Five Questions for New Year’s Reflection

by Sherri Goldman

The High HSherriolidays, or Jewish New Year, is a time for reflection.  Every New Year gives us a moment to look back over the past year to see what was successful and what in our lives can use some improvement. It’s a time of year to give ourselves the opportunity to grow and make ourselves better in all areas of life: family, friends, community, work, etc.  For me, the High Holidays is always a time of introspection and meditation, a time for personal planning and goal setting.

Every summer, the Mayyim Hayyim staff gathers at the beautiful Cape Cod home of our 2014-08-21 14.25.28Vice President, Diane Black, for our staff retreat.  It’s refreshing to take time away from the office to form bonds with one another, contemplating our purpose and motives in doing our best work at Mayyim Hayyim. Add in a delicious lunch, walk on the beach, a fun, creative art project, and you have a unique opportunity to talk, work and play. We re-focused and re-energized ourselves as a team – the Mayyim Hayyim Team.

Thinking ahead to the New Year, our staff had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on reflection at the retreat. As Mayyim Hayyim celebrates its ten year anniversary this year, we focused on Sarah From’s Five Questions for New Year’s Reflection, a powerful tool to help us evaluate how we, as a staff and individually, can bring Mayyim Hayyim forward into this New Year and into our next ten years.

Five Questions for New Year’s Reflection

  1. Looking back over the past year, when were you at your best?
  2. What has changed within you this past year and what is just beginning to change within you now?
  3. At the end of this year, what is weighing you down? How can you shift your experience or perception of that which is weighing you down?
  4. Imagine that it is 12 months from now and you’ve had a fantastic, fulfilling year. How did you make that happen?
  5. In the coming year, what are the critical areas for your learning and growth?  What are your first steps for attending to these areas?

Looking out at the beautiful Cape Cod Bay, I thought about what I could learn in this New Year and decided on ways I could challenge myself personally and professionally. It’s hard to start ascending a new learning curve, but I realized that moving myself forward requires getting out of my comfort zone.2014-08-21 10.32.10

As the High Holidays approach, we can all ask these questions to reflect on the past year and the year ahead. If you can’t meditate on these questions at the beach on Cape Cod, stop by Mayyim Hayyim to reflect in our beautiful garden, art gallery, or in our mikva’ot.

Wishing you peace and joy in the New Year!

Sherri is responsible for managing Mayyim Hayyim’s financial and building management operations. Sherri holds an M.B.A. from Suffolk University and is a registered Notary Public in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Sherri also serves as Treasurer of the Medfield Music Association, supporting music education in the Medfield Public Schools and Treasurer of the Sisterhood at Temple Beth David in Westwood.

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Meditations of My Heart For Rosh Hashanah

by Ivy Helman

Rosh Hashanah represents a return to God.  Immersing in a mikveh renews my sense of purpose and grants me a sense of wholeness I just haven’t found elsewhere.  Yet, it’s also so much more than this.

Two thoughts come to mind that truly capture why I go to the mikveh before the High Holidays, as well as why I choose to go to Mayyim Hayyim. First, kavanah, or intention. Number four of their “Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation” reads, “B’tzelem Elohim, I Ivy Helman Appealam made in the image of God…Each person enters the mikveh as naked as the day of his birth, as the day of her birth. Without rank or status. Simply a human being. Gloriously a human being.”  To me, this says that in the mikveh I am exactly as God intended me to be.  There is no pretense, nothing to hide behind.  In the waters of the mikveh, it’s easier to remember that all bodies are beautiful. This reminder opens up a clear and intimate channel through which I talk to God.

Second, the mikveh is where I’ve felt the closest to both God and myself.  The kavanah is palatable.  I’m honest and sincere with God.  We talk, sometimes very seriously, sometimes not.  Sometimes I laugh.  Other times I worry. Occasionally, I sit silently in the presence of God.

Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrey fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’goali

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Tehillim (Psalms) 19:15

Whenever I say these words at the end of the Amidah prayer, I recall my experience in the mikveh and I once again feel as close to God as I did immersing.

