Knees, Niggunim, and Kol Nidre: A Reflection on Knocking at Our Hearts

by Rachel Eisen, Mayyim Hayyim Intern

Less than forty-eight hours before Kol Nidre, I hurt my knee at a sports practice and it threw my whole Yom Kippur out of whack.

Rachel pictureWhen I woke Monday morning, the pain was worse, and I had trouble walking. Confused, tired, and now worried about the seriousness of my injury, I made two cups’ worth of coffee—one for breakfast and one for the road. This is typical coffee behavior for me, except that the day before Kol Nidre I try to limit myself to one cup. None the day of Kol Nidre, and then I’m set for Yom Kippur. It’s a preparation for fasting I, as a coffee addict, have honed over the years. But somehow this year, I had messed up.

Later that day, I went to urgent care. The doctor prescribed me an anti-inflammatory with strict instructions I should not stand so much on Yom Kippur.

The anti-inflammatory, which I had to take twice a day, was not to be taken on an empty stomach and required me to drink plenty of water. Fine, I thought. I don’t have to do a full fast. I’ll only eat some bread. And I bet I can stand on Yom Kippur. I wanted to stand on Yom Kippur. The root of the Hebrew word for “knees” is ברכ , the same root of the word for “to bless.” Often in our liturgy, while standing, we bend our knees and bow when when we say, “Blessed are you, Adonai…” I wanted to physically act out that blessing.

Well, we can’t always get what we want. Tuesday night, by the third repetition of Kol Nidre, my knee felt awful. I had to sit the rest of the service, and throughout Yom Kippur. I was upset—but sitting when everyone else was standing gave me a new perspective. I could hear everyone’s voices as a whole, rather than just the people next to me. It took me back to Sunday, just hours before my injury, when I sat as Mónica Gomery beautifully led myself and at over a dozen others between the mikva’ot, our voices rising through wordless niggunim.

That was at Mayyim Hayyim’s pre-high holiday program, “Knocking at Our Hearts,” and it got me thinking about preparation. This year, I had failed to properly prepare for the fast. And my acute injury was likely due to my failure to properly warm up before exercising. Yet through song and learning, I had prepared myself for reflecting on where I had fallen short of being my best self. Singing those wordless melodies on Sunday -my heart felt opened- like it does in prayer. In those moments, I felt ready for the holiday, ready for the new year, and ready for tackling the challenges of teshuvah.

Preparing ourselves is important. Mayyim Hayyim knows this—it’s why we have seven kavanot -intentions-to help people prepare for the mikveh; it’s why almost a hundred people came to immerse here for the High Holidays; and it’s why we have programs like “Knocking at Our Hearts”—a program for which I am so grateful.

For the sin of not properly preparing ourselves—I’ll add it to my list when we chant Al Chet, (one of the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur) next year. This year, I almost missed the mark, but thanks to Mayyim Hayyim and the niggunim between the mikva’ot, I think I did just fine.

This program was supported in part by a Young Adult Innovation Grant from Combined Jewish Philanthropies

Rachel Eisen is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim and a graduate student in the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. She is studying for a Master’s degree in Jewish Professional Leadership as well as a Master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

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Holy Days

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

DeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_We’re now in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, aka Where Things Start Getting Real. If you have reflection and repentance on your mind, the whole process supposedly begins back at the start of Elul – the Jewish month preceding the High Holidays. We blow the shofar every day of Elul, to wake us up to return to God and ourselves. But Elul comes at the end of the summer, where we’re trying to get in our last kicks of freedom. Then it’s the back-to-school frenzy, and all of a sudden we’re standing in shul contemplating Divine judgment. That escalated quickly.

The intensity of Rosh Hashanah is mitigated by its sweetness – the new fruits, family gatherings, the best wishes for the new year. Yeah, there’s repentance, but there’s also honey cake. Then it ends, and we’re back to school and work and daily life, until a week later on Yom Kippur when we hope to get written and sealed in the Book of Life.

