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  That’s not an outdated tradition or superstitious taboo; the Talmud forbids us from treating converts differently from any other members of the tribe, and rightly so.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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Becoming Jewish

by Laura RosenthalLaura Rosenthal

Whenever people ask about how I “became” Jewish, I tell them it was when I turned eight. In some sense, this is entirely ridiculous—I have always known that Judaism is a part of my life. What I mean when I say I “became” Jewish is that we joined Temple Shalom of Newton. From that moment on, I went to Hebrew classes until I graduated from high school. I served as a regional board member for the North American Federation of Temple Youth Northeast region, attended all Temple Shalom youth group events, and have even gone on to take Modern Hebrew classes in college and serve as Colby’s Hillel president.

I don’t mean to list my Jewish resume. It’s just that the idea of when one becomes Jewish and what being Jewish looks like often confuses me. Non-Jews have told me that I’m “very Jewish” because of all these Jewish activities in which I participate; Conservative and Orthodox Jews have told me that I’m not Jewish because my mother wasn’t Jewish at the time I was born. When my mother decided to convert to Judaism last December, these questions of how does one become Jewish and what does it mean to be Jewish were on my mind.

The ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim was beautiful, in a way that felt particularly comfortable for my family. A number of friends joined us, along with all our rabbis, and we listened as my mom answered the questions and recited the blessings—and made jokes that had us all giggling.

When my mom rejoined the group afterward, she seemed, well…the same. Happy, of course. We all were. But I couldn’t identify anything particularly different or “more Jewish” about her. So, I returned to my questions: How does one become Jewish? What does it mean to be Jewish? And this is what I decided:

In my mom’s case, her conversion seemed to me a bit like a wedding. It was a ceremony to declare and celebrate the permanent commitment to a love and lifestyle that already exists. It was a beautiful ceremony, so completely marked by my mom’s sense of humor, values, and love for her family and friends that even though it followed a long-time Jewish tradition, it was unique to her. To me, she had already seemed Jewish for years—she had been attending Temple Shalom’s services, programs, and classes since we joined the congregation thirteen years before. She had hosted Passover seders, Yom Kippur break fasts, and Hannukah parties (she makes the best latkes). And she raised a “very Jewish” daughter. Whether she “became” Jewish when we joined the synagogue or at some other point in her Jewish journey, only she could tell you. But I feel that the mikveh ritual did not make her Jewish. It confirmed her commitment and perhaps made it “official,” but most of all, it was a celebration. And what a celebration it was.

As for what it means to be Jewish? That’s a whole other blog post.

Laura Rosenthal is a member at Temple Shalom of Newton. She is an English major at Colby College, where she will be a senior this year. Laura has spent time at Mayyim Hayyim for her mother’s conversion in December 2013.  

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Choosing to be a Jew

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Last week I went to synagogue and witnessed a ceremony to welcome a woman who had just converted to Judaism. I met this woman earlier in the week, at Mayyim Hayyim, where she marked her new Jewish life with an immersion in our mikveh.

At the synagogue, the rabbi offered a blessing. His words on giyur, or conversion, were in the spirit of our work at Mayyim Hayyim.

The rabbi said to the woman, “When you speak, it will no longer be them or they, but us. And we need you as much as you need this community.”  I looked at the woman standing at the bima, holding the Torah in her arms. At first she looked scared, but as the rabbi spoke, her fear gave way to pride, her face breaking into a smile — at her partner and her parents, seated in the front row.

As I sat behind them, I recalled a time when I saw conversion as a confusing part of Jewish culture.  I remember wondering as a child, why would anyone want to be Jewish?!

My grandparents and parents carried memories of Soviet-era anti-Semitism like luggage from Uzbekistan.  Familial sweetnesses were wrapped in warnings about outside dangers. So I made a bold teenage decision: I wasn’t going to be Jewish anymore.

I discarded my Jewish identity because being Jewish felt unsafe and useless.  Rituals and customs, though so familiar, felt like imposed strictures and divided movements.