Unfortunately, I just moved to Prague, so I won’t be able to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim this year. But I’m content with knowing that pre-holiday immersions will be meaningful for many people. Perhaps you too will consider immersing as a way to prepare for the New Year.

Despite my distance, Mayyim Hayyim is my partner in preparing for the High Holidays each year, as it is for so many people who come to mark transitions in their lives. I hope you’ll join me and become a partner in Mayyim Hayyim’s life-changing work by making a gift to welcome 5775.

With your help, Mayyim Hayyim will continue to bring renewal to our entire community.

May you have a sweet New Year. L’shana tova!

Ivy Helman has her Ph.D. in Religion, with an emphasis in Women’s Studies, from Claremont Graduate University and a master’s degree in religion from Yale University.  Her book, Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents, explores the creation of a Roman Catholic theology of womanhood by church officials. Ivy is a regular contributor to She currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

Join us this Sunday September 14th from 2-5pm, for fabulous teachers and learning at Mayyim Hayyim: “Get Ready: Releasing the Past, Embracing the Future”

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Infinite Vessels

by Donna Leventhal

Vessels: Containing Possibilities,” now in the Mayyim Hayyim Gallery, emerged from the concept of the mikveh itself as a sacred vessel. Mikveh defines and creates a Donna Leventhal bettersacred space that is both physical and spiritual. The individual’s experience in the space is concentrated, intense, and multidimensional. As a person immerses, the water is felt on every nerve on the surface of the body. The connection is total.

A two-part series running through May 2015, “Vessels” opens its fall exhibit on Thursday, September 11 at 5:30 pm. Artists Steven Branfman and Bette Ann Libby will discuss their work and their very different approaches to the concept of vessels.

Steven, a potter working within the discipline of Japanese Raku, is a purist. His pieces are methodical; a pound of clay becomes one bowl. Some of Steven’s vessels have such tiny openings that we cannot see the spaces inside, and are left to sense them. What do they hold? Our mind enters each hidden place, in search of the sacred and untouchable. Yet Steven invites us to touch.

“If you’re not drawn to touch my work,” he says, “I haven’t connected with you.” So we touch, connecting through physical sensation, mirroring the connection that occurs as we enter the waters of the mikveh.

Mosaic artist Bette Ann Libby approaches vessels in another way. She plays with the concept, starting with the utilitarian: the cup, the teapot, the commercial object. Then she shatters it, breaking the vessel into hundreds of pieces. She uses those pieces to create her work, forming entirely new two- and three-dimensional vessels. The tactile quality invites viewers to physically “feel” the container.

kettletableBette Ann’s “Genesis” piece references the Kabbalistic concept of Shvirat HaKeilim, literally “breaking of the vessels.” When the world was created its limited physicality could not contain the Divine light, and “shattered” into innumerable pieces. The Jewish people are challenged with tikkun olam – repairing the world, mending these broken vessels. Bette Ann’s process is a physical representation of this mending. She constructs new wholeness out of shattered pieces, creating vessels that are stronger than the brokenness from which they emerged. Similarly, the mikveh helps us mark life passages – from giving birth and marriage to illness, divorce, or trauma – and emerge with new found wholeness. If the world is the ultimate vessel, Bette Ann’s work reminds us that we can find great strength in reconstructing the shattered.

Both Steven and Bette Ann found strength in their art, which helped them face devastating family illness. Bette Ann responded to her mother’s struggle with cancer by creating “fetishes,” mythical artifacts of comfort and support. The act of creating this “fetish pottery” became a powerful misheberach, prayer for the sick, which Bette Ann “said” for her mother.

Steven faced a crisis when his son Jared was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s. While Jared was on a medical leave from art school undergoing treatment, father and son worked together in Steven’s studio, exploring the ancient art of Japanese ceremonial tea bowls. Jared passed away two and a half years later. A week after Jared’s passing, Steven went into the studio hoping to find peace. Instead he found grief. The next day he went in again, sat at his wheel and threw a tea bowl. The following day he went in again and threw seven more and then one each day. They were the only pots he made for a year, a total of 365 bowls. A Kaddish for his son.