These days demand that we stand up and confront ourselves for all of our wrongs this past year, ask for forgiveness, vow to do better for our families, communities, and world. But even at its most intense, Yom Kippur is graced by an intimacy with God – and with one another – in experiencing this process together. I’ll always remember a Yom Kippur I spent in Israel where Ne’ilah, the final service, ended with an outburst of joyful singing and dancing that lasted a good hour after the fast had ended. Women and men who minutes earlier had been crying to God now clapped and sang with equally intense happiness – so great was their trust that all would be well, that we would get through the year together just as we’d helped each other through this day. Then the real challenge comes – not forgetting; taking the realness of the day into our year.

I’ve been thinking about days a lot recently; how so much can be accomplished and so much wasted in 24 hours. Yom Kippur teaches us the potential of a single day. I wonder how much more I could have done with the last 365 days that flew by if I didn’t let myself be held back by fear and distraction. I marvel at how lives are transformed every day at Mayyim Hayyim. From my office upstairs I hear people singing in celebration of someone becoming Jewish. In the guest book, I read a daily record of people finding strength, healing, and joy; each entry a marker on someone’s spiritual journey.

We’ve recently come up with a way for people to continue to honor their special times; by sponsoring a Day at Mayyim Hayyim. A number of people have already done so; one person chose the day her twin daughters were born. Remembering the day she immersed here after healing, another person is sponsoring multiple anniversaries, and yet another is commemorating a day of family reunification that happened here last year. Underwriting a day of immersions, learning, and operations at the mikveh makes these life-changing moments possible.

These holy days make us realize the transformative power of each day, if we seize it. I hope for all of us that we have a year of fully-realized days.

To sponsor or for more information, contact me at, or 617-244-1836 x211.

DeDe is Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She lives in Sharon, MA, with her husband Yaakov and sons Nani and Itai. 

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Dear Clergy: Thank You

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

lisa bio picSummer, yet very nearly fall. Tomatoes and basil replaced by apples and honey. Cut-grass and pinot grigio segue into damp leaves, nutmeg, and zinfandel. Barbecues morph into holiday dinners. The filled up buckets of summer possibilities have been overturned and stored away and we search for that great apple cake recipe from last year. Endings and beginnings, reflection and anticipation; season to season, holiday to holiday – now turning to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and their weighty questions and communal gatherings.

For many of us, preparation for these holidays involves Glass_of_red_wineshopping lists, cooking, traveling, digging out machzorim (holiday prayer books) from the back of the bookshelf, putting the service tickets on the frig, and realizing we have, again, not left enough time to take stock of our year, our deeds, our hopes, our intentions, our soul. But for the rabbis and cantors among us, preparation takes not a few days, but months. We prepare ourselves; they prepare to help each and every one of us. They choose each word, prayer, music, theme, text – choreographing every second of the hours we spend together these weeks – with the intent of inspiring hundreds, even thousands of very different individuals. Inspiring us to authentic reflection, to communal consciousness-raising, to spiritual heights and to meaningful remembrances.

250px-Temple_Israel_Memphis_SanctuaryThis year, Mayyim Hayyim continues our eleven-year old tradition of offering complimentary immersions to clergy for a personal, private, quiet, preparatory ritual as a way of saying “thank you” for this tremendous task – and all the other ones throughout the year. In suits and ties, in jeans and sneakers, having finished writing five sermons or just starting the first, they come – 130 different rabbis and cantors over the past eleven years. They come to get ready, and, perhaps, to let go. To let go of the gravesides, the bedsides, the board meetings — the weight of the tsuris (woe, or troubles, in Yiddish) of hundreds of congregants laid on their shoulders all year. They come and emerge, unencumbered, ready to be filled with the joy of new beginnings – weddings, babies, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations – and the smiling faces of a congregation looking up at them (please, let’s all smile), each one of us filled with the heady anticipation of a new year, a new soul, a new chance to make a difference in this world – to make ourselves whole, and wholly useful.

To the rabbis and cantors who grace our space at Mayyim Hayyim throughout the year, we say “thank you” for all you do. We hope to see you and be a part of your preparations. To everyone in the greater Boston area Jewish community, our mikva’ot are here to help you let go, move on, and face 5776 unencumbered and ready to smile.

To make an appointment click here or call 617-244-1836 x1.

