So… my last blog post as executive director of Mayyim Hayyim. I feel as though I have been treading water for the past few weeks, just keeping my head high enough to breathe. Though I’ve been directing an organization totally immersed in marking transitions for 11 years, I did not fully comprehended the depth of actually living through so many life changes at once. Last week I finally took a deep breath, gave myself permission to float for a moment and think back on this extraordinary journey and on where I want to go next.
I was drawn to the idea of building Mayyim Hayyim, back in 2001, when the organization consisted of a passionate group of five founding board members, Anita Diamant, Dr. Paula Brody, Rabbi Barbara Penzner, Roz Garber and Judy Greene, several logo ideas, an inspiring vision, guiding principles and $25,000 in the bank. Before my interview, I checked online for anything relating to mikveh and came up with a mess of stuff ranging from apologetics to messianic to fundamentalist Christian resources on living waters. Clearly there was a need for a new way of thinking about this ritual. That was compelling. There was no organizational structure in place, no lay/professional relationship rife with tension to confront, nothing to undo, just lots to design, build, create. That too was compelling.
But the most energizing part for me was the big picture – we wanted to change the way Jews think about, respond to and interact with each other, with community and with ritual. By focusing on one specific, potentially transformative ritual, immersion in a mikveh, we could really make a difference. Mayyim Hayyim works toward a Jewish community overflowing with creativity, learning, and personally meaningful engagement. We insisted that everyone be welcome – explicitly so – starting with populations historically excluded, like LGBT Jews, interfaith families, adults and children with special needs. We demanded that Jewish life be beautiful, giving weight to aesthetics not for the sake of luxury but for the sake of hiddur mitzvah the rabbinic admonition to enhance our ritual objects, making them more precious. We also argued that it is possible to create a place where Jews, and those becoming Jewish, of all backgrounds and religious styles could come and create a personal experience that meets their needs – in accordance with Jewish law and autonomy.
It’s a heck of a vision. I remember one rabbi telling us that our vision for Mayyim Hayyim was “grandiose.” I think that response fueled me to expand our definitions of inclusion, education and connection even further. Mayyim Hayyim’s vision is grand. It recognizes that people, all types, are searching for meaning and action. Mayyim Hayyim is an active resource- we invite people in, we warmly welcome them, we share our resources, we seek feedback, we collaborate, we experiment, we say yes. This is the way the Jewish community should be.
The fact that mikveh, possibly one of the most mysterious, hidden, and well, unusual Jewish rituals has become an international model of inclusive, welcoming, living Judaism is not to be taken for granted. If we can successfully transform a ritual that requires total immersion, under deep water, naked, often in front of a witness, into a safe and inviting space – so much so that Jewish transgender individuals actually seek us out to mark life transitions, then what does this mean for creating a more inclusive Jewish community at large?
What other rituals, prayers, relationships, congregations, communities can be peeled open, demystified, made welcoming? What will it take for the value of inclusiveness to trump continuity as a motivation for funding? I’ve seen some exciting examples of innovation in startups and legacy organizations who share Mayyim Hayyim’s vision.
Perhaps my next step will be figuring out how Mayyim Hayyim’s success can be less of a trickle and more of a wave – inspiring Jewish leaders (established and emerging), philanthropists, educators and clergy to make real change, one ritual at a time, even if it seems grandiose.
Aliza Kline, Founding Executive Director, has led Mayyim Hayyim from its initial stages, overseeing fund raising, publicity, design, construction, staffing, recruiting volunteers, and board development. In May, 2009, Aliza was awarded an AVI CHAI Fellowship (best described as the “Jewish MacArthur Genius Grant”) in recognition of her accomplishments, creativity and commitment to the Jewish people.