Forbidden Waters

By Chaya

What do the mikveh, Orthodox Jews, and sex addiction have to do with one another?

As an Orthodox woman, and a member of S-Anon, I can safely say that they are deeply intertwined. S-Anon, modeled on 12-step fellowships like Al-Anon, is a support program for spouses, partners, and others affected by another person’s sex addiction.

Several years ago, I unknowingly married a sex addict. I thought we had a perfect Orthodox marriage, and every month I dutifully cut my nails, pushed back my cuticles, scrubbed my feet with vigor, bathed until I was pruny, then went to the mikveh to become ritually clean (as part of my practice of niddah). Sometimes I enjoyed using the mikveh, and sometimes I didn’t – but that didn’t matter, because I never saw visiting the mikveh as an optional mitzvah. After coming home, no matter what type of mood I was in, I let my husband know that I was “available” ritually. Yet, upon discovering his addiction, I traded evenings with the mikveh lady for S-Anon meetings.

Being married to a sex addict can mean living in a shroud of shame. I sat in that shroud after discovering my husband’s addiction – and reacted by crying and indulging in the three major food groups of grief – wine, chocolate, and pizza.

EventuGoya3ally, I picked myself up off the floor, and with the help of a woman in a similar situation, began going to meetings and seeing a therapist. Today, I am able to function (most of the time) despite my husband’s addiction. When I began in S-Anon,  I imagined myself driving a car filled with emotions. Each emotion was a passenger, and my passengers were betrayal, heartbreak, resentment, shame, sadness, and an anger so intense it burned through every part of me. Now, with the help of S-Anon, I am able to let these passengers out. While they reappear at times, I also have some new passengers -hope, serenity, safety, and self-love.

I went to my first meeting with a broken heart, but when I walked in the door, I felt my heart break all over again. The meeting room was filled with sheitels, tichels, and hats – all the ritual head coverings of Orthodox women. Women spoke about the stress of living with an addict while preparing for holidays like Pesach, Purim, and Sukkot – and the difficulties of going to the mikveh.

After finding out about my husband’s addiction, I stopped going to the mikveh because I couldn’t bear the thought of having sex with him. I made a decision to abstain from the mikveh, and sex, until I could trust him again.

There are times now when I want to go to the mikveh for myself, but just can’t do it – a visit to the mikveh, for me, means the possibility of sex. And sex is off the menu until there is trust. Some of my fellow S-Anons do use the mikveh and give their husbands a perfunctory hug afterwards; others have stopped entirely. Some women have sex without trusting their spouse.

Trust is hard to gain, but is even harder to rebuild. Understanding addiction is one step in rebuilding trust, a marriage, and personal sanity. I used to believe that my husband was a monster. I believed that the men who joined him in Sexaholics Anonymous meetings were monsters – especially the Orthodox ones, and especially those who had exposed their wives to diseases or worse. I wanted to become a monster so that my spouse could understand what it was like. I thought if he could feel what it’s like to live with a monster then he would be sorry for being one.

I was determined to get even in my own way. I got drunk repeatedly, shredded his tzizit and kittel – the garment that he wore when we got married, and screamed so much that I lost my ability to speak. And yet, I still wasn’t a monster. Eventually, I decided to stop trying to get even and started trying to get better. I realized that while I was angry and nasty, I was also very, very human and very sick.

That realization led me to another one: my husband is not a monster – and neither are other sex addicts. They have done monstrous things, sometimes unforgivable things, but they are not monsters. I pity these addicts, sometimes I distance myself from them and sometimes I cry for them – because they are human, like me.

Upon hearing the news that a prominent rabbi in Washington D.C. was arrested for allegedly videotaping women using his congregation’s mikveh, I felt a twinge of sadness for him, his family, and his congregation. I have used that mikveh, and am sickened that pictures of me, my friends, and others may be circulating around the web. Yet, what really pains me is the reaction to this news.

