So Much More than Just Water: Celebrating Ten Years of Mikveh Education

Ben Chartockby Ben Chartock

Although I am only weeks away from my college graduation, I arrived at Mayyim Hayyim when I was 12 years old, and I have a unique vantage point with which to observe the history of the mikveh. Ten years ago, I was a student at Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, and I stood between childhood and becoming a young adult. Much of my life at that point was filled with bubbly conversations between newly formed friends, but I was aware of the serious aspects of being a sixth-grader, too. I was in preparation for my upcoming bar mitzvah ceremony where I would chant from the Torah in front of family and friends, and I was learning the meaning behind my dad’s favorite saying, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” Mayyim Hayyim— the idea, the people, and the venue— supported me as I was making an incredibly important life transition.

The chapters of Torah that made up my bar mitzvah portion were about the topic of ritual immersion and purification, and I felt as though I could give back to my classmates by learning and sharing these touchy texts in a thoughtful way. I began a project, inspired by tzedakah projects like collecting picture books for Children’s Hospital, where I would visit Mayyim Hayyim each week leading up to my becoming a bar mitzvah and would learn with an educator and the rabbi of Temple Reyim. The project would culminate with the creation of a blessing and ceremony that I would use to mark the occasion of my bar mitzvah and a workshop where my Schechter class would visit Mayyim Hayyim and learn about mikveh as a group.

After months of learning and preparing, I immersed in the mikveh and felt lighter than air. Surrounded by the people closest to me, I read the blessings I wrote and dunked my head completely underwater. My unique immersion was a powerful adaptation of an ancient tradition. At the workshop the following week, when I was able to share my thoughts and experiences with over 40 members of my day school class as well as parents and teachers, I could see their perspectives on mikveh change for the better.

Ten years later, I had the opportunity to volunteer while a group of sixth-graders from Solomon Schechter  (my old school!) came to Mayyim Hayyim for an education program taught by Lisa Berman. Right away, I remembered the fragility and excitement in my own life when I was that age on the verge of becoming a bar mitzvah. Lisa was flawless in teaching the students about mikveh traditions and engaging the group. She explained that each one of them should feel comfortable in their own bodies and with their identities. I realized at that point how lucky Mayyim Hayyim is to have a great Director of Education, because immersion is about more than just water. Lisa is a phenomenal educator, and Mayyim Hayyim does an amazing job supporting the Jewish community with programming, both wet and dry.

Mayyim Hayyim is honoring Lisa at our upcoming Tenth Anniversay event, The Ripple Effect, Mayyim Hayyim’s First Ten Years. Lisa’s impact on thousands of learners young and old will stay with each one of them for a lifetime.

Ben Chartock is a senior at Cornell University, where he will receive a B.A. in Economics with a minor in History in May of 2014. He will begin work this summer as a Consultant at Bates White, an economic consulting firm. In his spare time, Ben enjoys jamming on the guitar with his younger brother, Josh, fishing, bike riding, and connecting with friends.


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A Call and a Kavannah for Pesach

by Rabbi Sue FendrickPicture of Rabbi Sue Fendrick

If you leave behind no other aspect of mitzrayim – if you move out of the narrow places in no other way -join me in this one: Do not put off things because of your fear of how it will go – fear that the conversation won’t go the way you want, fear that you will find yourself uncomfortable, fear that you will get the answer you fear, fear that it will be too hard to do what you need to do, fear that you will be judged. There is fear that protects us, and there is fear that shackles us. The energy we spend not-doing things that scare us – sometimes the seemingly “stupidest” of things – sucks our life energy. Added up, that energy takes way more out of us than whatever the worst outcomes are of the collective things we avoid out of fear. Way more. Hold hands with your visible and invisible comrades-in-arms, sisters-in-struggle. Let’s walk into the Sea of Reeds. Nachshon parted the waters for us just by stepping in – into the water, into the unknown. The water is a little cold, but it is so refreshing. We can make it across together. Again and again.

When you are brave – when you want to be brave – know that you are not alone.

Rabbi Sue Fendrick is a teacher, editor, writer, and spiritual director. She has served as an adult educator and editor on a variety of Jewish educational projects, and is co-editor of the recently published Turn It and Turn It: Studies in the Teaching and Learning of Classical Jewish Texts. Her writing on Jewish texts and Jewish life appears in numerous books and publications, and she writes a biweekly parenting column for Boston’s Jewish Advocate. She lives with her husband and family (3 young adult stepdaughters, and 11-year-old twins) in Newton.

