An Unconventional Bar Mitzvah

by Susan Arndt

susan 2It’s hard to believe we just celebrated my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Zachary was born a beautiful healthy baby, but at the age of sixteen months, he started having seizures.  Over the years, with all of the challenges he has faced being non-verbal and having developmental delays, I have always looked for ways of including him to the best of his ability.  As his thirteenth birthday was fast approaching, I was despondent at the idea of not being able to celebrate Zachary, because I felt a ‘traditional’ Bar Mitzvah was not going to work for him. Learning Torah was something he was not going to be able to do.  Even though he does not understand words, he does understands tone of voice. He understands things on a visceral level and explores things through his senses. Knowing this, my mind was searching for a different way to mark his transition.

He deserved to be celebrated like any other child despite his disabilities. I wanted to celebrate his beautiful Jewish soul and do it in a way that would work for him with all of his developmental challenges. The idea of celebrating Zachary reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah with an immersion in the mikveh, a place where many transitions in life are commemorated, was an idea that came about at a Jewish support group for parents of children with special needs.  I knew it was a way of celebrating him that he could participate in and enjoy.

The morning of his Bar Mitzvah came and we gathered family and friends outside in the atrium between the two mikveh pools at Mayyim Hayyim. The small window above the closed door of the mikveh carried a beautiful niggun, a wordless Jewish melody; our guests were singing as Zachary and I entered the waters of the mikveh.  With the help of a rabbi who happens to be a volunteer Mikveh Guide, we decided upon two prayers that would be said for my son’s immersion, both of which my husband sang beautifully by the mikveh. As we left, once again, our guests sang a beautiful niggun to us.  The color and lights of the mikveh and the beautiful sounds of both our guests and my husband singing were something that Zachary truly enjoyed. He knew it was a special moment for him.

We quickly dressed and joined our guests. Surrounded by friends and family, my husband recited the prayer for putting on tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, and placed it around Zachary’s shoulders for the very first time as a Bar Mitzvah.  With all of his developmental challenges, we found a Jewish way to celebrate him with family and friends. The whole event was beautiful and something that we as a family will always cherish.


Susan Arndt is a mother and advocate for Zachary and has been involved in the special needs community volunteering as an officer for her town’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council and the Parent Advisory Group at her son’s school. Her background is in interior design and home staging.

Posted in Bar Mitzvah, Children, Disability, Immersion, Inclusiveness, Mikveh Guides, Parenting, Special Events | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

History Repeats Itself in Atlanta… and I Like It

by Carrie Bornstein

Just over four years ago I shared with you the exciting news that Libi Eir, Awakened Heart Community Mikveh in Raleigh, NC was nearing completion. They’d trained 22 volunteer Mikveh Guides using the Diane and Chester Black Guide My Steps training and since they opened Libi Eir has facilitated more than 500 immersions for nearly 300 Jews of all backgrounds.

Well, history is repeating itself in the loveliest of ways, this time in Atlanta, GA. Initially supported by the Marcus Foundation in 2010, Mayyim Hayyim began consulting to folks in Atlanta to determine whether something similar could exist there. We mobilized working groups, made site visits, and since then the community’s leaders propelled their vision forward over time.

Atlanta1Last week, a group of Atlannans (I learned how to say it properly) from MACoM, Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah, visited Mayyim Hayyim for a three-day site visit. Twenty-two of our staff, board members, Mikveh Guides and volunteers gathered over the course of their visit to share our experiences and offer advice. Together with MACoM’s board members and Executive Director, we covered everything from how to engage a diverse set of stakeholders to running education programs to operations and logistics.

Atlanta2MACoM has broken ground on their mikveh, construction is underway, and they’re on target to open for visitors this November. And they’re in the process of training their first group of mikveh guides, 18 of them in all, using our curriculum too.

Sound familiar? I look forward to sharing all kinds of statistics with you four years from now about the numbers of people MACoM has welcomed, about the lives they have touched.

But more than anything, I can’t wait to see how MACoM puts its own stamp on their holy space. I know that in time MACoM, just like Libi Eir, will come up with new ways to support their visitors, new ideas for teaching students, new ways to celebrate with brides and grooms. And Mayyim Hayyim will be all the better for it.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. She’s pretty sure she should take a southern mikveh tour sometime in, say, February.

