allowing the mikveh to serve as an agent of transformation.

A reset button, if you will.

Being a religiously creative and exploratory person (at least in my own estimation of myself), I embraced my weekly visits to the mikveh and quickly ritualized this experience, adding on to it special little flairs that made it my own, including pre-Shabbat (and often pre-Mikveh) music, such as Josh Ritter’s “Lillian, Egypt” (with its lyrical nod to that most special erev Shabbat song, Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), with “The lily of the valley, the lily of the west was a rose”), Bob Dylan’s “Someone’s Got A Hold of My Heart” (“I’ve been to Babylon and I’ve got to confess/I can still hear that voice rising from the wilderness”), and Yosef Karduner’s “Vitaher Libeinu.” I also made sure to consume some chocolate, twisting a teaching I’d heard from Rav Kook that roughly said take what you love and set it aside for Shabbat (or, in my case, erev Shabbat).

I upped my religious game, donning a different yarmulke, a more lavish pair of tzitzit, and studying the weekly parsha (Torah portion) after morning prayers. But it all started with the physical recharge of dipping deep into the warm, welcoming waters of the local mikveh (which men were only allowed to use during certain hours).

New rituals developed. Soon it became a regular thing for me to write a “poem of the week,” inspired by my time in the mikveh and comprised of thoughts that had been kicking around my brain all week.

For me, mikveh is a recharge. A way to pull the reigns, to try and force that shift, so often the hardest thing in the world, that Shabbat seems to demand of us, from breathing and breezing and being in a whip-fast world of self and worries and things to a slowed-down world of others, prayer, and God.

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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. 

Opening Up the Space

By Anonymous

Before my first trip to the mikveh, a friend gave me a mikveh survival kit: a box filled with practical items, like nail polish remover and face wipes. This box also contained a large, fake diamond ring. As much as this item was meant as a joke, it represented my real fear of being judged as a single woman going to the mikveh. 

As a college student, I constantly find myself talking with friends about our Jewish identities and our sex lives. Rarely, however, do we discuss when or how the two overlap. Living my life informed by Jewish laws and values, I realized needed to find a way to make sex Jewish too.

For some, this could mean waiting until marriage. For me — and for so many others I know — this expectation is unrealistic and sometimes even harmful to a relationship. Physically and emotionally I feel comfortable having sex, but I struggled to feel comfortable religiously.

The main halakhic problem with premarital sex is the prohibition against having sex with a woman in niddah, a ritual state of impurity. Married women immerse in the mikveh monthly to become ritually pure and avoid this prohibition. But due to a rabbinic injunction, unmarried women are not allowed to immerse. The reasoning behind this injunction is clear: if single women immerse in the mikveh, they will be ritually pure and can engage in premarital sex. Based on my understanding of this circular logic (which others are entitled to disagree with), if single women do immerse monthly, there is no longer a major halakhic issue with premarital sex.

So I went to the mikveh as a practical reaction to my desire to have premarital sex. I was not expecting to have a spiritual experience. But with the support and guidance of ImmerseNYC, I left the mikveh feeling empowered, both as a Jew and as a woman. I am reclaiming a practice that has been reserved for observant married women. I am setting aside 11 days a month for myself. I am embracing modernity and halakha.

And, most importantly, I am telling my friends about it. I want every mikveh across the globe to welcome any woman seeking to fulfill the mitzvah of monthly immersion. In fact, I want mikveh immersion to be accessible to every Jew. Having found so much meaning and peace in the waters of the mikveh, I can only hope that more Jews discover this powerful mitzvah.

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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. 

Immersion Testimonials

From a Mikveh Guide after facilitating her first immersion:

As the immersee was gathering her things to leave the mikveh after her immersion, she said to me [her mikveh guide], “you really did a mitzvah today.” As an observant woman who has been immersing monthly for 16 years, I always think of the act of immersing for niddah [women’s monthly immersion] as a mitzvah. I never realized that the experience of witnessing was also a mitzvah. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to discover this.

 From an immersee:

I left home this morning with no expectations other than to have a new experience…  My mikveh guide was warm and caring, and seemed generally appreciative of being there and helping me. She helped me feel safe and ready for my healing to begin… This was an experience that will stay with me forever. Thank you from the bottom of my 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. 

Testimonials from our Mikveh Guide Training

This cohort of guides is an exceptionally passionate, thoughtful group, open to thinking differently and challenging assumptions.

There are many, many stories that will emerge from this process, of both heartbreak and challenge, as well as joy and celebration.

I didn’t realize how great the need is for a community mikveh in NYC. My notions of who & why one would access a mikveh was greatly expanded.The diversity in the room made me realize again and again how much we all have to teach one another.

So many different types of people are involved, so wonderfully and truly pluralistic.

For five of hours of training, time really flew by!

The training was a very useful and enriching experience, and getting to know the community of folks who are involved as guides was a very cool experience that makes me even more excited to be a part of this project.

 

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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.