The Mohel in the Mikveh

by Alan Green, Mikveh Guide

Alan J Green photoAfter 35 years of practicing as an OBGYN in Nashua, NH, I retired in April, 2012. So what did I do with all the free time that I thought I would have? Among other things, I became a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim. I was accepted into the 8th cohort of Mikveh Guide Trainees, which graduated in the spring of 2013. This was a rather unique group because we were the first all-male cohort (we dubbed ourselves the “mikveh guys”). So, how did this come about?

I’ve been doing brisses since I became a doctor in 1970. There is no requirement for a mohel to undergo a formal process of certification, only to be a respected Jew in the community, be familiar with the halacha (Jewish law), and possess the skills to do circumcisions. Then, in the mid-1980’s, the Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism came into being and offered courses of study for medical practitioners to be officially recognized as mohalim. I participated in their first certification course.

During my years as an active OBGYN, my practice partner was my wife. The demands of the office coupled with those of raising a family were almost all-consuming for us. Luckily, my understanding and ever-flexible wife was available to cover me when brisses came up. But needing to be out of the office to do a bris on only a few days’ notice was daunting, and I had to turn down many requests. After retirement, I looked forward to being more available as a mohel.

When I started out, the vast majority of my clients were Jewish couples who wanted their newborn sons to have a bris simply because that’s what they were supposed to do. Over the years, however, I encountered more and more interfaith families and new parents with non-Jewish extended family members. Initially, I think many such families were at the margins and not infrequently, lost to Judaism.

Nowadays, well over half of American Jews are married to non-Jews (more so among younger people), and many are trying hard to find a path that will let them, their spouses, and their children find a place within klal Yisrael (the community of Israel). Even among families with two Jewish parents, having a bris is sometimes seen as an optional archaic procedure, rather than as the essential covenantal ceremony that it has been for millenia. Exploratory phone calls from potential clients have gotten longer and more involved. It is not unusual to have several family members participating on speakerphone and for me to answer more questions involving the “why” of doing a bris. Over the years it has become important to figure out how to integrate families with considerable diversity into the ceremony. I saw the necessity to help these families negotiate the halachic mazes and to come out feeling accepted and included.

Enter Mayyim Hayyim. I had known of its existence, but I had never been to the place. Out of curiosity, I attended a pre-High Holiday program in 2012 and became intrigued. At a fundraising event (“Tapestry—Choosing a Jewish Life”), I saw the tears and joy of many who had incredible stories to share about Mayyim Hayyim. Anita Diamant’s mission to create a place that would be welcoming to those choosing to become part of the Jewish people really spoke to me. I applied to become a Mikveh Guide shortly thereafter.

There are many reasons that people come to immerse. Being involved with men immersing as part of the conversion process has been fascinating. No two stories are alike. Some conversion candidates need to undergo hatafat dam brit, a procedure involving drawing a drop of blood from the foreskin remnant of someone who has had a previous non-religious circumcision in order to validate it as a bris. The procedure is somewhat strange, anxiety-provoking, and often logistically difficult to arrange. I have been able to offer hatafat dam brit at Mayyim Hayyim just prior to immersion when needed, and to make the process more convenient, easier, and welcoming. At this year’s LimmudBoston event on December 7th, I will be leading a program entitled “Inclusive Brit Milah Ceremonies for Interfaith (and All) Families.” And as time goes by, I hope to continue welcoming Jews by choice to klal Yisrael more and more.

Alan Green has lived in Nashua, NH, since 1977. He is a mohel, retired obstetrician-gynecologist, and plays in a klezmer band. Alan is a proud Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guide.

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Standing on the Boundaries of Liminal Space

by Carrie Bornstein

liminal |ˈlimənl|
adjective technical
1 of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2 occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

I live in a world of liminal space. And not only because I work at a mikveh. The mikveh, of course, is the space we have built in to our Jewish framework that marks transitions, that invites us to enter the water in one state and then exit, ready for another.