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Life is Short

by Ruth Oppenheim

ruth o 2When Rabbi Klein announced a trip to Mayyim Hayyim, I signed up immediately.  I have reached an age where I am well aware of how finite life is, and I recognized an opportunity for a spiritual experience. Though I was clear that I wanted to join Temple Habonim’s visit to Mayyim Hayyim, I felt less clear about the actual immersion, especially since I seemed to be the only one interested in immersing.

With the encouragement of Rabbi Klein and my daughter, I decided to be more adventuresome than is my usual style.  After an educational program led by Leeza Negelev, the rest of the group gathered for lunch.  It was my time for the mikveh.

The ritual had been explained in detail.  I opted to enter the mikveh alone, though a Mikveh Guide was available.  In the modern preparation room, I meticulously followed the Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation.  I tentatively entered the mikveh area clutching my daughter’s prayer sheet.  I cautiously descended the stone steps of this beautiful mikveh, illuminated by a skylight, a connection to the heavens above.

As I immersed myself three times in the healing water, praying all the while, tears flowed unexpectedly.  I was overcome by an unaccustomed feeling of release, of shedding years of suppressed emotions.  I slowly made my way back to the preparation room for another hot shower, feeling deeply cleansed, having let go of vanity and trauma.

How difficult to explain the depth of the mikveh experience, which somehow felt like a connection to the ancestral past, while attempting to wash away some of the painful intervening years.

Ruth and her family immigrated from Germany in 1940. She is a widow and has two children and four grandchildren. She previously lived in Lexington, MA and was a member of Temple Emunah. During that time she worked at Harvard University as a Research Assistant.  She also worked as a Department Manager at Brown University for 21 years. She now resides in Barrington, RI. 


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Reflections on Hillel, the High Holidays, and (not) Hoping

by Leah Wittenberg, Mayyim Hayyim Intern

leah wittenbergLast Monday, I woke up startled, breathing quickly and heavily.  I had just experienced the oddest nightmare: Tufts Hillel was being shut down.

I couldn’t tell you the exact reason why Hillel was closing, but I remember my panic clearly.  I felt anxious and I was in tears as I cried, “I need Hillel!” to anyone who would listen.

Hillel has essentially facilitated my Jewish journey these past few years—it’s given me incredible leadership opportunities including my position as Religious VP this upcoming year, a trip to Israel that challenged my views about Judaism, a strong support network of peers, mentors who have helped me grow, and most recently, it led me to my internship at Mayyim Hayyim.

As this summer comes to a close, so does my internship, and I have now known about the organization for over a year, yet I have never immersed.  I’ve been waiting for the right moment. I don’t want to immerse for no reason and regret the decision.

After my “nightmare,” I simultaneously came to two conclusions:

1) I yearned for an opportunity to share my experience this summer with my fellow executive board members at Hillel.

2) What better way to prepare myself spiritually and immerse for the first time than in preparation for the High Holidays?

So in September, the student executive board of Hillel (four of my peers as deeply committed to Judaism and Hillel as I am) will travel to Mayyim Hayyim together.  Not everyone will immerse, but we will all be given the opportunity.

I’m nervous about my own immersion.  I know I shouldn’t be—I’m well acquainted with Mayyim Hayyim and in theory I know literally every step I will take in the process of immersion; yet it still terrifies me.  I’ll be completely unguarded in the water.  I’ll be naked!  And even aside from the vulnerability of the experience, I have other qualms…

I’ve imagined myself immersing over and over in my head.  I feel so much pressure—I’m scared that I won’t feel as connected to the ritual as I’ve been imagining.

However, my attitude about immersion changed after I ran into Leeann, a Mikveh Guide, in the parking lot of Mayyim Hayyim last week.  She asked me if I’d ever immersed, and I immediately explained my upcoming plans and my anxiety surrounding it.  She countered with two insightful comments:

1) Don’t set any expectations.  If you’re not expecting anything, then you can’t be disappointed after.

2) I immerse just because I can.  We have this amazing resource right here and we’re so lucky for that.  When I immerse, I simply take time for myself.