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Soul Searching for Rachela

by Marcia Colagiovanni

Left to Right:  Marcia Colagiovanni, Robin Weintraub, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, Florence Preisler, and Ellen Paderson.

Left to Right: Marcia Colagiovanni, Robin Weintraub, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, Florence Preisler, and Ellen Paderson.

It was an honor to introduce Rabbi Barbara Aiello to Mayyim Hayyim during her February 2014 Boston visit to serve as a Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Beth David of Westwood. While all annual Scholar Programs at my temple have enhanced my ongoing Jewish learning, this one was particularly personal for me.  I am an Italian American “baby boomer” raised Catholic who has discovered and embraced her Jewish ancestry.  Both Rabbi Aiello and Mayyim Hayyim represent the beginning and ending of my spiritual journey “home” to Judaism.

Rabbi Aiello is rabbi of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria, Italy in 500 years since Inquisition times.  She is the first and only woman and non-orthodox rabbi in Italy.  Born and raised in Pittsburg, Rabbi Aiello traces her roots back nearly five centuries to Serrastretta in Calabria.  Hers was one of five Jewish families who founded the town 460 years ago as they fled persecution.

My ritual conversion took place on January 23, 2012, at Mayyim Hayyim.  Simply put, it was a highly dignified and profoundly validating experience.  My spiritual journey to Judaism had begun decades before.  I always felt strongly connected to Judaism especially when I learned from my many Jewish friends and colleagues about its teachings, and I comfortably shared with them its practices.  I was often told that I possess a Jewish soul.  But it was not until 2010 when I met Rabbi Aiello after I decided to convert to Judaism that I fully understood my lifelong attraction to and affinity for the faith.

In 2007, Rabbi Aiello founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), an organization that helps Italians and Italian Americans discover the Jewish heritage of their surnames.  She is also founder of the B’nei Anousim (a Hebrew phrase that means “children of the forced ones”) movement in Southern Italy, an initiative to help the “hidden” Jews of Calabria and Sicily whose ancestors were forced into Christian conversion return to Judaism.

Archival research conducted by the IjCCC reports that individuals with the surname of my great grandmother “Rachela” (Rachel) who was born in Southern Italy: 1) are listed in Inquisition records of those brought before the Inquisition authorities under suspicion of practicing Jewish ritual in secret after they had been forced into conversion to Christianity, 2) are listed in Nazi Deportation Records, and 3) appear on the rolls of those recognized today as Jewish by the Italian Jewish Community.  And analysis of my DNA finds my ancestry to be Middle Eastern (Jewish) and European (Spanish and Italian).  Remarkably, this profile traces the centuries-long geographic journey of some of my ancestors: Jews originating in the Land of Canaan who migrated to the Iberian Peninsula, Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition who sought refuge in Southern Italy, and Jews who settled permanently in Southern Italy and eventually became B’nei Anousim.  Until Rabbi Aiello’s groundbreaking research began to uncover the “hidden” Jews of Southern Italy, many of us with Southern Italian roots had no knowledge of our Jewish ancestry.

When Rabbi Aiello toured Mayyim Hayyim, she learned that it is a 21st-century creation rooted in ancient tradition and reinvented to serve the Jewish Community of today; a resource for learning, spiritual discovery, and creativity where women and men of all ages can celebrate milestones such as conversions and weddings; and a place where survivors of trauma, illness, or loss can find solace.

As I immersed in the “living waters” of Mayyim Hayyim, my eyes filled with tears.  They were an expression of my overwhelming joy and peace to have finally returned home to the Jewish faith of my ancestors.  In memory of my great grandmother Rachela, I choose Rachel as my Hebrew name.

Recently retired from a 30-year career as an Immigration Legal Specialist in Washington, D.C. and Boston, Marcia enjoys spending more time with family and friends, volunteering, and traveling the world.  

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My Children at the Mikveh

by Sherri Goldman, Administration and Finance Director

Sherri GoldmanWhen I was growing up I didn’t know about mikveh. Mikveh just wasn’t a tradition in my Reform Jewish family. Even my Bubbe (Yiddish for Grandmother), who was raised Orthodox and moved to the United States from Ukraine in the 1930’s, never spoke about mikveh. I remember her at my family’s house the few days right before my wedding, and not a word was mentioned to me by my Bubbe or mother (or mother-in-law) about a bridal immersion. So I had no idea that mikvehs existed. The first time I heard about about a mikveh was when I came to work at Mayyim Hayyim in 2007.