I don’t know if this rabbi is a sex addict or simply someone who has made some very poor decisions. I do know that either way, if these allegations are true, he is very sick – the same way that so many in our community are. One does not make the decision to jeopardize a prominent rabbinical career, or a marriage to an adoring woman, without being sick. And far too many in our community have this sickness. Although the Washington Post isn’t reporting on my husband’s addiction or the addictions of the men who have joined him in the fellowship of SA, his sickness is no less destructive, no less insidious or all-consuming.

As I wrestle with my husband’s illness, my soul cries out for the mikveh. I want to simply be part of it again. I miss the days when I could pop into the mikveh’s velvety waters, and suddenly, I was pure.

Now, reality holds me back – if I take a dip, I risk making the mistake of being with my husband before I am ready. For me, being with someone who I cannot trust is tantamount to flushing away my dignity and the sanity that I have struggled, so painstakingly, to regain.

So, Alice Levinefor now, I cling to my dignity on dry land. The only times when I languish in the purity and ecstasy of velvety waters come when I dive into the lake next to my parents’ home. And while that lake cleanses my body, it can never cleanse my soul the way a mikveh could.

Chaya (name changed) is an Orthodox woman who is married to a recovering sex addict.  She encourages those who are married to, or who have been affected by, someone who is a sex addict to visit or and to seek guidance from a professional who understands sex addiction. Every day, she seeks to bring serenity into her life and the lives of those around her by following the 12-step S-Anon program.

Posted in addiction, Grief, Healing, Holiday, Marriage, Niddah, S-Anon, Sex Addiction, Social Media | Leave a comment

Sue Coat?

by Walton Clark, Office Assistant


I have an app on my phone called Duolingo. It’s a free language learning app that teaches you a language through taking quizzes. As you take the quizzes new material is introduced with simple questions. As I considered what I wanted to write about for this blog post, I thought about how this language app has mirrored my experience learning more about Jewish practice and Hebrew at Mayyim Hayyim.

When we learn a second language, often we use our current language as a means to make connections faster. I apply this principle to my work at Mayyim Hayyim all the time. Let’s take our name, Mayyim Hayyim: I would think in my head “My-eem Hi-eem” to get as close as possible to the pronunciation.  For Sukkot I think “Sue-coat.” Of course, as I get into a language more and more, these tricks become cumbersome and eventually I need to internalize the cadences of speaking and see the word for what it is in that language and culture.

My first encounter with Sukkot was in college. I was walking by the Student Life building and there was a rabbi from the local Chabad sitting outside what, to me, looked like a tropical hut. It was made of wood beams and it had palm tree leaves adorning its frame. Seeing as this was New Orleans, palm tree leaves were not out of place, but I did not know what the significance of the hut was. I remember asking a friend later that day about the hut and its meaning, and he told me that it was for Sukkot. Growing up I had never noticed any of my Jewish friends building or hanging out in huts in their yards (other than our average fort-making as children). I asked him what Sukkot was about, and he said it was a festival celebrating the harvest. At the time, I shrugged my shoulders and continued on with my day.

Now, having been surrounded by Hebrew working here at Mayyim Hayyim, Sukkot no longer is ‘Sue-coat.’ But it also isn’t just ‘Sukkot.’ I understand its meaning on a deeper level: as a holiday where people celebrate the fruits of all the labor involved with growing and harvesting food. It’s also a way to remember ancient Jewish history by spending time in a sukkah, a booth that recreates the huts the Israelites likely lived in while wandering in the wilderness. I’ve been able to learn and appreciate this understanding, in part, because working here has exposed me to the yearly cycles of the Jewish calendar. I’ve been able to see how what was once just a word, is actually a way of life that impacts people in a big way.

There are a lot more words like ‘Sukkot’ that have added meaning because at this mikveh, I am immersed everyday in Jewish culture. Quite literally. Before working here, I knew absolutely nothing about ritual immersion. Now, everyday I become aware of the nuances of this practice and the Hebrew words that describe it, whether it is through setting up for our many programs or speaking with other staff and welcoming visitors. I’m far from an expert, but I’ve noticed that I’m translating less and less.

Whenever we are trying to understand something, it’s natural to try to use our own experience to relate, but there is a lot that can be lost in translation. In my own experience, I’ve learned the most when I’ve put aside my established ideas and tried to see how things are for those who walk through our doors.

Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office assistant and jack of all trades.  He is a working BAM keyboardist in Boston, leading the acid-funk outfit Roxo Gato as well as performing in a variety of groups. You can follow him on Twitter @walt_twitwalker and on Instagram @welaxer.

Posted in Interfaith, Season | Leave a comment

A Letter of Thanks

by Rene Katersky

This letter was sent to us by Rene, a long-time mikveh guide and educator, following the “Get Ready: Releasing the Past, Embracing the Future” program that Mayyim Hayyim ran before the High Holidays this year:

My favorite local beach beckons, with its sparsely inhabited sand, picturesque beauty, and crystal clear waves lapping the shore; a perfect Sunday. Why would anyone choose to leave such a gorgeous late summer Scituate day, I wonder, as I finish my beautiful bike ride through town.

But my treatments begin tomorrow, the High Holidays are beginning soon, and my personal ritual of doing my daily month-of-Elul reading and thinking at the beach (which I have been doing for many years) has been spotty at best. I am in need of something.  I do a last minute online sign up and hit the road for Mayyim Hayyim to participate in its education program for High Holiday preparation.

As sDSC_0014oon as I walked through the gate, I knew that I had made a good decision. As I meandered down the familiar path, I immediately noticed the freshly planted fall flowers, and then heard the warm and friendly voices of those greeting and welcoming us to the space.


DSC_0025Arriving early, I had an opportunity to introduce myself to one of the presenters, Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz. I immediately knew that I could learn from her and find meaning while being in her company this day. The Shefa Gold chants brought welcome respite and centered me. As I listened to others share their take on the familiar words, our meaningful interpretation of the sometimes troubling liturgy of the High Holidays was satisfying and brought me comfort and joy.

The texts studied wDSC_0032ith Rabbi Marcia Plumb provided me with new perspectives and encouraged me to embrace different possibilities in this new year.  Although I am comfortable with giving to others, being able and open to receiving is a must right now, and I was reminded of this throughout the program from presenters and fellow travelers alike.

Although I did not participate (so many choices!), I sense that the yoga session spent outside with Rabbi Adina Allen allowed participants a chance to use their bodies in new ways in order to reinterpret familiar liturgy.  How wonderful!


Kol HaKavod, a job well doneand thank you Mayyim Hayyim, for anticipating what we need, and providing an opportunity for growth and renewal in a loving, warm and welcoming environment. It is very much appreciated.

Rene Katersky lives in Scituate, MA with her husband Ed. She is a proud mikveh guide and educator at Mayyim Hayyim and serves as an Ambassador with Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, both of which feed her soul.

Posted in Healing, Holiday, Mikveh Guides, Special Events, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Special Sauce of Innovation: A Decade in the Slingshot Guide

by Carrie Bornstein

It’s Slingshot release day – one of my favorites each year. Mayyim Hayyim is celebrating our inclusion in the guide once again as well as being featured in their supplement on Women and Girls. And this time around we’ve hit a special milestone: ten years in a row of being included in the guide. Yes, for those of you counting at home, that’s every year they’ve published the book and every year we’ve been open.

selected-national guide slingshot-14-15selected-womenandgirls-14-15

This year’s guide includes a special section featuring our fellow ten-timers and focuses on the evolution of the Jewish innovation space and what it has meant for organizations’ growth. So how does Mayyim Hayyim continue to innovate over time?

Spending my entire career in the Jewish community (with a brief hiatus for a year to get a Masters in Social Work), I have thought a lot about these issues. I have learned that at its core, innovation is not some mysterious, holy grail 
to be found. Innovation is simply about paying attention to real needs, listening deeply to those with opinions, and bringing people together to make a change.

Mayyim Hayyim’s expertise is very different from other organizations featured in the guide. This is good, and it means we can all focus on what we do best. I believe that in the process, the Jewish community will be better off because of our individual successes.

Last week we launched a “Why I Need Mayyim Hayyim” campaign. The photos our fans are sending in are powerful, and I hope you’ll send yours in too. Coincidentally, the news out of Washington, DC later that day proved for anyone who may have doubted, why Mayyim Hayyim is needed now more than ever before.