It occurred to me that even after an entire summer spent at Mayyim Hayyim, my definition of mikveh was still too narrow.  “It’s about all life transitions, not just conversions and niddah, monthly immersion,” I would always say when I explained it to others.  Yet this definition was still starkly lacking.  There is no reason why mikveh can’t also be a sacred time to be alone, to simply have the opportunity to slow down and take a breath.

After our conversation, I decided that maybe I shouldn’t be so nervous.  I’m still planning to immerse in preparation for the High Holidays, and I will still have the opportunity to teach my friends from Hillel about Mayyim Hayyim.  But now, I will be entering the water with an open mind.  Above all else, this seems to be the logical next step on my Jewish journey, and I’m sure there will be many, many more.

Leah Wittenberg participated in the Aliza Kline Internship for Jewish Professional Leadership at Mayyim Hayyim through the JVS/CJP Emerging Jewish Leaders Internship in Memory of Bradley M. Jacobs.  This fall, she will be moving from strength to strength as she takes on the position of Vice President of Religious Programming at Tufts Hillel.  Her musings on Judaism can also be found at

cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy Blog





















Posted in High Holidays, Hillel, Hillel, Leah Wittenberg, Leeann Simons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Mem is for Mayyim

by Pam McArthur


memIt seems simple, this Hebrew word for water, mayyim.  The humming, mother-sound, the letter mem at beginning and end. The ear might hear and think a palindrome, a word the same from right to left and left to right. You might think you could go from beginning to end, then turn and go back the same, but you can’t. No. It is not that simple, mayyim.

In the beauty of the aleph-bet the mem at the end is shaped differently than the mem at the beginning. Same sound, same letter, but not the same; and so it is when you pass through water. You enter in one shape and you emerge still you, still you but changed, and you cannot turn around, you cannot go back to who you were before. It is not that simple, mayyim, element of change.

ireland water

And what stands between the beginning mem and the ending mem, in that space where change takes place? A yud. The smallest of letters. A fingernail curve, a liquid drop, a whisper. A yud. An almost nothing. But write two yuds together and you have written the name of God. This is the message of the yud in mayyim: God is in the heart of the water, brought there through halacha, Jewish law, through b’rachot, blessing, through the yearning of your own heart, and this is why you enter and emerge and are never the same again. It is and it is not simple.




pamPam McArthur is member of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley and a preschool teacher at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. She first went to Mayyim Hayyim with her bride-to-be before her wedding in June 2004. Ever since, she’s been a regular there on Friday afternoons. 

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Queering the Mikveh

by Cara Rock-Singer, Mayyim Hayyim Intern

Cara 2013-3 (1)A couple weeks ago, I sat in on a class at Mayyim Hayyim. Joy Ladin, a professor of English at Yeshiva University had brought a class of high school students from the Genesis high school program she was teaching at Brandeis, called, “Investigating Gender, Sexuality and Society.” Our Associate Director of Education, Leeza, focused the program on exploring the issues of identity, inclusivity and boundaries that arise at the mikveh and the surrounding Jewish community within which it exists.

Leeza introduced a distinction between status and identity, drawing a parallel between religion and gender. When we began the class, everyone had introduced themselves by name and said which personal pronouns they preferred. Leeza explained, “I identify as she/her and I hope that people respect that. On the other hand, issues of status aren’t entirely up to us as individuals, such as who is a Jew or who is tamei or tahor,” (ritually unready/ritually ready). Joy added, “status here isn’t about social status but about about how people view us in community based on more or less agreed upon ideas.” There are many status distinctions that we draw on in Judaism, and the students named a wide range of them; kosher/not kosher), good/evil, Israel/diaspora, Jews/non-Jews, single/married, Shabbat/week, and modest/immodest. Leeza explained that the discussion has been shifting from status to identity, meaning that people are pushing to define themselves as opposed to being defined by others. “The mehitza, the barrier used to separate genders during prayer,” one student added. This physical division distinguishes people in a binary way, from the point of view of the community, regardless of one’s own personal gender identity.

This kind of binary reflects what A. Fox recently wrote in a post on this blog about their experience growing up in a Conservative Jewish community. A. Fox expressed their relief to find a mikveh that celebrated all kinds of gender identities and transitions. While this is certainly true, and part of the mission of Mayyim Hayyim, there is still plenty of binary thinking in the mikveh itself. Take for example the body of the mikveh, outlined in Leviticus 11:36. It must conform to binary categories: it can either be a pit or a spring, and a pit cannot have spring-like qualities, like flowing.