Because of my work, my husband and my children, ages 17 and 20, have all visited Mayyim Hayyim. I’ve brought my son and daughter here when they were younger to help with occasional office tasks.  But I never realized that my going to work each day at Mayyim Hayyim would have such an impact on my children. Because of my work, unlike me growing up, my children now know what a mikveh is.

A few weeks ago, as we were just starting a trip to New York to celebrate my father-in-law’s 90th birthday, and while we were waiting to pick up my daughter at the train station, my 17-year-old son needed to make a quick pitstop.  Mayyim Hayyim was close by, so I took him quickly here. As we were ready to leave I found him standing looking at one of the pools. He turned to me and asked, “Am I allowed to go in there?” I answered, “Of course.”  My son is a quiet and thoughtful kid, and I left him alone with his thoughts as he looked at the water.  As I watched him ponder this I saw he knew immersion was now an option for him.

I also thought of my daughter’s most recent visit to Mayyim Hayyim. One of our Mayyim Hayyim interns was working on a film project about body image and mikveh. She asked my daughter if she wanted to be interviewed for the film.  As I watched from the mezzanine overlooking the reception area, I witnessed my daughter, who struggled for years with an eating disorder, feel comfortable and safe at Mayyim Hayyim to speak about her body. I felt this was a spiritual, healing transformation for both of us.

Because of my work and affiliation with what makes Mayyim Hayyim a spiritual center, my children have grown up knowing what a mikveh, and Mayyim Hayyim, is. Although my Bubbe and mother (and mother-in-law) did not go to the mikveh and I had no clue about mikveh, my children do know.  Mikveh and immersion are now connected to my children, and immersion is now an option in their lives.

Since working at Mayyim Hayyim I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about mikveh. I appreciate the beauty and spirituality at Mayyim Hayyim and how that has been exposed to my children. I also think of my Bubbe and wonder what she would have thought about seeing her great-grandchildren at the Mikveh.

Sherri is responsible for managing Mayyim Hayyim’s financial and office operations as Admin. & Finance Director. She is the mother of Amanda, age 20 and Brandon, age 17.

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Making Mikveh Meaningful

This post is part of a series of blog posts about niddah entitled Sacred Bodies, Sacred Time.  Read more here – and submit your own post.

by Naomi MalkaNaomi Malka

I was a Hebrew school geek. I went to our Conservative shul’s Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday program. In high school, I volunteered in the Hebrew school office. I went to Hebrew High School and to BBYO and had my bat mitzvah in Israel on a Beitar teen tour when I was 13. But I never heard the word Mikveh until the summer after my sophomore year of college. Although I went to a public university on the west coast, I was recruited for a 6 week experience called The Ivy League Torah Study Program. The participants, about 50 Jewish college students, were invited to a camp in the Catskills, the women’s camp a few miles away from the men’s. We learned Chumash (Bible), Halacha (Jewish law), and tanya (Hasidic mysticsm); davened (prayed) fervently, listened to tales of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sang songs about Moshiach (the Messiah), ferbranged (drank schnapps) and melave malka’ed (drank schnapps late on Saturday nights). Though we wrestled for a while with the possibility of adopting a Torah lifestyle, only a few participants followed the staff back to Crown Heights at the end of the summer instead of going back to school. I think that for most of us, this culture was too different from our own backgrounds to feel like a good fit. In the end, most of us took the learning we’d acquired there and integrated it into a Judaism that we were already comfortable with.

We had some wonderful teachers there who brought texts alive and who showed us the beauty of Torah study. One of them, an older rebbetzin, taught a class called The Jewish Woman. It involved the usual discussions of the Jewish Home, the importance of Shabbat and Kashrut, and of course, the very Victorian-sounding Laws of Family Purity. Since none of the students were married or engaged, she didn’t go into a lot of detail about Hilchot Niddah (the laws of separation between spouses). But she made it clear that Halacha had something to say about marital sex. Basically, there was a time to, and a time not to. There was a system for keeping track of when to and when not to. And before it was time to, the wife immersed herself in a special pool of rainwater called the Mikveh. The message she unmistakably implied was that by living within this rhythm, a couple had better communication and hotter hoohoo.

It sounded good to me. I wasn’t sure about some of the other stuff I learned that summer, but I was definitely going to do the Mikveh when I got married. It sounded beautiful and special. It sounded simple, like something I’d have in common with my ancestors, both the shtetl-dwellers and the desert sojourners.

Fast forward ten years. I met my future husband in Jerusalem. We dated for three months and each of us was pretty sure that the other was marriage material. In a fairly vague discussion about our ideas of marriage, the topic of Niddah and Mikveh came up. We just agreed that it was something that was an important part of a Jewish marriage and that we were into it.

