I Am a Twin

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I am a twin. From the point of my conception, I’ve always had company. That can be a good thing – constant companionship – or a bad thing – lack of my own space. This duality plays out in my personality. I’m a classic ambivert, delighting in time with others while needing restorative solitude in equal measure. Perhaps that’s why my time at Mayyim Hayyim is always so perfect.

Coming to immerse each month allows me to find sanctuary in the beautiful space, the predictable ritual of preparation, the sparkling water embracing me, and the quiet time alone for whispered, heartfelt prayers. Yet my time at Mayyim Hayyim also connects me to others in an intimate bond like no other. I feel close to the gracious Guide who warmly welcomes me upon my arrival and quietly pronounces my immersion kosher. In a broader sense, I feel linked to Jewish women spanning generations past who also immersed monthly in mikvaot (ritual baths) around the world. Mayyim Hayyim also helps me encounter men and women fashioning new rituals for today, where immersions mark milestone occasions like healing from illness, family celebrations, personal passages, and even preparation for hospice care and departure from this world.

I was thrilled to be part of the tenth cohort of Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guides – 16 men and women who have been training for the past two months to be stewards of this precious space and shepherds of all those who enter it. We will now be tasked with preserving the beautiful duality of the mikveh experience – ensuring that all who enter feel confident in their personal journey while supported by their Guide, the Mayyim Hayyim community, and the Jewish people.

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How You Can Support Jewish Disability and Inclusion Awareness Month

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like you to take a minute and think about the different communities in which you participate. Consider your book group, your synagogue, your kid’s school. Think about your role as an organization’s board member, your work environment, or the class you take on Tuesday nights.

Choose one of those groups and reflect on the dynamics that make it what it is: the people, the space, the handouts, the group’s purpose.

Got it all in your head?

Now, imagine your group has just grown by one member; we’ll call her Sarah. She’ll be joining you next week, and she’s got a disability. Maybe she’s deaf. Or perhaps she uses a wheelchair. She may be on the Autism spectrum. Will you be ready for her? How will your members welcome her to participate? Can she get into the building? Will she feel like an outsider once she’s there?

More than likely, there is something you’ve discovered through this hypothetical activity that is less than ideal. Let me be clear: that’s okay. Really. None of our schools, synagogues, camps, or mikvehs are perfect when it comes to inclusion. But that’s just the point. We always have the opportunity to reflect on what’s working and what could be better. As long as we are on a path to improvement and we’re committed to making things better tomorrow than they are today, we’re moving in the right direction.

Of course, that task is sometimes easier said than done. The issues are complex and it may be hard to know how to make change. Here’s the good news: you’re not on your own.

In late February 2016, in honor of Jewish Disability and Inclusion Awareness Month, Mayyim Hayyim is launching a Discussion Guide to complement our Open Waters: Mikveh for Everybody film. Created in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, this resource will serve as a tool to bring to your synagogue, board, camp, or school, to launch meaningful conversations about what inclusion and access looks like in your community.

At Mayyim Hayyim, we know just how many barriers exist to prevent full inclusion of people with disabilities. We’ve grappled with a number of them ourselves over the years. We’re proud of the success we’ve achieved knowing that the mikveh seemingly could not have more barriers to participation, even for the able-bodied. This discussion guide can be used in all kinds of settings and will serve as a jumping off point to assess what’s working and what could be better, inviting your group to make a plan for how to get there.

I encourage you to bring this guide to any of your communities, knowing that simply by having the conversation, your group will be more welcoming for people like Sarah, even before she tries to pave the way on her own.

To make sure you receive information about Mayyim Hayyim’s inclusion Discussion Guide once we launch it later this month, join our mailing list or email us at info@mayyimhayyim.org.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.

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We’re in Good Hands

by Rene Katersky

reneActually, I have felt that Mayyim Hayyim has been in good hands all along. Thoughtful strong leadership, and inspired, inspiring vision has been a cornerstone and continues in abundance.

Having just had three future Mikveh Guides shadow me during two recent shifts, I don’t think this could be more true today. These, now current, Mikveh Guides spent time with me; watching, doing, learning, helping, questioning. They challenged me with questions from all angles, wanting to know about the best and worst scenarios in our work as guides. They spoke repeatedly about being surrounded by the beauty and serenity in our space, and how fortunate they are to have found their way to us. It was clear that they “get it,” that even though they are a bit apprehensive about “going it alone,” they know that being present for our guests in significant ways is of utmost importance. They are impressive additions to our cohorts of Mikveh Guides.