After the exhibit was installed at Mayyim Hayyim, Steven brought in one more piece, that very first bowl, Jared’s yahrzeit bowl. Steven has brought it out to share with the Mayyim Hayyim community, and we are deeply honored.

When we touch this bowl, our fingers intertwine with the imprint of Steven’s hands. The coarse texture of the bowl brushes our skin and fires up our nerve endings. We come to know and honor a young potter we have never met.

Every week, people come to Mayyim Hayyim, seeking wholeness. In curating “Vessels,” we never expected that these artists, and the vessels they created, would connect so deeply to the way a mikveh can bring shalom, completion and peace, in moments of transition and hurt. How much do these vessels hold? The answer is infinite.

Donna Leventhal is a member of the Mayyim Hayyim Art Committee, and curated  Vessels: Containing Possibilities with Stepheny Riemer. She is a silversmith at Metalmorphasis, an art studio in Dedham, Ma.

We hope you’ll join us on Thursday, September 11th, 5:30-7:00 for our opening reception and artist talk. More info here.

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Immersed and Coated

by José Portuondo-Dember

It’s easy to think of going to the mikveJose Photoh in terms of “washing away.” My very first experience with a ritual bath was my baptism in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant. It was couched in the language of washing away original sin. As I turned to Judaism and began learning the rules and scenarios that require use of a mikveh, the emphasis always seemed to be on getting clean of some kind of impurity. It makes a certain sense: water is great for washing away the grime, sweat and dirt that build up on our bodies; we use it to wash dishes so that we can eat off them again.

Yet, for all the logic of the image, I have never liked it.

Partly, it’s because I have a hard time with the concept of getting spiritually clean. I don’t like the ways that applying the concept of purity to people is often a stepping stone to deciding certain folks need to be gotten rid of. People are mixed up and messy and I’m not interested in pretending otherwise. Furthermore, at a personal level, while I have certainly felt the need to repair negative consequences of mistakes that I’ve made, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of ‘washing away’ some part of my past. Most of my mistakes have been learning experiences and they have certainly shaped the person that I am today.

That’s why I love that the traditional blessings for the mikveh say nothing at all about washing, or purifying, or becoming clean. Instead, the key verb is immersion.

When I went to the mikveh to mark my return to the Judaism of my ancestors, I wasn’t going to wash away the Catholicism I had been raised in. I’ve never wanted to pretend that I didn’t grow up Catholic. It’s a part of my personal history that I will always cherish. Going to the mikveh wasn’t about not being Catholic anymore, it was about entering Judaism. I was going to mark my full immersion into Judaism: heart, body and soul.

Similarly, the next major mikveh event of my life came shortly before I married my husband in 2010. Once again, my intention had nothing to do with washing anything away. In a couple of days I would become someone that I had never been before, a husband, and it only becomes more true every day that this is a role that can’t be compartmentalized. Going to the mikveh was about diving fully into this new adventure and letting it surround and infuse me with everything it had to offer.

In a way, I see going to the mikveh as analogous to glazing ceramics. The dunking isn’t about leaving something behind—it’s about picking something up. It’s about being immersed and coated, and bringing some of that essence back with me as I engage my future.

 José is a descendant of the Jews of Spain that converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. He cherishes the religious legacies of Catholicism, Judaism and Lucumí that are deeply interwoven in the Spanish Caribbean cultures. As an M.Div. candidate at Andover Newton Theological School, one of his primary vocational interests is understanding and meeting the needs of people that have connections to multiple religious traditions.


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Labor Day

by Walt Clark, Office AssistantWalt

“And God saw that all had been made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that had been undertaken: [God] ceased on the seventh day from doing any of the work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy-having ceased on it from all the work of creation that God had done.”

Genesis 1:31-2:4 

In the United States we celebrate Labor Day each year, today, on the first of September. The US Department of Labor states that Labor Day is celebrated in commemoration of “the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

In all fairness to the Department of Labor, when I think of Labor Day my first thought is not on the advances of the American Labor Movement. For me, and many Americans, Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer and beginning of fall. There are celebrations with barbecues, folks insisting that this is our last chance to wear a seersucker suit and be outdoors. I think of how the days are going to start to get colder again and pray that, here in New England, we can hold off on snow for as long as possible.