So we each went to the Mikveh before our wedding and I continued to go on a monthly cycle. My husband even immersed when we began to conceive before each pregnancy. We’ve now been married for almost 15 years. Observing the practice of Niddah marks a steady, comforting and important rhythm for our marriage. It definitely does for us what the Ivy League rebbetzin said it would. The brief reference we made to it when we first met can now be articulated like this: Just as days of the year are holy (Shabbat and Chagim) and then there is the rest of the time, and just as there is food that is kosher because of how it was produced and how/when it is eaten and food that is unkosher, so too can our sexuality be elevated to a holy level by being together during part of the month and by refraining during the other part. And just like observance of Shabbat and Kashrut varies greatly from Jewish home to Jewish home, so too can Mikveh and Niddah be practiced differently within each Jewish marriage.

But truth be told, the benefits that I derive from living in this rhythm are about more than marriage. I am affected a lot by hormones. For two weeks a month my mood is good, usually better than good, sometimes even golden. Then I have one week when things become difficult and I feel like I am swimming upstream. I drop things, I cry easily, I’m so hungry I could eat the paint off the walls. Then my period comes and I’m in a bleak fog for a few days, feeling like an ill-equipped visitor to planet Earth. It’s not until about a week later that I start to feel like my better self again. It has always been this way for me…I have learned some adaptive tricks, but the cycle persists.

Mikveh is the main way that I have found to cope with these feelings. Every month I start my Mikvah preparations sort of hungover from the negative part of my cycle. But when I come out, I am re-fortified. I feel connected to Hashem, to the Earth, to Bri’at Ha’olam, (the creation of the world), and to forces far greater than myself. This sense of connection propels me through the next few weeks of the cycle.  Then it repeats itself.  I hope that in another ten years I may reach an equilibrium, but then I won’t have this monthly immersion to look forward to.

Going to the Mikveh every month is a discipline, much like yoga or journaling.  If you go to one yoga class or write one journal entry, you may really enjoy it but unless you commit to it as an ongoing practice, the depths of its benefits won’t be revealed to you.   The meaning of Mikveh was not apparent the first time I went, or the tenth or the twentieth.  As an embodied ritual, it has multiple dimensions and every time I immerse, I think….chadesh yamenu k’kedem….renew our days…bring us closer to each other and to You.

Naomi Malka has been the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah since 2006.   Naomi trained as a Mikvah 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 a frequent lecturer and writer on the subject of Mikveh.  She is also the founder of Tevila b’Teva: immersion in nature, a program that introduces outdoor immersion to Jewish summer camps.  As the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah, Naomi created “Bodies of Water,” a program for Jewish women and girls ages 10 and up to learn about Mikvah as a tool for positive body image, mindfulness and healthy decision making from a Jewish perspective. 

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Tazria, Metzora, and Talking about Mikveh

by Robin WeintraubRobin Weintraub

Last week, we read parashat Tazria, and this week, we read parashat Metzora. These Leviticus tomes are full of skin ailments, clothes and linens which contract impurity, beplagued houses, and priestly rituals. They may seem erudite, bizarre, even inaccessible. But these parshiot offer us an opportunity to talk about something much more accessible: Mikveh. They are full of reasons to immerse.

Giving birth, brit milah, marital relations, and tzara’at – an ailment often translated as leprosy – are all discussed in these parshiot. All these events touch upon life and death, in actuality or in potential. They also all culminate in immersion in water. The Biblical basis for the laws of niddah, women’s monthly immersion, is found here. We meet the metzora, the person afflicted with tzara’at. Once his affliction has been diagnosed by the priest, he waits outside the camp until he is healed and cleared by a priest to return to community. This return to community parallels a return to state of taharah – conveniently, though problematically, translated as purity. The rabbis often talk about tzara’at not as leprosy but as a spiritual ailment characterized by gossip and slanderous speech. This kind of speech, they suggest, is potentially destabilizing to the community, hence the metzora’s exile outside the camp. But we can also understand metzora in terms of anything that separates one from community. The metzora could be a person afflicted with any illness – mental, physical, or spiritual – or not an illness at all, but rather a distance, such that the metzora is someone who is separated from the community by any kind of distance. We could learn from this story the importance of bringing back into the community those who have left for any reason, as well as the possibility of incorporating immersion in water into any recovery, return, reintegration.