It was a joy to share my experiences with them and brought me back to the many meaningful moments I am honored to have had as a guide for the past six years (Boy, that was fast). They will have them, too.

Thank you Becca, Alison, and Nancy, for all you will do at Mayyim Hayyim and kol ha kavod, much respect to you, as you embark on this most meaningful volunteer work.

And thank you, Mayyim Hayyim, for encouraging the best of the best to be part of our “family.” We are blessed again and again.

Rene Katersky lives in Scituate, MA with her husband Ed. She is a proud mikveh guide and educator at Mayyim Hayyim and serves as an Ambassador with Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, both of which feed her soul.

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Zooming in on Staff Meetings

by Lori Kramer, Office Manager

LoriOne of the parts of the routine at Mayyim Hayyim I have come to look forward to is our every-other-week staff meetings. It is wonderful to hear what everyone else is working on, what education programs are upcoming, immersion stories, statistics, and strategic planning. I’ve learned so much about all the pieces it takes to make this organization run.  That, in turn, has made my work feel more meaningful by seeing how my piece contributes to the bigger picture. I tend to be a details girl; I like to be behind the scenes, make things run smoothly, develop processes that are efficient and make people more productive.

The last half hour of our staff meeting is a shared responsibility.  We rotate through the staff and plan a meaningful activity. Since I have joined the team, we have done everything from going for a walk outside while talking out a work challenge with a colleague, to a text study, to reflecting on our professional goals for the upcoming calendar year.

This week it was my turn to plan the half hour. I thought about activities I have done in past lives, both as a human resources professional and in the Jewish world. I focused in on a group dynamic activity called Zoom, which uses a wordless picture book of the same name by Istvan Banyai. It’s an engaging activity around group dynamics, communication and taking perspective. I handed out two pictures pulled directly from the book, to each member of our staff. I told them their task was to put the story in sequential order. The challenge: they could not show each other their pictures.

As an observer, the group dynamic that followed was fantastic. Everyone worked to share what they thought were the most important details of their pictures. With team-work and determination, they figured out the big picture idea that each picture zooms out from the last. Our staff successfully ordered the pictures, but more importantly, the conversation that followed was helpful in understanding how we work best as a team. We noted that, much like our day-to-day work at Mayyim Hayyim, things go well when we ask good questions and are thoughtful about the way we share information with each other.  I can’t wait to see what we will do at the next staff meeting.

Lori Kramer comes from a Jewish camping background where group dynamics activities are one of her favorite things to plan and participate in.  She often requires her husband, four children, the guinea pig and the lizard to participate in them around the dinner table at their home in Woonsocket, RI.

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No Sharks in the Mikveh

by Rabbi Jen Gubitz

jenLiz wrote to me in an email and shared her excitement with her community on Facebook: “I’m going to Mayyim Hayyim today to immerse in honor of the one year anniversary of my conversion!”

This is the type of note every rabbi dreams of: a woman like Liz who chooses to become Jewish because she is so drawn to what Judaism has to offer; a family who dives deep into the art and practice of Jewish living with vigor; and an organization like Mayyim Hayyim who ensures that we can mark this sacred choice to become Jewish year after year.

“Good news,” Liz’s note concluded, “there are still no sharks in the mikveh!”

One year ago, we were sitting together in the beautiful reception area at Mayyim Hayyim. It was a special day: the day when Emmie and her mother Liz would immerse in the waters of the mikveh to affirm what was already true – that Judaism was central to their lives. There was so much joy in the room, as well as an air of seriousness in the moments before Liz would join my colleagues and me for her beit din conversation about her Jewish journey.

But Liz wasn’t the only serious face in the room.

“Emmie has a really important question, rabbi,” Liz shared with me.

Emmie was excited for the day, too. She had previously toured Mayyim Hayyim with her mom and dad, Jamie, to see the mikveh and talk about their special day. I was intrigued by this unexpected question from vibrant Emmie.

“Emmie, tell me,” I invited, “what do you want to know?”

Typically a talker, in this moment Emmie was sheepish and quiet; eventually Liz chimed in on her behalf.

“Emmie wants to know: Are there sharks in the mikveh?!”

Eyes wide, I asked, “do you think there are sharks in the mikveh?”

Emmie nodded “yes” with certainty.

It was a fair question and I appreciated her intensity. With any body of water, one should always know what they are dipping into!

“Let’s look,” I suggested, “Let’s check and see.” Our mikveh guide helped us enter into the mikveh room to do our research until Emmie was convinced that the water was, in fact, safe and welcoming.