“What an incredible blessing to immerse as a part of my own personal journey during these aseret yemei t’shuvah (ten days of repentance). Spending so much time in preparation for leading my congregation, it can be easy to let my own soul’s journey slide between the cracks. The intentionality of coming to the mikveh specifically during these ten days enhances my time with my soul and my goals in t’shuvah, (repentance, return).”

Read Mayyim Hayyim’s Immersion Ceremony for Yom Kippur

Lisa Berman is neither a rabbi nor a cantor. She just enjoys hanging out with them at Mayyim Hayyim where she is the Mikveh & Education Director.


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Theatre Meets Prayer: Embodied Justice for Yom Kippur

by Bronwen Mullen

BronwencroppedWhen I formally began studying Theatre of the Oppressed at Sarah Lawrence College, the words of founder Augusto Boal resonated deeply: “Theatre is a rehearsal for life!”; “The most dangerous weapon theatre possesses is empathy!”; “Theatre is change! It is becoming, not being!” These words more than resonated. I felt these words as if I had known them always. I felt these words in my bones. The fact was, I had known these words long before I entered that classroom. I knew them from the Passover seder.

When I was 10 years old, sitting at my 2nd night seder, my mother, the sociologist, feminist and activist, would push me to consider the different aspects of the Passover story: “If you were Shifra and Puah, (the midwives who delivered the Hebrew children in the book of Exodus) would you have defied Pharoah?” “Would you have killed the Egyptian task master beating the Hebrew slave? Why do you think Moses did it? And why does God seem to forgive him?” “How did the Jews survive 400 years of slavery?” We would talk for hours and hours, late into the night, just like the rabbis of the Haggadah, (the guide that accompanies the seder) did nearly 2000 years ago. My mother would always say to me: “Bronwen, this story, the Passover story, plays out again and again in history. You have to decide who you’re going to be, an oppressor or a redeemer.”











to110 years later, I realized that to expound upon the story of the Exodus, to make midrash, was exactly what I was being asked to do in Theatre of the Oppressed: I was being asked to look at an unjust situation through a number of improvisational exercises and to bring my experience of it into a controlled narrative setting where I could play out the different parts involved and evaluate the complexity of the conflict. The process allowed me to embody my understanding of these archetypes of ‘oppressor,’ ‘oppressed’ and ‘redeemer,’ and identify how they were playing out in real time, from the Million Man March, the Free Mumia Movement, the Columbine shootings and gun control to issues of body-shaming, homophobia, transphobia, and rape culture on college campuses. Theatre of the Oppressed resonated with me because it created awareness, and awareness is the impetus for action.

to2Now another 10 years after that first class, I’ve been using these techniques as a midrashic method for engagement with Jewish texts and prayers, following in the footsteps of our rabbinic tradition.

Soon we will be listening to the familiar melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer which begins the 25-hour period of critical introspection that is Yom Kippur. The words of this prayer, however, are challenging to engage. It is a litany of legal terms for different kinds of vows, contracts and promises that we ask to be annulled. So why begin such a soul-stirring holiday with something so legalistic in nature? I’m going to leave you in suspense, for now.

On September 20th we’re going to explore how Theatre of the Oppressed exercises can help unpack the complicated power dynamics in the contractual relationships we form throughout the year, whether they are with businesses, governmental institutions, or between neighbors and friends. Kol Nidrei may become an embodied prayer like you’ve never experienced before, but perhaps how the rabbis always intended.

Click here to register for “Knocking at Our Hearts: Embodied Learning for the Days of Awe” on September 20th, 2:15-5pm. Registration Deadline is September 17th

Bronwen Mullin is a playwright, composer, educator and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (ord. 2017). She is the co-founder of Meta-Phys Ed with director Jesse Freedman, and has taught classical texts through theater-methodology at Limmud NY and Philadelphia, the Academy of Jewish Religion in NY and the Havurah National Institute. 