In addition to immersion, the metzora’s return to the community also includes an elaborate ritual performed by the priest in which the priest dips hyssop in the blood of a bird and sprinkles it onto the metzora and later dabs the blood of a lamb onto the metzora’s ear, thumb, and big toe. What are we to make of this ritual, described at length and in detail, so strange to our postmodern sensibilities?

In the case of the woman who menstruates or gives birth and the metzora, blood leads the way to water. Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor suggests that the menstrual blood that women monitor in observing niddah functions for them as covenantal blood, parallel to the blood of circumcision, while Ibn Ezra ties the ritual of the metzora to Passover through the hyssop dipped in blood: Moses commands the Israelites to dip hyssop in the blood of the Passover offering and paint it on their doorposts as a sign, so that when the angel of death comes to smite the Egyptian firstborn, the Israelite firstborn would be saved. In the case of Passover, too, blood leads to water – the Red Sea – and to covenant, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  Through water, the metzora returns to community, and the Israelites become a free people and find their way to Sinai.

Though we may feel distant from this part of the Torah and its bizarre rituals, from the meaning of Passover with its myriad chores and restrictions, may we find our way back through the water on the way to community, to covenant, to that which we’re missing.

Mayyim Hayyim invites you to immerse in the mikveh as part of your Passover preparation, to prepare your spirit as well as your kitchen, to cleanse the spiritual chametz.

Robin Weintraub is the Mikveh Center Coordinator at Mayyim Hayyim.  She is currently learning Hasidus in hopes of experiencing a more redemptive Pesach.

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Where’s the Ritual?

This post is part of a series of blog posts about niddah entitled Sacred Bodies, Sacred Time.  Read more here – and submit your own post.

by Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman

Before I had my first mikveh experience, I was forewarned- “Don’t be disoriented. When you get to the preparation room, there will just be a list of body parts, not a list of instructions. Use these kavanot from Mayyim Hayyim as scaffolding to structure your preparation.” It was good advice.

I was a bit shocked to find that there isn’t more prescribed ritual to the preparation—no specific order of operations like we learned in elementary school math, or like the highly ritualized Pesach seder. For my first immersion, I found the preparation room daunting, because I was anxious about the physicality of the ritual. I wanted to get it right, to pass, and with no specific list of instructions and without anyone to mimic, how could I be assured that I would do it all correctly?

By design, mikveh preparation is a solitary, even secretive act. No one else performs or models the steps for you. In the preparation room, there is no opportunity for mimesis. There is no one to watch, no one to learn the ritualized steps from, and no one to correct your performance in the moment. You’re on your own.

I wondered, why isn’t there an intense, rigid, prescribed, ritualized order of operations? After all – the majority of the other components to this experience are traditionally highly ritualized and exacting for women. Traditional requirements for women to immerse in the mikveh include: a certain marital status, a specific point in your menstrual cycle, a minimum number of minutes after sunset, a regular frequency of immersions, and a particular reason for immersion.

Given all of these parameters, perhaps it’s better to have some flexibility in the preparation room. An absence of a ritualized order to the preparation allows for breathing room, individuality and creativity. It allows for a structure where we can create our own rituals, without other people’s words in our mouths, meditations in our thoughts, or gazes on our bodies.

As I became more comfortable with mikveh—both the preparation and the immersion—I gave myself permission to fill this void and to create my own rhythms and rituals.

Hang up your coat. Unzip your boots. Take off your jewelry and place it on the tray (conspicuously! So you don’t forget it when you leave!), Take out your toiletry bag, kavanot and poem from your purse. Put away your phone. Put the shampoo and towel by the bathtub. Sit down on the bench, look in the mirror, smile and take a few deep breaths.

I’ve given myself permission to take my time preparing physically and mentally (another favorite piece of advice is: “Don’t feel like you have to rush, no one is going to kick you out of the room.”), to think about the past month, and the upcoming month. I’ve also given myself permission to not think of the mikveh as a momentous marker each month. Sometimes there is significance to the distinction between months, and sometimes I’m in a bad mood or in a rush. Familiarity breeds its own form of comfort and ritual. I am learning to embrace the flexibility of the order of operations, to create my own rituals, particular to my own monthly experiences, to allow my kavanot (intentions) to be fluid and forgiving like the water.

Rachel Lieberman is the Program Director at JOFA. She has studied at Princeton University, Yeshivat Hadar, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. At Princeton, she earned a B.A. in Religion and a certificate in Judaic Studies. Her senior thesis, “Reaching Across the Mechitzah: Feminism’s Impact on Orthodox Judaism” was awarded the Isidore and Helen Sacks Memorial Prize in Religion for outstanding work in Judaic Studies.

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