Happy Birthday, Tree

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaJudaism is replete with tree-human stories and metaphors. Something about the way the branches reach out to the heavens and how those tenacious roots grab hold of the earth has captivated our imaginations. Not incidentally, we have thrived through the sustenance that trees provide us; their shade, fruit, and oxygen have been a big part of our survival on this planet.

This Tuesday evening is Tu Bishvat, our annual birthday-bash for the trees. There are many things said and written about the mystical origins of Tu Bishvat, but for very practical reasons, our ancestors relied on this day of the year to know how old a tree was. One of the agricultural laws first outlined in the Torah and later expounded upon in Rabbinic literature was that we must wait until a tree is in its fifth year before we can eat its fruit; this practice is called orlah. Unless you are a ‘Tree Whisperer’ it’s hard to ask a tree how old it is, and frankly, very sad and wasteful to chop it down just to count its rings. For this reason and for others discussed in the Jewish agricultural laws, a new year of the trees was needed.

Today, we know Tu Bishvat as a time of year when we bring out the dates, olives, barley –those archetypal fruits of the land of Israel– and follow a seder, or order, to celebrate these new fruits. In the last few months, I’ve become more aware of the many children who come for immersion at Mayyim Hayyim. I may not be a newbie here anymore, but I am still really taken aback by the young people who have embraced this ancient ritual. I can say for sure that I am not living in the world of my grandmother’s scary Uzbek mikveh. I live in a world where where there have been over a thousand boys and girls in the greater Boston area who have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim. As I anticipate the fruits of the seder this year, I have begun to think about young people as the fruit of their parents’ and communities’ labor. We may not have a definitive system of rules for parenting akin to Jewish agricultural laws, but each family has values and boundaries that allow their children to grow up as unhindered by the world around them as possible.

Tu Bishvat is a moment to celebrate the sweetness of the fruits that have ripened. It is our communal thank you for the work that had to happen for these fruits to grow and make their way to us. In honor of Tu Bishvat and the parents that have supported their children in so many ways, I’m sharing a couple entries from our guest book from young people who have come to Mayyim Hayyim. It is a testament to their own uninterrupted growth and the strength they drew from those around them that they arrived at the transition they came here to mark, with hopefulness and appreciation.

leeza tree

Happy Tu Bishvat!

“Today was my first time at the mikveh. I was getting mentally prepared for weeks now. I got a little nervous. The mikveh guide gave me the tour and told me the instructions. When I was getting ready I looked in the mirror and smiled when my mom combed my hair. As I went in, I felt like an older big girl. I enjoyed it so much. I hope I can come back soon! This was for my Bat Mitzvah”

“On this day, my sister became Jewish. I honor today for she is only one year old! I am her brother, nine years old, and I cherish this day to remember.”

Leeza Negelev is Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She really loves trees and children. 

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No Longer on the Outside

by Andie Insoft, Mikveh Guide 

Just a “few” years ago, when I was a teenager, if someone had told me that I would someday be a mikveh guide, I would have said they were absolutely crazy.  I grew up in a fairly traditional, Conservative, Jewish home.  We kept kosher, attended services (at least 3 times a year), lit Shabbat candles every week and NEVER went out to dinner on a Friday night, but andiemikveh was nowhere in my vision.  I thought it was cool, when, at age ten, I went to Israel and saw the mikva’ot on top of Masada; but using a mikveh was clearly for the old or the Orthodox, and I was neither.

As I got older, the idea of community became increasingly important to me – particularly Jewish community. Being part of a Jewish community was completely foreign to me until we moved back to the Boston area from San Francisco when our daughter was three-years-old. Growing up I attended a Christian school where the Lord’s Prayer was said every morning.  We attended chapel every Monday and had lovely Christmas pageants.  I had few Jewish friends and even fewer who were as observant as I.  Even so, I didn’t realize how out of place I was, until I actually stopped saying the Lord’s Prayer and sat quietly during it. No one knew what a Bat Mitzvah was and never mind the “weird” things I ate for Passover.

When our daughter was three, she attended Temple Emeth pre-school, and I am forever grateful to them for the sense of identity that they gave her and us as a family. I began to further explore my own Jewish identity as my husband and I created a Jewish home for our daughter and then later, our son.  I was curious about the ability of Judaism and feminism to co-exist – something I thought could never happen given the apparent patriarchy which I saw in much of Jewish practice (and in my own family).

