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.

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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.

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Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. 

Posted in Carrie Bornstein, Disability, Education Programs | Leave a comment

Mayyim Hayyim: Who Needs It?

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

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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.

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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. 

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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.  

 

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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

Here I Am

by Rachel Hillman

HillmanPhoto3Hineni, I said aloud.  Here I am, marking today as a transition point from one part of my life to another.  I removed my nail polish, which covered the discoloration due to chemotherapy on my once-beautiful (and soon-to-be-beautiful-again) nail beds.  I appreciated my body as I undressed, remembering that even with my new scars and radiation tattoos, I am still created in God’s image.  I showered, washing the hair that had begun to regrow on my body.  I cleaned my ears, brushed my teeth, and gave thanks to my body’s ability to carry me to where I stood that day, after having endured so much and been so broken.

My breast cancer diagnosis came at the end of January, two months after I turned twenty-eight. After learning about my treatment plan, I discovered that, if my timeline stayed on track, I would finish treatment come September, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  In the dead of winter, it seemed it would take forever to reach that milestone of completion. In reality, it was a blur.

At some point during my treatment, I knew I wanted to commemorate my transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor by visiting the mikveh.  After months of focusing on my physical health, it was important to take care of my emotional and spiritual health as well. Having cancer, especially at such a young age, made me feel alone and scared, and I wanted to feel empowered and renewed come the end of treatment. I made an appointment at Adas Israel Congregation’s Community Mikvah in Washington, DC, where I live, to immerse the day after my last round of radiation.  It was my first day no longer being a cancer patient.

HillmanPhoto2Seven months passed from my date of diagnosis to the completion of treatment, and when I read through Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot and saw the seven steps into the mikveh, I felt a spiritual connection because the number seven was already on my mind.  Preparing for my immersion allowed me the time and space to reflect upon seven stages of my experience with cancer: the fear from the initial diagnosis, the decisions to make about my future, the hours of chemotherapy, the emotional and physical exhaustion, the strength of my body and spirit, the support of my family and friends, and the scars that now mark me physically and emotionally. Even though my visit to the mikveh was not for a traditionally commanded reason, the language in the Seven Kavanot spoke to me as though it were written just for me and for what brought me there that day.  For seven months I felt physically weak and emotionally drained, and that day, the Seven Kavanot guided me toward a feeling of strength and acceptance of what I endured.

For my immersion, I used a ceremony for healing, created by Mayyim Hayyim, that read, in part: “Compassionate God, Healer of my body, Healer of my soul, heal me.  Strengthen my ailing body, soothe my aching heart, mend my shattered existence.  Make me whole.” I felt the pain of the past seven months wash away in the water.  I felt the appreciation for my body’s strength rush over me as I immersed fully.  I felt myself becoming whole again.

Rachel Hillman lives in Washington, DC and works for BBYO, the leading Jewish pluralistic youth movement. Rachel earned her B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies as well as History from Brandeis University, and holds an M.B.A from Indiana University and a Master’s in Jewish Education from Hebrew College. In her spare time, Rachel enjoys traveling, reading voraciously, spending time with her friends and family, and being obsessed with Tina Fey.

Mayyim Hayyim created a powerful Jewish healing guide for women with cancer, called, “Blessings for the Journey.” For more information, click here.

Posted in Healing, Immersion | 4 Comments

Roller Coasters and Merry-Go-Rounds

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

GrandmaThere’s a great scene from one of my very favorite movies of all time, Parenthood, with Steve Martin. At one point, seemingly out of context, the grandmother says to Steve, “You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

Okay, I get it. If life were one long merry-go-round ride, we’d all be bored and a little bit woozy. But I don’t like roller coasters. Never have. Once, at Disney World, I spent a whole Space Mountain ride trying to reach around the seat in front of me to clutch my son and keep him from what was surely about to be certain death by unplanned ejection. Trying to seem cavalier on a date once, I went on some ridiculously unsound enormous wooden structure that teetered out over the Atlantic. I was absolutely certain we were all about to crash – people, cars, timbers and all – into the ocean. Unlike Parenthood’s Grandma, the feeling that you are about to die is not exciting or thrilling for me. It is one I wish to avoid at all costs. (Don’t get me started about turbulence on airplanes.)

And yet, there are times when our lives – on a micro level – seem more roller coaster than merry-go-round.