Car spinning in the snow video

I do not look forward to dealing with this again.

Thinking about the idea of acknowledging the work done in the past year, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Labor Day and the seventh day of creation. In Genesis, there is this seventh day of stepping back and admiring the work done. The entire cosmos has been crafted. Every star, every galaxy, every world. To create everything is worth taking a step back and admiring.


What I think is significant is the fact that if you look at this first section of Genesis, even though the entire universe is created, the story is not over. Eden will spring up and humankind will make its entrance on the stage in a big way. The majority of the books that follow these opening lines focus on what humans do in creation, through struggle and joy. But it is important that even God took a day to just reflect on what was created, perhaps knowing the work that was to come. Today, people of all denominations and creeds can take this secular holiday to reflect on the work of the past year.

Here at Mayyim Hayyim, Labor Day marks a brief reprieve before the flurry of activity that is the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. Within the next month we will be in the midst of the Jewish New Year and many Jews will make the choice to come here to Mayyim Hayyim in order to get ready. We have much work to do to be ready for them.

But today we rest and recognize the labors of the past year. And be renewed for the work that is to come.

Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office assistant and jack of all trades.  He is a working BAM keyboardist in Boston, performing in a variety of groups. You can follow him on Twitter @walt_twitwalker and on Instagram @welaxer.


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Political Activist Turned Mikveh Lady

by Ilana Sumka

I’m a political activist by training, so I was aIlana Sumka.2.compresseds surprised as anyone to find myself teaching Tanakh, (Torah, Prophets and Writings) and Jewish law to a group of conversion students.

A few weeks ago I had the profound honor of witnessing my students immerse in the mikveh after successfully appearing before the European beit din.

You’re more likely to find me preparing strategic action plans than pouring over a page of Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. So how did a seasoned political activist like myself turn mikveh lady?

Well, I’m more than a political activist. I’m a lover of Torah.  Living Jewishly gives meaning to my life and I can’t imagine autumn without Sukkot or spring without Pesach.  In 2004, I moved to Jerusalem and spent two years studying at Pardes. Many of my peers went on to become rabbis or Jewish educators.  Not me.  I was there for myself, and for myself alone – or so I thought at the time.  I don’t mean to make it sound so selfish, I simply relished the opportunity to study Torah lishmah, study for the sake of study.  Becoming a “Jewish educator” contained the risk of making me hate that which I love.

Fast forward seven years.  Now I live in Belgium and am part of a progressive, English-speaking Jewish community in Brussels, called the International Jewish Center.  Rabbi Nathan Alfred makes a point of getting to know every individual who comes through our doors, and for that I’m grateful.  After meeting me and hearing that I’d studied at Pardes, he asked me if I would teach the community’s conversion course.

After some initial hesitation, I agreed.  I had many ideas about things I wanted to teach, books I wanted my students to read, experiences I wanted them to have.  But I didn’t know how to talk about conversion.  In the communities I come from, it’s “not done” to talk about converts.  That’s not an outdated tradition or superstitious taboo; the Talmud forbids us from treating converts differently from any other members of the tribe, and rightly so.

So how do you teach a course about something you can’t talk about?

Luckily, help came from friends in my new community and from Pardes friends who did go on to become rabbis and professional Jewish educators.  When people are in the process of converting it’s not a secret.  They need the support of the community to begin to integrate, well before their visit to the beit din.

Despite my adamancy not to enter the world of professional Jewish education, teaching conversion classes became a highlight.  My students’ enthusiasm to embrace Jewish life, to explore Jewish text and practice and find their own personal meaning within it, consistently renewed my own love and commitment to Judaism.

The day at the beit din was one I will remember.  I was honored to witness their sense of pride and accomplishment.  To have the experience that “I am now who I feel I am” is a moment in a lifetime, and it was a privilege to see.

I’m still ambivalent about calling myself a professional Jewish educator.  But standing on the edge of a warm pool, witnessing my students lower themselves into the water and certifying each immersion as kosher, I will happily call myself “Mikveh Lady.”