I began learning more by attending workshops and listening to friends and family who were more knowledgeable than I.  And then I learned about Mayyim Hayyim and the plans to build it.  Mayyim Hayyim’s mission statement about the founders’ desire to “reclaim and reinvent one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals – immersion in the mikveh – for contemporary spiritual use,” rang a long and insistent bell for me that would not quiet down until I became involved.  So, I dipped a toe in and joined Mayyim Hayyim’s women’s Torah study group.  Even the title of the group resonated for me: “Women’s Voices, Women’s Wisdom.”  It was a chance to find my voice, to help other women find theirs, and be a Jew in a way that is authentic to me. These were things I’ve always wanted to do and for which I have never had the time.  Now, each month, I eagerly look forward to meeting with Rabbi Beth Naditch and my fellow students.  We have become a community, learning from and listening to each other.  These are women whom I admire and respect.

After getting my feet wet with Torah study, I realized it was time to immerse more fully.  I waited for Mayyim Hayyim’s mikveh guide training.  And then after months of study and shadowing, it happened: I was a Mikveh Guide.

I have been honored to be a part of so many people’s transitions.  There was the couple who came to immerse together to mark their 9th month of pregnancy and to pray for a healthy delivery.  And then there was the couple who came together to mourn a miscarriage.  Or the hug from the young girl who immersed with her mother two days before becoming a Bat Mitzvah. How can I forget the joyous young woman who completed her conversion at Mayyim Hayyim and then immediately wed her fiancé in our celebration space? Every single time I guide at Mayyim Hayyim I arrive full of excitement and a little nervousness.  I never know what the day will hold, yet I’m prepared to give each immersee what he or she needs.  I walk part of a journey with them and I give them the space they need to just “be.”

The theme for this year’s “Women’s Voices”  is bachootz ha’ machaneh or outside the camp.  In our class, we are asking: what did it mean in biblical times to be outside the camp?  What does it mean today?  In the past, I have felt on the outside, but I don’t anymore. Having a home at Mayyim Hayyim is a big part of why.

Andie is a clinical social worker who specializes in women’s mental health. She shares her home with her husband, Rob, their 17 year old son, Adin, and their quirky dogs, Shadow and Charlie.  Her daughter, Rachel, has successfully launched and is living it up in DC.  In addition to her family and her work, Andie’s passions include yoga, chocolate and the color blue.


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There Must be Something in the Water

by Carrie Bornstein

Last week I had the fortune of teaching a group of undergrads at Harvard Hillel and we spent some time looking at texts on the power of water. In addition to the waters of creation when God separated the heaven from the waters of the earth, we also explored waters of destruction – stories like God sending the flood to wipe out humanity and the parting of the Red Sea that left the Egyptians drowning in its wake. We thought of real-world examples, too, like hurricane Sandy, and even the fear of getting caught in the undertow of a strong current in the ocean.

We watched a clip of a show that PBS produced years ago about a woman named Sue Busch and her experience at Mayyim Hayyim. (Feel free to skip ahead to 1:17 on the video where the content begins.)

Sue is a nurse who traveled to Indonesia to do relief work following the tsunami in 2004. When she returned, her rabbi suggested that she visit the mikveh in order to reclaim her relationship with water. The students I taught realized that whenever water serves as a force for destruction, an opportunity for creation often lies just behind it.

One participant astutely came back to the text of creation and found that God’s presence was hovering on the face of the water. With our water today being the same as the water of creation, God’s presence remains.

I don’t know what it is – but it seems like there must be something in the water at Mayyim Hayyim. Coming out of 2014 we found that we had more immersions than ever before: a total of 1,402 by 926 people. Not an insignificant increase as compared to 2013, when 876 people immersed a total of 1,325 times. Interestingly, when we looked at the different reasons people visited Mayyim Hayyim, we found that immersions for challenging life transitions – things like marking the loss of a loved one, healing from a miscarriage, beginning cancer treatments – those immersions increased one hundred percent in the fourth quarter of 2014 compared with the same time period in 2013.

Simply put, life is tough. We will never lack reasons to heal, but I am thankful that more and more people are finding God’s presence on the surface of the water at our mikveh.

Perhaps not coincidentally, here’s what one woman wrote at the very same time I was teaching this program:

FullSizeRender (2)“Wonderful experience. Made tears in my eyes. I am currently going through cancer treatments and the prognosis is not good. But today I felt renewed and filled with hope. Thank you.”

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.

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A Place for Everything

by Rabbi Jenny Solomon

jenny solomonWhere is your “happy place?”  Some people picture themselves on a sunlit beach.  Others have a favorite niche in their homes.  Still others conjure up a vacation destination that holds warm memories and sacred traditions.  But what if your “happy place” was also your “sad place,”  your “worried place,”  your “gratitude place,” your “vulnerable place,” and your “in between place?”  What if it was your “everything place?”

One of the things that I marvel at, after visiting the mikveh regularly for almost twenty years, is that the mikveh is all of these places for me, and more.  The mikveh is one of those rare places that is big enough to hold it all— my tears of loss and devastation as well as my tears of accomplishment and triumph, and everything in between.