I live in a world of liminal space because I embrace contradictions. I don’t do well with categories, boxes, or assumptions. A 24-hour time span for me means teaching Orthodox feminists in New York City about creating an empowered mikveh experience, and coming back to talk with my staff about Transgender Day of Remembrance, how participants in Boston offered words of healing and also silence in memory of those who have been assaulted, killed, or have taken their own lives while simply trying to live out the truth of their identities.

In Hebrew, most words are built upon a three-letter shoresh. My favorite of these roots is ayin – resh – vet, the letters that spell out erev, or evening. Evening is the mixture of both day and night and all the words with this root have something to do with mixing: an eruv allows the mixture of physical space, the erev rav were a group of biblical people who joined along with the Jewish people despite their lack of clear Jewish identity. The words for potpourri and whirlpool come from this root too.

It is this mixing, these contradictions, that keep our lives rich. When we can interact with people who are different than we are, we can truly grow and learn.

In the words of Rabbi Reuben Zellman that were read aloud yesterday at Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston,

“We offer a blessing for the twilight, for twilight is neither day nor night, but in-between. We are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place.”

CBTapestryThough mikveh has historically been a place of boundaries where too many Jews have been kept out, I am grateful for all those in our community who make it possible for Mayyim Hayyim to be a place of welcome and inclusion, where we can stand on the boundaries of liminal space, and sink right in.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. Follow her on twitter @carolinering.

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So Future Rabbi…

by Joseph Gindi

imageMy recent move back to Boston to begin rabbinical school has really felt like coming home.  I had previously interned at Mayyim Hayyim, so when Lisa Berman, the Mikveh and Education Director, invited me to come back and volunteer as a Mikveh Guide, I decided to get in the water myself to mark the beginning of my journey toward rabbinical ordination. I thought, “Sure, that could be nice.”  I really didn’t know how meaningful it would be.

At first it felt silly coming to do a ritual for myself.  God is not an easy presence to conjure up in my life. Was this really going to work?  Was I really going to drive all the way out to Newton to get in a warm bath for a few minutes?  As I got in the car I realized I hadn’t planned what I was going to do. The Jewish tradition is rich with rituals to hold us and uplift us as we experience all the twists and turns of our life.  Today most of those rituals are communal (weddings, b’nai mitzvah, funerals).  We’ve mostly lost the forms of private prayer and ritual that peppered the lives of our ancestors.  When I’m crafting rituals for others I try to blend song, classical ritual forms, and opportunities for the individuals to hear from and share with their community.  For myself, though, I just hopped in the car and drove to the mikveh.

So, future rabbi, what do you do when you show up unprepared for your own ritual?

First I slowed down, taking time to sit and breathe, to sing whatever wordless melody came to mind.  Then I just opened my prayerbook and starting singing songs of gratitude and praise.  Like any relationship, you have to get in the mood and build intimacy before you can have a real connection.  This helped, I was warming up, but what was my make-it-up-as-you-go-along ritual going to be about?  There is no page in the siddur that says, “For Immersion Prior to Rabbinical Training.” Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Mayyim Hayyim creates an immersion ceremony for just that reason.

Even as I stepped to the water’s edge, I had no idea what this ritual would be about. I stepped into the warm water and, imagining the rainwater that showers all of creation, I opened the bor cap connecting the heated pool to the collected rainwater outside.  As I was about to say the blessing and immerse I realized that the three traditional immersions corresponded to three central reasons for my decision to enter rabbinical school.  And so I spoke, out loud, to myself and the universe, a dedication to use my training time to cultivate a spiritual practice and relationship of self-care to support me in my work. I said the blessing, and down I went.  I dedicated my next immersion to being of service to others.  I requested support in meeting others where they are at, and weaving them into supportive relationship with themselves, others, and the universe.  I dedicated my final immersion to God, to the connected, pulsing totality of existence.

I was surprised by how powerful it felt to do this improvised ritual, and how different it felt to be doing it in a sanctified space with structure and intention.  I knew that I was going to rabbinical school to serve myself, others, and the world, but there was a big difference between thinking those thoughts and making them real through ritual speech and action.