After high school, I went west.  I thought I could become my own person there.  Ironically, when I arrived, it was Jewish communities reimagining Jewish practice that made me feel most like myself.  I found Jews praying in living-rooms and singing wordless melodies, niggunim, into the night.  We rejoiced in rehashing two-thousand-year-old debates from the Talmud, our tradition’s oral Torah and its written commentaries.

Similar to a person who converts to Judaism, I had to decide for myself, “these are my people, these practices are mine.”  Mayyim Hayyim was created because its founders wanted a place where any Jew or soon-to-be Jew could come and know that mikveh, and Jewish tradition in general, is fully theirs.

As the new Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim, I am thrilled that my path of reconnecting to Judaism and becoming a Jewish educator has put me in a position to offer learning and connection to others.  We at Mayyim Hayyim are excited to explore, with you, the many facets of being and becoming a Jew.

Leeza Negelev is Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She has developed and taught art- and theatre- inspired Jewish learning programs for people of all ages. Most recently, Leeza was an Arts Fellow at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and taught at Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. 

 

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Choosing Milestones

by Diane Black0016

On May 29, 2014 at Mayyim Hayyim’s tenth year celebration event, we honored Diane Black with the Nachshon Award.  Here are her remarks from the ceremony. 

If you know me at all, you know I’m not comfortable being singled out in public like this. I said yes to this honor mostly because my children said that I had to. But also because it gives me the opportunity to tell you a little bit about why Mayyim Hayyim is so important to me.

First, I love that Mayyim Hayyim is a place for everyone in our community; that it’s a place where all Jews are welcome and equal, where we can all learn without feeling judged about what we might not know.

This is personal for me. At our wedding, Chester and I were not allowed to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. Those were the rules in our Classical Reform synagogue at the time. Some Jews were busy trying not to appear too different from our neighbors. So you see, the reclamation of an ancient ritual like mikveh for everyone – this is not lost on me. It’s wonderful and poignant.

Second, I love that Mayyim Hayyim helps break down the idea that there is separation between our religious lives and our secular lives.

This special mikveh gives us the opportunity to remember that our daily life can be infused and intertwined with Judaism.

For example, if you celebrate a birthday with an immersion, you insert a spiritual component into something that could seem purely secular. We enrich our lives when we mark important transitions with Jewish ritual, making them “chosen milestones.”

Finally, I love Mayyim Hayyim because it’s a holy place.

In synagogue, when we recite the Shema, many people close their eyes. I don’t. It looks like I do because I cover my face with my hand, but what I’m doing is feeling my breath on my palm of my hand, the breath of life.

I connect with God in the warm breath in the palm of my hand.

When you immerse in the mikveh you have to hold your breath. You have to contract yourself – like in the story of how God withdrew to make room for the universe. Tzim-tzum.

When you hold your breath in the mikveh, you have to stop and focus on just being there. And that’s the moment we make room for God.

Water teaches this lesson. It surrounds us and holds us. Water always makes room for us. The way God makes room for us.

Mayyim Hayyim is a place where holiness can happen.

Thank you.

Diane Black has been a Mayyim Hayyim board member for eight years and a Mikveh Guide for three. Being around people makes her happy, and she loves to talk with and to cook for family and friends.

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Love is in the Air

by Carrie Bornstein

Today is Tu B’Av – the fifteenth day of the month of Av – a Jewish Valentine’s Day of sorts, when we mark a day of great joy on the Hebrew calendar. With our Jewish Cupid flying around (Jupid, anyone?), I’m sharing one of our sweetest stories with you, just to make you smile.

Megan came to Mayyim Hayyim for her conversion, and was lucky enough to have her mother and Israeli boyfriend, Rimon, with her. The whole thing was lovely – in the way that all conversions are lovely: Girl gets tour of mikveh with family, boy looks nervous and excited. Girl goes in to meet with beit din…

… and then boy starts plotting to propose to his girlfriend.

Mikveh Guide gasps with excitement – and joins in cahoots on the surprise. Boy goes to car to get ring – is worried girl will come out of meeting with rabbis and immediately see the jewelry box in his pocket. His cover will be blown – she’ll know right away. Finally, boy resigns to the fact that maybe girl will have other things on her mind. She comes out of the meeting and he lets his concern go.