As I grow as a rabbi and a fellow seeker, I increasingly find that living soulfully means resisting the urge to label experiences and moments as only “this,” and not “that.”  The dualistic model, so common in our Western society, encourages us to judge things as either “good” or “bad,” “happy” or “sad.” This mode of thinking and feeling makes little room for us to experience life as it usually is— mixed-up, complicated, nuanced, and ripe with of all sorts of seemingly contradictory thoughts and feelings.

But the mikveh invites us to explore our souls and experience our bodies in a much more holistic way.  I like to imagine the mikveh as a holy container, so expansive and robust, that it can hold all my feelings and experiences without forcing me to chose any particular one at the expense of another.

The first time the etymological root of “mikveh” appears in the Torah is in Genesis 1:9.  We read: “And God said, ‘Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so.”  The word for “gather” used in this verse— yikavu (koof, vav, hey) is the same root used in the word, “mikveh.”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יִקָּווּ הַמַּיִם מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמַיִם אֶל מָקוֹם אֶחָד וְתֵרָאֶה הַיַּבָּשָׁה וַיְהִי כֵן:

How is the mikveh that we know today connected to the notion of “gathering” expressed in this foundational verse in the Torah?  This is a question I often pose to the many students who come to study and immerse at Libi Eir Awakened Heart Community Mikveh at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Their answers are as varied and poignant as their individual spiritual journeys.  But for me, the answer to this question is profoundly clear.  The mikveh is the place in which I am gathered to myself, gathered to my ancestors, and gathered into union with the Holy One of Blessing.  It is the place that invites me to welcome all my disparate “parts,” feelings, experiences, longings, prayers, and dreams and allow them to find expression.  The waters of the mikveh envelop me with a loving embrace that calls out: “Make room for it all.  Leave nothing out.  Every feeling, every experience, every thought is welcome.”

So where is my “happy place”?

The mikveh is my “happy place” because it is my “everything place.”

Rabbi Jenny Solomon, D. Min. is founder and director of Libi Eir Awakened Heart mikveh in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She is incredibly proud to be known as Mayyim Hayyim’s “first-born.” Jenny also serves Beth Meyer Synagogue and the wider Triangle area through her pastoral and educational work as well as her leadership in prayer. 

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Rules and Engagement

by Walt Clark, Office Assistant

10606485_10101343564453022_869520489535807548_nI remember a few years ago, a friend of mine signed up to be a Couchsurfing host. Couchsurfing.com is a website where people offer up their homes to travelers. Over the course of that summer I got talk to a lot people from all corners of the globe. One evening, I was barbecuing and talking to a young Australian about his experience visiting America.

He said, “I was imagining your country would be a lot newer. Like when you go to Paris, you expect the buildings to be old, because they have been around for a long time. America is young, I expected it to look that way. But, it looks like so many places are straight out of a 70’s movie.”

This was jarring to me. Growing up on the East Coast, I had always been surrounded by old buildings and they had always been spoken about as a virtue in my family. Growing up near New York City and then living in New Orleans, two of the oldest and most architecturally diverse cities in the country, I saw the buildings on the street as works of art that could survive the elements.  And yet with certain buildings, you can see how they’ve aged and been neglected. Bridges that are more brown than steel, facades where you aren’t sure what color the paint used to be. It reminds me that places are not just the buildings we put there, but the people and institutions that live within them and care for their exterior.

Reflecting on Martin Luther King day, it seems as if there are many institutions in this country that are similarly left in disrepair, exposed to the elements without renovation. In the recent case of police brutality in New York, I see institutions that were originally created to protect human lives and are doing the exact opposite. The legacy of Dr. King is in his example of calling for attention and action to the places we live–the lunch counters, schools, and buses of our day to day life– and saying that they can, and should, be so much better. His legacy was in galvanizing people to reform institutions that have become calcified by hundreds of years of history.

I am not going to pretend that Mayyim Hayyim is on the forefront of solving the biggest problems our country faces. That is not our mission. But our mission is based around being a community mikveh. In practice, that means that even though we live in a world where differences of opinion, affiliation, and identity sometimes fracture Jewish relationships across countries, states and among individuals, Mayyim Hayyim strives to be a home to anyone looking to celebrate, grieve, or mark a milestone. This isn’t easy. The work requires empathy and patience. Ten years in, we are still figuring out how to honor everyone’s moments of transition with reverence and dignity. We honor Dr. King’s legacy today by always saying our work can be better.

Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office assistant and jack of all trades.  He is a working keyboardist in Boston, playing Black American Music and leads the acid-funk outfit Roxo Gato as well as performing in a variety of groups. You can follow him on Twitter @walt_twitwalker and on Instagram @welaxer.