I was astonished at how easy it was to invoke this connection to God’s presence (all I did was sing some songs, say some words, and take a bath), and at the same time how hard it was. I don’t usually find God accessible in my daily life.  I discovered that I need ritual and structure to cultivate those moments of connection.  What was so inspiring about my experience at Mayyim Hayyim was finding out that I can do that for myself and by myself. I think with the right set of tools, we can all do this for ourselves.

Joseph is really excited to be back in the Boston area. He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, and previously served as coordinator of the Men’s Initiative at Mayyim Hayyim.

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A Different Kind of Question

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

At the ripe age of ten, I recall being fairly convinced that by the time I hit twenty-eight, I would possess that special realization about the world that I’d clearly been missing. What realization exactly?

leezaAfter observing the people I love grappling with finances, religion and language barriers, my ten-year-old self was hoping that at twenty-eight, maybe I would understand enough about the world that I wouldn’t have to grapple quite so much. Naturally, I decided having the answers was my best protection. So I searched. I studied. I asked a lot of questions.

But my prying came from fear. I was trained in the old saying: “knowledge is power,” and as a small person hoping to feel a lot bigger, I took that seriously.

At the peak of my teenage-level anxiety about the meaning of life and death, I stumbled into the ceramics room at Brookline High School. I began making things with my hands, and in between making things, my teacher would come by and ask me about my work.  These were not just any questions. These were the kind of questions that are disorienting because there is no way to answer them neatly, and at best, they just lead to more questions.

“What were you trying to evoke when you made this…Is this a reflection of how you feel about yourself…What story are you trying to tell with this piece?”

Oi va voy. Yes, I cringe when I remember this now. And somewhere I have all of the head-less-female-nude sculptures to explain why. But this experience changed me. I made some pieces that year that I’m still very proud of. More importantly, I learned about the power of asking questions as a way of opening up the world.

My ten-year-old self had been on a mission to locate knowledge, knowledge that I thought would make me feel safe and in control. I never did find it. Instead, I discovered that a teacher who knows how to ask the right questions and really listen, is a magical thing. A teacher who creates a space where you can ask any question, not so that you know more, but so you can think more, is really a treasure.

grandma

Rabbi Akiva is one of our tradition’s most beloved teachers, and there is a story about him that’s among my favorite pieces of midrash. It’s on the theme of powerful questions and it came up last week in our first installation of Many Waters.

One day, at the ripe age of 40, Rabbi Akiva’s life as a humble shepherd changed forever. Akiva passed by a well where he saw a rock that had been engraved. He asked, “Who engraved this rock?” A group of scholars answered with a snarky undertone: “Why Akiva, don’t you know the line (from the book of Job) ‘It is the water that wears away the stone?'” Akiva is poor and unlearned, he didn’t know that line and likely these scholars knew that. Yet all of this led him to a profound realization: “If a substance as soft as water can penetrate a rock, than surely Torah which is hard as iron can penetrate my heart!” Akiva, with no concern for his pride, took his young son and they went to school. Together they learned the aleph bet. Eventually they learned the whole Torah.

This story gets me every time. First, Akiva  is not afraid to ask an obvious question. Of course, it’s only obvious because most of us take our 6th grade class on water erosion for granted. In reality, the science and beauty of how water can erode stone is complex. Akiva is also fully engaged with his surroundings and curious. While the scholars are trying to prove that they are ‘knowledgeable,’ by quoting Job, Akiva is unconcerned. His question has led him to a new perspective on what he is capable of, and it leads him to becoming one of our greatest teachers.

I’ve been a teacher for over nine years, and in that time I’ve heard a lot of incredible questions.  They are how I know that my students and I are on an adventure without a knowable trajectory. There are things I want them to know about the mikveh, but the most important thing to me isn’t that they are mikveh experts when they leave; I care that we have been using our minds, together.