DSC_0020 Once Megan started preparing for her immersion, the rest of us staked out the site, looking for the perfect place for Rimon to pop the question. Megan immersed, we all sang, she dressed and emerged with that “I’m Jewish now” glow.

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Leah, Megan’s Mikveh Guide, followed up with a nonchalant, “Ooh – the garden is beautiful this time of year – let’s take some picture outside!”

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And then…

DSC_0033 DSC_0045 DSC_0048photo 2DSC_0056 Rimon chose to propose to Megan on the bench created by survivors of abuse and their allies as part of our “Embracing Waters” initiative. The symbolism is not lost on me – this is what happens all the time at Mayyim Hayyim – pain can be transformed into hope and opportunities for celebration lie around every corner.

It wasn’t until later that I realized my story with Megan actually began a year prior. Referred to me through a mutual friend, Megan called with concern because she wasn’t sure how to go about moving forward with the process. After learning more about her story and her interests, I knew exactly where to send her. The week after her conversion she emailed:

“Thank you so much for pointing me towards Rabbi Avi Poupko. The conversation we had a year ago gave me hope and motivation to continue on this path at a time when I had almost given up. There were a few people that made my conversion happen and you are one of them! I will forever be grateful.”

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Boy, am I ever grateful too.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. She celebrated her own wedding anniversary just yesterday, and seems to have accidentally wore red pants to coincide with Tu B’Av today.

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It’s Like Night and Day

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education DirectorLisa Berman

When we talk about Mayyim Hayyim, we often focus on the moments at our mikveh that are celebratory. Joyful gatherings of people who usher into our space an atmosphere of conviviality and festivity — conversions, brides and grooms, bar and bat mitzvah kids, birthday celebrants.

Just last week we watched our sunlit “celebration space,” also known as the education center and art gallery, transform into a beautiful luncheon celebration for 20 friends and family of a gentleman converting, completing his life long journey to Judaism. Platters of food, centerpieces, table cloths – all the trappings the gala deserved.

The guests milled about, socializing, as a completely different group began to gather for the next celebration of a young woman also converting. Toddlers pulled up on the furniture, parents browsed our children’s book collection, tours were given, questions answered, hugs exchanged by far flung relatives. Purses and tote bags were scattered about, joined by cups and plates, baby bottles and burp cloths, and the hubbub segued into loud choruses of congratulation, wishing, “mazel tov!” and “siman tov u’mazel tov!”

As these wonderful groups trickle out the door, murmuring “Thank you, thank you; sorry for the mess, sorry for the noise,” I often reply, “No, thank you — it would be very boring at Mayyim Hayyim without families and friends like yours bringing joy-filled tumult to our space.”

The echoes of these celebrations diminish gradually throughout the day, and as evening settles in, the building takes on a completely different atmosphere – serene, softly lit, hushed, embracing. We welcome our evening guests with soft voices, “Hello, how have you been, are you ready to get ready?” We tread gently as we show them to preparation rooms and latch the door with restraint. Our mikveh guides nurse cups of tea and read or knit as they wait to witness immersions. Smiling slightly, they quietly say, “kasher” as women slide softly beneath the warm water again. The lights reflecting off the Jerusalem gold tiles of the mikveh walls and floor fill the room with an enveloping glow. Even the water seems to lap tenderly as women exit the pools lightly. Doors are held open for exiting guests, “Take care, get home safely.”

And then, when everyone else has left, we tuck in the mikveh. We place covers on the pools, place a neat stack of clean linens in each room, wipe dry the laminated ceremonies that guests have selected, noting the poignant nature of some that calm faces belied. We empty the hampers, stow toiletries in the medicine cabinets, close the shower curtains. We go from room to room, extinguishing the more than 30 light switches on the first floor, darkening the space little by little by little until, outside, only the lights shining up from the cistern and down from the trees guide us on the path through the garden, up to our gate and on our way home.MH8

Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim. She began as a volunteer mikveh guide the day Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors in 2004 and now directs a Center that educates more than 2500 people each year about this ancient ritual and its contemporary possibilities.

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