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Russian-speaking Jews: Beyond Assimilation

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaIn July, Mayyim Hayyim sent me to attend the COJECO Symposium for Russian-speaking Jews. COJECO (Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations) is the coordinating body of the Russian-speaking Jewish community of New York. This symposium gathered 50 professionals from Jewish organizations throughout North America to ask: what works in engaging Russian-speaking Jews (heretofore RSJs)? What do we (as RSJs), think, feel, and do when it comes to being Jewish? What do we want the future of Russian Jewish engagement to look like? As the Associate Director of Education and resident RSJ at Mayyim Hayyim, I was excited to think with others about how to specifically engage RSJ’s at Mayyim Hayyim.

cojeco6Arriving at the symposium, I was met by the whole spectrum of RSJs: we were kippah-covered men with long-beards, short-skirted women in heels, sheitel-ed women (wig covering the hair of some married women) with long skirts, and everything in between. We were Reform and Orthodox rabbis, women and men, young and not-so-young, born in the Former Soviet Union and the U.S., educators and organizers, and all leaders in our fields. These were my people.


As a first generation RSJ, I’m acutely aware of the cultural gaps between Soviet and American Jewry. Historically, American Jews have tried to engage RSJs by getting us to assimilate into American Judaism. Congregational memberships were given at a discount, day schools offered scholarships for the children of new emigres (both myself and author Gary Shteyngart were the reluctant beneficiaries of such scholarships). Then American Jews waited for RSJs to join the club.

cojeco1Some decades later, we know that buy-in never materialized. Judged by the standards of American Jewish life (which are themselves shifting fast), we are seemingly disinterested. We’re underrepresented as philanthropists, B’nai Mitzvah students, and shul-goers. The strategy, (make it cheap, and they will come), though well-meaning, failed because we were not co-creators of our own Jewish experience. We were often seen as beneficiaries of services, a mitzvah project, as Benjamin Goldschmit recently wrote. Forget for a moment the major barrier that condescension creates –many of the attempts to engage us simply ignored the history we came with.

Jews in Soviet Russia lived in a climate where making a choice to do something even vaguely Jewish was hazardous. Beyond religious persecution, all were repressed by a prescriptive and propaganda-heavy regime. Understandably, they (and the children they raised) are weary of ideologies, religious or otherwise.

As this symposium of RSJ communal professionals could tell you: we love to celebrate our heritage, and I don’t mean eating smoked fish. So, what does that look like? It’s a sense of near-tribal allegiance to other Jews and the state of Israel; it’s the knowledge that family comes above all else. A belief in the power of education and hard work as a path towards flourishing, and a gift for the kind of hospitality that borders on the religious. It’s the way an argument that makes your blood boil can be a sign of affection. I was reminded of all of this at the symposium when hearing about the programs my colleagues are creating. It was also obvious in the way we were together.

The American Jewish world is now recognizing that synagogue life is not exclusively the way Jews access our tradition. Our cohort of RSJ professionals have been working with this limitation for years, and moving forward, this is a place ripe for partnership. As a global, interconnected and diverse people we need opportunities that feel accessible, open-minded and hands-on more than ever. The RSJ leaders I met at this symposium are trained in the art of removing barriers while doing all of the above. Have we perfected our trade? No, not yet. But we’ve figured out ways to let go of the prescriptive, in favor of mutual respect; welcome people heartily and mean it, and we have a willingness to listen when people feel like something ‘isn’t for them.’

I felt proud, knowing that I was representing Mayyim Hayyim, an organization that does these things already, and proud to count myself among the individuals at the symposium. Mayyim Hayyim has done a lot to empower a wide diversity of Jews to feel that mikveh immersion is accessible; yet we have a long way to go in figuring out how to do the same for Russian-speaking Jews. For now, I’m the resident RSJ at Mayyim Hayyim who translates at the education program I’m teaching and shares Mayyim Hayyim’s story in our native tongue. What will the future of RSJ engagement at our mikveh look like? I don’t know yet, but I’m excited to build it with my American and RSJ colleagues.


Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She loves smoked fish. 