Just as Akiva asked about the way water affects its’ surroundings, visitors to Mayyim Hayyim learn about the structure of a mikveh, the way the water flows in from the bor (well) outside.  My students ask:

“Can you stand outside and hold out a cup until it fills with rainwater and then dump enough of it into the indoor mikveh to fulfill the halachic requirement of 40 seah (a rabbinic form of measurement equally 200 gallons)…Do you have to be Jewish to go into the mikveh…Could you make an indoor mikveh that has an opening in the ceiling where the rain falls in…If you put a pig into the mikveh would that make it kosher to eat?”

We Jews put a high premium on questions. Each of these questions could warrant a whole treatise outlining the reasoning for many possible answers. Whether it’s the four questions of a Passover seder or discussions in the Mishna and its commentary -our people ask a lot of questions. Better yet, we come up with twice as many answers.

Yet many of us have pushed up against the feeling of their being a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to be a Jew at some point in our lives. Akiva might have felt it as a 40 year-old shepherd who decided to commit himself to study. You might have felt it if you’ve ever tried learning a new Jewish ritual. The problem is, as we get older, the pressure to look like we know everything grows. Sometimes we don’t just forget to ask questions, we actually decide there is one answer.

I can’t argue with the saying: “knowledge is power,”  but it’s just a fraction of the picture. What Akiva experienced by the well is a lot like what Mayyim Hayyim does by the mikveh during our Education programs. We ask our visitors to come and look, touch, open, read and explore. How else can you really come to know something unless you are able to bring all of your unabashed curiosity to it? I have no doubt Akiva would have been proud. I definitely am.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She likes it when her students ask her questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Weaning the Mother

by Rabbi Haviva Ner David

s-HAVIVA-NERDAVID-large300I arrived home last night to Israel, where I live with my husband and seven children. We were all in the U.S. to visit family, and I stayed on for a short book tour for my new memoir. It was an intense three weeks of 24/7 family bonding and little time for myself, and then suddenly I was left alone to promote myself and my career. The contrast was sudden and sharp. Yet, still, my emotional reaction to the transition took me by surprise.

When my husband and children dropped me off at a Logan Airport hotel on their way to catch their plane, I could barely hold back my tears. Then, as I sat in my hotel room, the tears finally came, mostly in response to my plan during this trip to finally wean my 3-1/2-year-old daughter from nursing, after months of on-again-off-again attempts. Saying goodbye to her and the rest of the family was symbolic of a more significant transition in my 45-year life.

Shefa is my last child after a sum total of 22 years of pregnancies, miscarriages, one adoption, and breastfeeding. (We bottle fed our adopted son, and while that liberating experience made me wish men had milk ducts, I would not exchange the miracle of breastfeeding for the convenience and egalitarian nature of bottle feeding). It has taken me almost a year to wean Shefa, and not only because she has resisted. In fact, her resistance may be in large part in response to my own.

When our sixth child, our adopted son, was 3 1/2 years old, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was pregnant with Shefa. After a series of miscarriages and then months of failing even to conceive, I had already gone through the process of coming to peace with the fact that I would not be giving birth to and breastfeeding another child. This last pregnancy, birth, and nursing experience felt like a last chance gift given to me directly by God. I cherished every moment, and I was not to ready or willing to let go again. This time I needed help getting me through the process.

My plan was to do a weaning ritual prior to my book talk at Mayyim Hayyim, a beautiful and vibrant community mikveh (ritual bath) in Newton, Massachusetts. At the water’s edge, I read from the book I had compiled the night before in my hotel room by cutting and pasting printed emails I had requested from friends and family for the occasion. I was touched by the candor and intimacy of these personal stories and blessings whose general theme was to embrace this new stage in my life while also appreciating what I am leaving behind.