So what gets us into the Slingshot guide year after year? Slingshot said, “For a guidebook on how to reanimate ritual, look no farther than Mayyim Hayyim.” We are a re-imagined and radically inclusive mikveh where education is as important as immersion, and all Jews come for healing, celebrations, life transitions, and conversions to Judaism.

And our work is very far from being done.

CBTapestryTen years from now I envision the model of a community mikveh as the norm around the country, even among the Orthodox community. I envision people with disabilities using the mikveh often, and that immersion before marriage will be as commonplace as standing under a chuppah. Over the next ten years we’ll continue refining some of our best educational programming – for new Jews, newlywed couples, and we’ll create new programming for men and boys, making all this curriculum available for other communities. We’ll create new immersion ceremonies and convene the national conversation for leadership among like-minded mikva’ot.

I hope we stay nimble, adapting to focus on what can be, rather than blindly perpetuating that which has been successful in the past. If we can do this, in our next ten years, there’s no telling how much we can achieve.

Make a gift in celebration of Mayyim Hayyim’s selection for the Slingshot Guide ten years in a row, and join the growing number of people who are helping to make our shared future possible.


Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. 

Posted in Carrie Bornstein, Disability, Education Programs | 1 Comment

Mayyim Hayyim: Who Needs It?

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager


ISIS. Israel/Gaza. Climate change. Rampant inequality and poverty. Women’s reproductive rights being chipped away. Oh yeah, and an Ebola epidemic. We’re living in pretty troubling times, and that’s not even taking into account the challenges we sometimes have being good family members, friends, and colleagues. Or just getting through the day.

I’m going to be honest; it’s not easy to be a fundraiser in times like these. When the world is in crisis mode, many react by allocating their resources toward organizations they perceive to be meeting the greatest need. Some consider spiritual needs a luxury, even frivolous. Who needs spirituality when lives are at stake? Let’s just come out and say it: Who needs Mayyim Hayyim?

A lot of people, it turns out. September saw a record number of people visiting Mayyim Hayyim, including the highest number of mikveh immersions in one month since we first opened our doors in 2004. Hundreds of people joined us for a discussion on gender and pluralism with Anita Diamant, Rabbi Haviva Ner-David and author Tova Mirvis, the opening of “Vessels: Containing Possibilities,” our current art gallery exhibit, and educational programs on preparing for the High Holidays.

More than ever, people are coming through our doors to find solace, physical and spiritual, from the craziness outside. Solace that will hopefully strengthen them to help fix our broken world in ways small and big. Far from being viewed as a luxury, Mayyim Hayyim is vital to those who have gathered here to immerse, learn, or celebrate. Since our founding, we have helped thousands of people connect with the mitzvah of mikveh as a way to enrich their Jewish learning, deepen their spirituality, heal from illness or abuse, mark important moments, and begin their lives as Jews.


We need you, and we want to know why you need Mayyim Hayyim. What has brought you here and continues to bring you back? How has Mayyim Hayyim been instrumental in your life? Write it down on a piece of paper, hold it up and take a picture – it can be anonymous – and send it to us to post on a new page of our website, Why I Need Mayyim Hayyim.

You are the worldwide community of our community mikveh. Our need for each other is real. What does it mean to you?

DeDe is the Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She has needs. 

Posted in Inspiration | Leave a comment

Harvesting the Power of Mikveh

by Naomi Malka

Naomi MalkaThere is so much sechel, or wisdom, in the Jewish calendar. I love that our year ends with the conclusion of summer and the entry of fall.  We’ve celebrated, davenned, and fasted, but this week we’re taking the party outdoors.  Sukkot recalls the harvest season in ancient Israel, when the land was so bountiful and there was so much work to be done that the farmers slept in rickety shacks in the fields to wake up early the next day and continue reaping what they had sown.