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An Unconventional Bar Mitzvah: Every Child Deserves to be Celebrated

by Susan Arndt

susan 2It’s hard to believe we just celebrated my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Zachary was born a beautiful healthy baby, but at the age of sixteen months, he started having seizures.  Over the years, with all of the challenges he has faced being non-verbal and having developmental delays, I have always looked for ways of including him to the best of his ability.  As his thirteenth birthday was fast approaching, I was despondent at the idea of not being able to celebrate Zachary, because I felt a ‘traditional’ Bar Mitzvah was not going to work for him. Learning Torah was something he was not going to be able to do.  Even though he does not understand words, he does understands tone of voice. He understands things on a visceral level and explores things through his senses. Knowing this, my mind was searching for a different way to mark his transition.

He deserved to be celebrated like any other child despite his disabilities. I wanted to celebrate his beautiful Jewish soul and do it in a way that would work for him with all of his developmental challenges. The idea of celebrating Zachary reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah with an immersion in the mikveh, a place where many transitions in life are commemorated, was an idea that came about at a Jewish support group for parents of children with special needs.  I knew it was a way of celebrating him that he could participate in and enjoy.

The morning of his Bar Mitzvah came and we gathered family and friends outside in the atrium between the two mikveh pools at Mayyim Hayyim. The small window above the closed door of the mikveh carried a beautiful niggun, a wordless Jewish melody; our guests were singing as Zachary and I entered the waters of the mikveh.  Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman, who trained as a Mikveh Guide, helped us craft the ceremony and officiated that morning. With her help, we decided upon two blessings that would be said for my son’s immersion, both of which my husband sang beautifully by the mikveh. As we left, once again, our guests sang a beautiful niggun to us.  The color and lights of the mikveh and the beautiful sounds of both our guests and my husband singing were something that Zachary truly enjoyed. He knew it was a special moment for him.

We quickly dressed and joined our guests. Surrounded by friends and family, my husband recited the prayer for putting on tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, and placed it around Zachary’s shoulders for the very first time as a Bar Mitzvah.  With all of his developmental challenges, we found a Jewish way to celebrate him with family and friends. The whole event was beautiful and something that we as a family will always cherish.


Susan Arndt is a mother and advocate for Zachary and has been involved in the special needs community volunteering as an officer for her town’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council and the Parent Advisory Group at her son’s school. She is the Gala Committee Chairperson for the Federation for Children with Special Needs and a Corporator Elect for the Perkins School for the Blind. Her background is in interior design and home staging.

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History Repeats Itself in Atlanta… and I Like It

by Carrie Bornstein

Just over four years ago I shared with you the exciting news that Libi Eir, Awakened Heart Community Mikveh in Raleigh, NC was nearing completion. They’d trained 22 volunteer Mikveh Guides using the Diane and Chester Black Guide My Steps training and since they opened Libi Eir has facilitated more than 500 immersions for nearly 300 Jews of all backgrounds.

Well, history is repeating itself in the loveliest of ways, this time in Atlanta, GA. Initially supported by the Marcus Foundation in 2010, Mayyim Hayyim began consulting to folks in Atlanta to determine whether something similar could exist there. We mobilized working groups, made site visits, and since then the community’s leaders propelled their vision forward over time.

Atlanta1Last week, a group of Atlannans (I learned how to say it properly) from MACoM, Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah, visited Mayyim Hayyim for a three-day site visit. Twenty-two of our staff, board members, Mikveh Guides and volunteers gathered over the course of their visit to share our experiences and offer advice. Together with MACoM’s board members and Executive Director, we covered everything from how to engage a diverse set of stakeholders to running education programs to operations and logistics.

Atlanta2MACoM has broken ground on their mikveh, construction is underway, and they’re on target to open for visitors this November. And they’re in the process of training their first group of mikveh guides, 18 of them in all, using our curriculum too.

Sound familiar? I look forward to sharing all kinds of statistics with you four years from now about the numbers of people MACoM has welcomed, about the lives they have touched.

But more than anything, I can’t wait to see how MACoM puts its own stamp on their holy space. I know that in time MACoM, just like Libi Eir, will come up with new ways to support their visitors, new ideas for teaching students, new ways to celebrate with brides and grooms. And Mayyim Hayyim will be all the better for it.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. She’s pretty sure she should take a southern mikveh tour sometime in, say, February.

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