After sharing the journey that brought Liz to Judaism with our rabbis and cantor, Liz and Emmie prepared to enter the sacred waters of Mayyim Hayyim. With an unparalleled joy, Liz immersed first. Through the window above door, her friends and family shouted “amen” to her blessings of immersion and Emmie clapped along as we sang Siman Tov U’Mazel Tov in celebration. After her immersion, Liz carried Emmie down the steps into the waters. Emmie cried for a moment and clung to her mom, but after her dunk, overwhelmed with playfulness, she shouted “again!”

Emmie loved the waters so much that she refused to get out.

I asked Emmie to double check for sharks to make sure the mikveh was safe for future guests. She assured me that it was safe, but grew upset at the thought of leaving the warm waters.

“Emmie” I encouraged, “there is a special prayer we say after a moment such as this. It celebrates being Jewish and it also tells us that while it’s time to get out of the water, we can always come back!”

It goes like this:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, SHARK-IYANU v’kia’manu v’higianu lazman hazeh!

emmie and liz

Rabbi Jen Gubitz is a rabbi at temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.  Raised an Indiana Hoosier, Jen spent her formative summers at the Reform Movement’s Goldman Union Camp Institute, immersed in the art of songleading and community building.   Jen loves Hoosier basketball, Improv Comedy, Earl Gray Tea, Tot Shabbat, and Mussar study. She is very glad there are no sharks in the mikveh.

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Entering the Covenant of her Mothers, Revisted

As the Jewish world evolves, we will continue to create meaningful ways to welcome and honor women and girls within our tradition. Almost one hundred years ago, a Bat Mitzvah was unheard of. Today, a Simchat Bat (a baby naming ritual for a Jewish girl) is becoming more and more commonplace. When we share our stories about the way our ritual needs meet traditional practice, our imaginations grow and Jewish life flourishes. This post from 2013 illustrates one mother’s thought process as she considered a ritual to welcome her newborn girl. We hope you enjoy this post as much as we do.

Entering the Covenant of her Mothers

by Terri Ash

Terri AshIn one of his seminal works, The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soleveitchik speaks of a Covenantal Man. This is the Adam of the second creation story in Genesis. As a Jew, that phrasing has always struck me. We are are a people of a covenant. When our boys are born, we welcome them into that covenant with a Brit Milah, or covenantal circumcision. But what of our daughters?

Continue reading…

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The Waters of My Youth

by Amos Lassen

?Recently I visited Mayyim Hayyim as part of a group from Temple Sinai, Brookline. When I arrived I found myself filled with memories from my childhood. Having been raised Orthodox, I was very familiar with the mikveh and as a youngster I would go regularly with my father. As I grew up, I came to resent a great deal about the Jewish religion and I am sure that this is because I just didn’t understand all that I needed to. The mikveh was one of those things that I hated but thinking about that now, I suppose that was because I had no choice–it was one of the things that the men of the family did together.

It was a different time back then. Today many children are friends with their parents, but when I was growing up, there was a distance between us. We did whatever we were told to do without questioning why; we learned to read Hebrew without knowing the meaning of what we were reading and we observed Shabbat because we were told that was the way things were done.

My mother had her doubts. I remember overhearing a conversation she had with my sister about the mikveh. After my mother’s first bridal immersion years prior, she said she would never go back and she had kept her word. My sister, however, was preparing for marriage and wanted to go. My mother shared her negative experience but did not try to dissuade my sister from immersing. I was reminded of my mother’s apprehension about the mikveh when I visited Mayyim Hayyim recently.

After learning at Mayyim Hayyim, I realized that in rejecting the mikveh, I was missing a great deal. When I was younger, I was always full of questions. I had wondered for example, why we need ten men for a minyan and why we observe holidays from sundown to sundown, but to ask questions like that would mean that I had not been studying. When I did ask, I did not get answers but was told where to go find them. During my recent visit to Mayyim Hayyim, I learned that many shared my curiosity. During our education program, everyone was encouraged to ask questions, and no one was made to feel bad for asking. Visiting Mayyim Hayyim and remembering all of these old memories of mikveh and Jewish ritual in my family has ended up being a way to close one chapter of my life.

Amos Lassen is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. A retired professor of philosophy and literature who lived in Israel for many years, he came back to the States and was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. After being evacuated to Arkansas  friends made arrangements for him to move to Boston in 2012. He maintains reviewsbyamoslassen.com where there are over 10,000 reviews of books and movies.

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