As I descended the circular stair case with its seven steps leading down into the black-bottomed oval mikveh, its underwater lights slowly changing color, I tried to be mindful of the many steps along my journey of birthing and raising my children thus far: During my first immersion, I tried to recall life without children. I visualized myself back in college, always busy, but mostly with my own needs, rarely the needs of others. After reciting a blessing “upon immersing in the living waters,” I immersed a second time, this time trying to be present in the moment, to truly tune into what it feels like to be me, now, in this intense period of caring for others while also trying to care for myself. I then recited a blessing a friend had composed for my ritual: “Blessed are you, Source of all Life, who sanctifies transitions.”

Then, as I immersed my entire body for a third and last time, I tried to visualize myself with an empty nest. Although I am the mother of two adult children, they have not exactly left the nest yet. One has returned home while starting her studies after two years of national service, and one will just be beginning his three-year army service this winter. So I can really only imagine what it will be like to have all seven of the kids’ bedrooms empty, to cook for only one or two people at a time, and to have 24 hours in a day to devote only to work and my own needs.

As I recited the final blessing — “Blessed are You, Majestic Spirit of the Universe, who gives me life, sustains the rhythms of my body and brings me to this moment of renewal” — my tears mixed with the living waters of the mikveh. I was overcome with the emotion of having reached this moment after months and months of anticipation, planning, and fear.

But fear of what? I asked myself. Fear of having no one to take care of but myself. Fear of entering a phase of open possibility when it is already too late in the game, when I will be too exhausted and burnt out to make much of it, and too old to gain the skills I would need to do that anyway. Fear that all I will want to do is put up my feet and read novels with all of my free time instead of trying to fix the world or even just focus on developing my career. Fear of having my life back and not knowing what to do with it. Fear of the unknown.

The author talk that night went well. I sold books and people appreciated what I had to say. And so went the rest of my book tour. I was so busy taking care of myself, promoting my book, developing my career, and spreading my message of world-fixing through fourth stage feminist Judaism, that I hardly remembered to call home and speak to my children!

As I waited at passport control in Ben Gurion Airport, I noticed a woman ahead of me in line with a baby strapped to her back. Unlike in past similar scenarios, I did not feel my heart-beat quicken with pangs of jealousy and longing. I could not imagine myself lugging a baby on my back.

That evening, jet lag convinces me it is only early afternoon, and I cannot fall asleep. Suddenly, I hear the pitter patter of 3-and-a-half-year-old feet. It is Shefa, whose eyes light up when she sees me. I kiss her cheek, which is even softer than I remember it being, and stroke her disheveled hair. She snuggles right into me and peacefully falls back to sleep. No reaching inside my pajama shirt. No begging for “just a little.” No nursing. I realize then that I too am at peace.

(This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog)

Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is Rabbinic Director of Mikveh Shmaya on Kibbutz Hannaton, where she lives with her husband and seven children. She is the author of two memoirs: Life on the Fringes: a Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (JFL Press, 2000 and reissued by Ben Yehuda Press in 2014) and Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles and Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening (Ben Yehuda Press, 2014). 

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Who Are Your Teachers?

By Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

Have y0016ou ever thought about all the teachers you’ve had in your life? Can you imagine what you would be without them? Do you remember your kindergarten teacher? First grade? My first grade teacher was Mrs. Rowbottom. Yup, Rowbottom. She ate her triangular sandwich quarters by wrapping them in a Kleenex so her fingers wouldn’t get messy. I didn’t really learn to be neat; I learned that six-year olds and teachers can be very different creatures.

My most influential professor in college was the wizened, gnome-like John Lachs who taught philosophy with tremendous energy, darting around the lecture hall firing questions we had never before considered. His passionate teaching made us feel as if our minds were expanding right then and there.

My Jewish education has had a different path than most, devoid of the usual Hebrew school teachers and b’nai mitzvah tutors. Chaim Potok was my first Jewish educator. His books opened up an entire world for me – one I was inexplicably and magnetically drawn to.

For eight years, Rabbi Israel (Sy) Dresner at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, NJ– he who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.– taught me the importance of justice and righteous anger as he railed against social inequities and paired Judaism and communal compassion forever in my psyche.