Here at Mayyim Hayyim, the month of September has been one of the busiest ever, with more than 200 immersions so far. Life on the “wet side” has been a whirlwind of appointment-making, welcoming, guiding, supporting, laundering, tidying, and wishing all a good year, shanah tovah. We are honored to support so many in our community who have made an immersion part of their personal holiday preparations.

But it all came to a temporary but appreciated halt this past Wednesday afternoon when we closed the mikveh doors and left to join our families and friends for Rosh Hashanah and the weekend.

For me, a bit of that roller coaster feeling prevailed.

ZeraMy family enjoyed what is now a rare occurrence, a family dinner, at a lovely little restaurant near our daughter’s new Brooklyn apartment. The next morning at Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Elohim, we had the pinnacle experience of being led in prayer by our daughter who served as cantorial intern-in-training for the parallel family service. Hearing my “child” intone the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgical prayers, Unetaneh Tokef and Avinu Malkeinu, watching her lift up toddlers so they could see the open Torah scroll, sharing a time of quiet reflection with over 300 congregants as she sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” softly to them… was a surreal and memorable experience.

Hospital BedA few days later I sat in a hospital room with my elderly father as he struggled to clear the growing confusion from his thoughts, to sort out reality from delirium, knowing that a return to full clarity is not in his future.

On the way home from the hospital in Connecticut, my husband and I stopped at River Highlands State Park and walked the path through the woods to a bluff far above the Connecticut River. Through a small break in the leaves we could see the calm water reflecting the foliage – mostly green with splashes of red and gold – and hear the soft sound of small waves on the shore. Not exhilarating, not troubling, just peaceful. But a peacefulness that was surely heightened by the highs and lows of the days before. These are the highs and lows I can live with and live for. And that is the peace that I must seek out, to create the space in my soul for the highs and lows yet to come.

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Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect and modesty and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

Posted in Holiday | 2 Comments

Immersing at Ice House Pond

by Rabbi Sarah TasmanSarah Red Scarf

For the last number of years, preparing for the High Holidays has been full on. As most other Jewish professionals and clergy will tell you, preparing for the High Holidays is a whirlwind that includes creating service outlines, tutoring volunteer Torah readers, sermon writing, rehearsing with lay song leaders and so on. Before I know it, my mind is full liturgical melodies and logistical details.

At this time of year, in the midst of all of the preparation, I try to find a way to hold on to the golden end-of-summer light while still acknowledging the inevitable change of season. I remind myself that there is another kind of personal preparation I must do. I find myself eager to carve out sacred time in my busy schedule to mark the coming of the New Year in an embodied and spiritual way.

This year, my annual trip to Martha’s Vineyard coincided with my time of preparation for the High Holidays. My annual dip in Ice House Pond took on a new meaning as a pre-Rosh Hashanah immersion to prepare my mind, body and soul.

Ice House Pond is a short fifteen minute walk through the woods. Pine needles cover the ground on either side of the one lane road, filling the air with the smell of late summer. I follow the trail that leads to the pond, and when the view of the water suddenly appears before me, I catch my breath. It’s beautiful and secluded. I notice that my body and soul are thirsty. I’m eager to be refreshed.

The water is cool at first, and I step gingerly into the pond. I dunk and say the blessing for immersion.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu bi-tevilah b’mayyim hayyim. Blessed are You, God, Majestic Spirit of the Universe, Who makes us holy by embracing us in living waters.

I decide right then and there that immersing in Ice House Pond is a spiritual practice that I can’t do without.

I let the waters embrace me. In this mikveh, I’m ready and able to let go of the stress and challenges of the last year. I feel the water wash away the cobwebs in my mind and all the distractions in my life. I feel a deep sense of clarity and possibility, a sense of renewed purpose. In the water, I become aware that I am connected to everything around me. My heart feels more open. I whisper my intentions for the new year, my prayers for the days and weeks to come.

I emerge from the water, dry off, and head back through the woods to our house. On my walk home, I contemplate my ritual. I’m filled with gratitude for this simple and profound pleasure. I am now ready for whatever the new year will bring.

Rabbi Sarah Tasman is a longtime Mayyim Hayyim mikveh guide and educator. She recently moved to Washington, DC where she currently teaches Jewish mindfulness, yoga, and mikveh workshops at Adas Israel Congregation. This Rosh Hashanah, Sarah is guest rabbi at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue leading Jewish meditation, yoga, and text study. Visit her website at: rabbisarahtasman.com

To schedule an immersion for the High Holidays, or for any occasion, call (617) 244-1836 ext. 1 or click here.
Posted in Holiday, Immersion, Season | 1 Comment