Ilana Sumka recently founded the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to address issues of peace and justice between Israelis and Palestinians after serving as Encounter’s Jerusalem Executive Director. She currently teaches conversion students at the International Jewish Center of Brussels.  

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The Mikveh, Lady

bDeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_y DeDe Jacobs-Komisar

I’m going to be honest – before I found this place I was totally ambivalent about the mikveh. Growing up Orthodox, we teenage girls were taught to venerate the mikveh as a mysterious, holy, beautiful thing.

We toured mikva’ot on school and camp field trips, where mikveh ladies would show us how gorgeous the rooms were, how intimate and spa-like the experience. That we would immerse monthly, for niddah, after marriage, was a foregone conclusion that did not even require discussion.

I confess that I barely remember my first immersion, which was the night before my wedding. I recall meticulously running down the checklist of preparations, worrying that I forgot something and that I wasn’t clean enough. My next memory is of emerging from the mikveh itself, underwhelmed. Was there something wrong with me? I shrugged it off and figured it would get better with time.

It didn’t. I’ve been married almost ten years now, and in that time, I’ve been to mikva’ot in four states and two countries. Nice ones, not-so-nice ones, nice mikveh ladies, intimidating mikveh ladies, one who yelled at me for not cutting my nails short enough. One who came equipped with her own cart of wipes and proceeded to, unasked, wipe my face down to remove any errant makeup.

I would take the dip: one, two, three, and out. Back in the car and home. It became just another thing I had to do in a busy day, one that I eventually came to resent. And let’s not even get into the issues I had with the practice as a feminist.

When I first heard about Mayyim Hayyim, I rolled my eyes. Who were these hippie Jews trying to ascribe some kind of greater meaning to an outdated, probably misogynist mitzvah?

I had a lot to learn. So I started with this very blog, and did a lot of reading. What changed my mind about Mayyim Hayyim and mikveh entirely, comes down to one word: relationship.

While I knew that some men immersed before Shabbat and holidays, it never occurred to me to use the mikveh to mark events and transitions in my own life. This was my first revelation.

As I read more about the history and values of Mayyim Hayyim, I realized that this place is one of the most radical Jewish organizations out there. It takes back an ancient mitzvah from authoritarian rabbinic rule and gives it to the people. As the mikveh itself is a gateway for new Jews coming into the fold, and women immersing for niddah, Mayyim Hayyim democratizes perhaps the biggest fault lines in modern Judaism — the “who is a Jew” debate, and women’s bodies and sexuality. Second revelation.

So after all that reading, I was pretty convinced. Heck, in that time I applied for a job and got it. I was officially Mayyim Hayyim material!

But I still hadn’t immersed. I put it off until my next official mikveh night, hoping that the experience would be different, and scared that it wouldn’t be.

I did my physical preparations and, with the help of a very supportive Mikveh Guide, did the dip as usual. It was beautiful, but I didn’t feel anything yet.

I read that it is common at Mayyim Hayyim to ask one’s Guide to have a few moments alone in the mikveh. I had never heard of this practice before, and certainly never been offered such an opportunity at any other mikveh. So I asked, and it was those moments to myself that made all of the difference in the world.

While this may be the norm at Mayyim Hayyim, I had never once spent time to myself in the mikveh. It had never even occurred to me to do so. You get in, you dip, you say the blessing, you dip again a few times, you get out. Done. But what if there was more?

Alone, I looked down at the water and realized that I had never, in almost 10 years, looked at my body in the mikveh. Not even once. I almost started crying right then. I never knew I could have the time and space to cultivate such a connection — just by being in the mikveh itself, with oneself. And God. It’s a vessel, and you gotta stay in it to get anything out of it.

I mean, DUH, right? But I don’t think I’m alone in this, especially among Orthodox women.

So that night, I took that time and space. I felt my body in the water, meditated, talked to God. I let myself feel the stone beneath my feet and water passing through my fingers. I breathed in the stillness. For the first time, I felt like the mikveh was mine.

Eventually, I stepped out of the water and looked back at it. There was a relationship now, a sweetness to build on.

Third revelation: I can’t wait to go back.

DeDe is the newly-minted Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She looks forward to getting to know all of you and continuing to have mikveh experiences that are transformative.

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