Julie Silver, Debbie Friedman, Rick Recht, Craig Taubman, Beth Schafer, David Paskin, and Jeff Klepper taught me that my personal Judaism would be one of music and singing — alone, with my children, and with my congregation. I learned liturgy from “Shabbat Alive” CDs, and no drop off at Eisner Camp was complete without the blasting of the Eisner CD on the way through the gates — and the requisite “Mom! Why do you always cry?” You can hear it for yourself, here. It wasn’t because I was going to miss my son or daughter. It was because this music taught me how they’d been given the gift of this magical place, and how fortunate they were to have it in their life.

Temple Shalom of Newton’s Julie Vanek spent nearly 80 Thursday evenings with me and a group of women teaching us the aleph bet and our first reading of Hebrew prayers; she prepared us to become b’not mitzvah — well past the age of thirteen. Learning Hebrew for the first time felt like forging new neural connections through complete brain calcification each week. Only Julie could have kept our class going — a patient, persistent, warm and tolerant teacher who even brought us ice cream from Graeter’s in Cincinnati to reward us.

I cannot begin to count the number of Jewish educators that have sewn the quilt of knowledge that is my Jewish identity. And this learning need never end. There is always one more insight to gain, one more connection to make with a fellow student, one more aha! moment there for the taking.

Perhaps yours will come at Mayyim Hayyim’s next learning opportunity, Many Waters. Join us at 7:00pm any or all of the next three Monday evenings, November 10, 17 and 24, for some exceptional teaching from Rabbis Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah and David Lerner of Temple Emunah as we study some of our most beautiful Jewish texts inspired by the power of water.

Who have your teachers been? Give them credit in the comment section below.

Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect and modesty and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

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From the Dry Side to the Wet

by Caroline Potter

I always found something special and appealing about Jewish culture and community. In my late teens and early 20’s, it came to my more immediate attention that people did convert to Judaism, and I made this decision myself in September 2012.

nov 2013My own religious background is Presbyterian/Episcopalian. I attended an Episcopal grade school and summer camp and was confirmed at a Presbyterian church where my parents are still members. As an English major and a lover of Milton and Tennyson, I will always respect the beauty of Christianity’s sacred myths and teachings. But as a thinking adult, I became disenchanted with Christianity’s basic tenets.

Many Christians believe that all people must accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which I find wholly dismissive of other faiths. I believe God wants us to love and serve Him in all the ways people have found to do so, and that we love and serve Him through our actions here in the world and through the way we treat each other. I recognize very good and ethical people can be agnostic or atheist, effectively “serving God” according to my definition, but without believing in God at all. I myself am wired for a religious orientation and a spiritual striving. I crave a religious community, and one that allows for questioning, debate, and respect for other faiths.

The single most powerful moment in my Jewish journey of the past two years was surely Yom Kippur. How better to appreciate life than to recognize, rehearse and stand face to face with death?

The fasting, repenting and community prayer unite everyone who is gathered. We stop, and take stock of the gift of life. We strike our hearts to get the right words and feelings in. For a moment, we encounter so clearly what matters in life and what does not – our health, our relationships, our friends and family, our honest work in the world for good – all these take on new meaning because we recognize that all are fleeting.

My favorite poet, Galway Kinnell, once said in an interview, regarding his own work and poetic vision: “Mortality makes everything worth more to us. You can no longer just fool around… We need a deeper sense of the preciousness of our time here as conscious beings.” For me, this is what Yom Kippur is all about. Choosing a Jewish life is part of how I’m developing a deeper sense of the preciousness of my time here.

I immersed for my conversion at Mayyim Hayyim on August 1st, 2014.  My mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and friends were there to support me, along with all the Mayyim Hayyim staff. It was a magical day to feel the presence of my loved ones and to have a photo of all of us smiling.

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Caroline Potter is an English teacher in Boston has been a volunteer at Mayyim Hayyim for the last two summers. She lives in Brookline and is a member of Temple Sinai.

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