For me, Sukkot is about sealing up our memories of summer, finding equilibrium in the present, and beginning to address the questions that the future asks.  We go into the sukkah to harvest all that we worked for, as we listen to the night sounds and take in the stars. We invite in our friends and invoke our ancestors, we shake the lulav and etrog in all directions, sensing our way into a new season.

Similarly, mikveh is a ritual of transition.  By immersing in the mikveh a person goes from one season of life to another.  People come to mark the brilliant and the bittersweet.  Each ceremony creates—just like a Sukkah–a place to “sense in” to what is really happening at times of change.

Immersing in the mikveh is a physical way of expressing what our teffilot, our prayers, so often say: Hashem, (God), we don’t know You or Your mysterious ways, but we will chant Your name and praise You and put ourselves in Your hands forever in the hope of connecting to You.  And that is what I love about mikveh. It is a physical, embodied act that connects us to our ancestors, to Hashem and to our own bodies.

The message of the mikveh is this: Your body is holy. Your body will go through cycles, it will age and become different than it once was, it will serve you and it will fail you at different times. But whether your body is thick or thin, light or dark, married to another body or sleeps alone, gay or straight or female or male or something in between, your body is the vehicle through which you create good in this world.  Your body moves you through the seasons like a ferry taking it passengers from one shore to another. The mikveh is a place to experience the holiness of this journey.

Naomi Malka has been the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah since 2006.   Naomi trained as a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim in 2008. She earned a masters in Jewish Music from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2000 and a BA in Sociology from UCLA in 1991. In spring 2010, Naomi served as the ritual consultant for DCJCC  Theater J’s production of the Israeli play “Mikveh.”  She is also the founder of Tevila b’Teva: immersion in nature, a program that introduces outdoor immersion to Jewish summer camps.  


Posted in Season | Leave a comment

The Architecture of Hope

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaHope is the language of the desolate and the down-and-out. In the face of tragedy and upheaval, when we are at the bottom, we look up for something to change. It’s part of our very human nature to survive.

In the midst of self-denial and the prayer that my repentance be accepted this Yom Kippur, I was reminded that real hope is not easily come by. But we don’t need a real life tragedy to compel us, because on this day, we Jews are the architects of hope. In our yearly ritual of communal discomfort and shared reflection, we make a place to feel the things we don’t want to. We can look at the last year and see the small and large-scale injustices that we stood by and watched. We can also remember, together, that our lives are not really in our control.

The New Machzor’s service in honor of our martyrs, quotes an inscription found on a wall in a cellar in Cologne where Jews hid from the Nazis:

“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when God is silent.”

I doubt I am the only one who feels that it’s hard to sieze upon opportunities for prayer, acts of loving-kindness and reflection throughout the year. The human imagination is strong, but how many of us can remember to act with compassion when the world offers thoughtlessness? Or remember we are loved when we feel alone? Yom Kippur – if practiced as the awe-filled experience that I think its architects had in mind – could undo the pull towards complacency, even if we feel God is silent.

On this day, mortality stares me in the face. Our bellies empty, our feet bare and our bodies clothed in white just as we will be on the day we are buried, we evoke a sense of human fragility that I usually try not to think about. As we recount our shortcomings and then stand as the metaphorical gates of heaven shut during the closing neilah service, we are unsure of what the future will hold.

But would we do any of this if we didn’t believe there was a possibility for a new life, a new way to live on the other side?

At Mayyim Hayyim, our living waters are sourced from the rain that falls from our roof. Just as rain is transformed by its journey up into the clouds and down into the bor (pit) that collects our mikveh waters, those who immerse with us honor their own yearly cycles, their own movements of up and down. I don’t believe these waters wash away, rather, they hold us in their ever-renewing charge, reminding us that we, too, can survive change.

I’m comforted by the prophet Isaiah, who said: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” The days of awe are often spoken of as a small window we have to speak intimately with God, but the waters of the mikveh would convince you otherwise. I know that as much as I dread the unknown difficulties I will face this year, there will be a hope that comes to greet these challenges, and this hope is really just the beginning of what is possible.

Leeza Negelev is Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She is inspired by the creativity and generosity of spirit that lives at Mayyim Hayyim. 

Posted in Holiday | 3 Comments