Binaries create messiness, and have since the Biblical times, Joy explained, invoking the Exodus as a prime example. Many non-Jews left Egypt with the Jews, but much of Jewish law since then has insisted that only Jews are allowed to be part of various communal religious experiences. The mark of a Jew, (for men, at least) is circumcision. Joy argued, “nature and human nature have no sharp edges but when we create distinctions it can cause someone to bleed, and that fact calls for compassion.”

Cara Rock-Singer is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Religion Department at Columbia University. She is currently writing a dissertation on Jewish women’s authority over their own bodies through ritual and medicine.


Posted in Cara Rock-Singer, GLBTQ, Joy Ladin, Queer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Out of My Comfort Zone

by Evan Taksar

evanBefore I started the Hornstein Program at Brandeis, my idea of mikveh came exclusively from that scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte converts to Judaism. I had no idea the mikveh was also used for brides, niddah (monthly immersion), and many other reasons. The truth is, I had very little knowledge of Jewish ritual practice before deciding to get my Master’s in Judaic Studies, and while that may be slightly embarrassing to share, I’m all the better because of choosing this path.

When a good friend of mine sent me an email, asking if I was interested in immersing at Mayyim Hayyim in celebration of finishing graduate school, I didn’t have to think twice before immediately replying “of course!”

Over the past two years I have immersed (no pun intended) myself in Judaic practices that exist largely outside my comfort zone. I was raised in a secular, culturally Jewish household where my family attended services twice a year (you know which dates), and I quit Hebrew school the day after my Bat Mitzvah. When I was 7 my parents signed me up for summer camp, and 17 summers later I’m still headed back there. Everything I know and love about being Jewish comes from my family, and from those formative summers at camp.

That being said, I didn’t learn a whole lot about halacha, the Jewish legal tradition, from my JCC summer camp. What began with a few Jewish Studies courses in college, quickly turned into a full-blown exploration of my Jewish identity, and 7 years later, me signing up to immerse in a mikveh. Over the past two years I have learned with some incredible professors and challenged myself to grow outside my comfort level. I have engaged in exhilarating text study, been to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, and have learned about the Jewish community in the Former Soviet Union firsthand from Jews living in Minsk, Belarus. I have spent hours around the Shabbat table laughing and singing, my cell phone shut off and tucked away. I learned Hebrew (not very well, but it’s the effort that counts).

So that brings me to the here and now; making the decision to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim. Our traditions are so rich and intricate, whenever I think I have something figured out, I’m introduced to a new way of thinking about it. The fact that Mayyim Hayyim is a mikveh used for traditional practices and non-traditional life cycle events proves just that. So does its commitment as an educational space, making it possible for our Jewish community to learn about this ritual and tradition. When I walked through the doors, I really had no idea what to expect; but I was immediately greeted with a warm smile, taken on a tour, and put at ease. I didn’t have any sort of visceral emotional reaction to immersing like I hear so many people do, but I was overcome by this sense of stillness and calm. In the crazy lives we lead, how often do we take a moment to celebrate ourselves as human beings? To congratulate ourselves on a job well done? To recognize a transition in our life? How often do we allow ourselves to just be with ourselves? While immersing, I felt grounded and calm, healthy and thankful. And as I sat out in the garden afterwards, my hair still dripping down my back, the anxiety long gone, I quietly thanked myself for pushing myself out of my comfort zone once again.

The truth is, I don’t think immersion will become a regular part of my Jewish practice, and that is probably akin to the majority of non-Orthodox Jewish women in the United States. However when I signed up to immerse with my friend in celebration of finishing graduate school, Mayyim Hayyim welcomed me with open arms. The fact that a place like Mayyim Hayyim exists –a place that encourages Jewish inclusion, celebration, and curiosity– makes me really excited to begin my journey working for the Jewish community.

Evan Taksar recently graduated from the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership program at Brandeis University with a dual-Masters in Jewish Professional Leadership and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. While at Hornstein, Evan focused her studies on experiential Jewish education and modern Israeli society. Evan currently lives in Los Angeles and recently became the Assistant Director at Camp Alonim in Brandeis-Bardin California. 



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