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Finding Myself in Living Waters

by Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

RJC Headshot FinalI first breathed the words “mikveh,” “maybe,” and “going to” my third year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, the Reform Movement’s seminary. Well-intentioned classmates and friends – whom I admire and adore – were surprised. Some were skeptical. Their reactions were likely born from the same source as my own misgivings about mikveh: progressive upbringings and a strong feminist ethos that felt at odds with the traditional language and practice of niddah – monthly immersion tied to the rhythm of the female body.

Yet two things compelled me: first, I made a promise to myself that during the year 5771 I would experiment with more traditional aspects of Jewish life: keeping kosher, observing shabbat, and praying in more traditional spaces, to name a few. My goal was to engage with rituals and practices outside the Reform world in which I had grown up, knowing this would deepen my rabbinic knowledge and experience.

While the first impetus was mostly professional, the second was wholly personal. By the fall of my third year I had endured nearly one year of independence following the painful end of a long-term relationship. As the anniversary approached, I craved a creative Jewish ritual to mark and honor one full year on my own.

The ladies of the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh at American Jewish University in Los Angeles understood all this. One warm November afternoon they welcomed me to that sacred space, guiding me through a profoundly spiritual and unique immersion into the thick waters of their mikveh.

My experience there became more than a rite of passage or source of emotional release. It richly and generously colored the remainder of my time in rabbinical school. It opened my eyes to the possibility of marking life’s many moments of transition with Jewish ritual – far beyond the standard bris, bar mitzvahwedding, and funeral to which we Jews are accustomed. It helped me learn to identify the very real and raw liminal moments in which we humans often find ourselves: standing on a threshold, hanging in the balance, seeking resolution.

That mikveh visit eventually led to the creation of a joint senior thesis – along with my chevruta (study partner) Rabbi Deana Sussman – on the theory, practice, and innovation of Jewish lifecycle ritual. Our research led us to Mayyim Hayyim, the true epicenter of ritual innovation in the Jewish world today.

The key objective of Mayyim Hayyim is simple: to provide all Jews from all denominations and backgrounds the opportunity of a sacred Jewish ritual experience. That’s something we rabbis try to inspire in our congregants and communities each day.

Yet just six months into my rabbinate I have already come to realize the many emotional, intellectual, political and financial barriers that stand between countless individuals and what those living waters dare to do. Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox Jews do not always feel welcome in a traditional mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim opens the door for experimentation and a true communal use of mikveh.

Not every Jewish ritual requires a mikveh, but every ritual’s success depends on the openness, dynamism, creativity, and warmth exemplified by Mayyim Hayyim. While their staff and volunteers have created a physical space that is safe, inviting, and warm, the true impact of their work extends countless miles beyond Boston. The support they provide is unparalleled, their innovations are inspiring, and their reach must grow.

In 2014, the concept of mikveh simultaneously became more taboo and intriguing, particularly in the aftermath of a certain Washington DC-based Orthodox rabbi’s violation of that sacred space. It is my hope and prayer that 2015 shows us a powerful reclaiming of the mikveh and a wholehearted embrace of the innovative rituals that make modern Jewish life so exciting, dynamic, and meaningful.

I’m proud to support Mayyim Hayyim with my words, contributions, and in my rabbinate because I know they are an organization that takes seriously the sacred task of redefining and reinterpreting Jewish tradition – for us and for generations to come.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen serves as assistant rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. A native of Los Angeles,  she was ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in May 2014.


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Under Construction

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

construction in mikveh 2Things were kind of noisy during the past few weeks here at Mayyim Hayyim. We brought in contractors to redo all of the floor tiling on the wet side downstairs. When Mayyim Hayyim was originally built about a decade ago, the design included lovely, big squares of wood paneling amidst the tile, both in the reception and mikveh areas. Unfortunately, it turns out that over the course of a decade wood tends to expand, ever so slightly, which in our case led to the tiles developing huge, ugly cracks. This was harshing our “beautiful mikveh” mellow, to say the least. Plus we could not have people tripping all over cracked tile. So, it was time for a redo. I don’t know what the exact steps are in retiling a floor, but apparently they involved lots of banging and heavy machinery. The good news is that it looks absolutely gorgeous; you are of course invited to come check it out for yourself.

DeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_Coincidentally, my home was also rather noisy of late — or noisier, I have young kids. Two weeks ago, my father-in-law, Mitch, flew up from Florida with the goal of helping my husband Yaakov gut and renovate our downstairs bathroom. We bought a new house and moved in about a month ago. It’s a great house, but unfortunately came without a bathtub in which to wash the aforementioned young children. My husband assured me that we would have a new bathroom, complete with tub, by the new year.


The Bathroom: Before

This would mean enlisting Mitch to come up and be of (enormous) help. I’ve always admired the relationship between my husband and his father. On my side of the family, we never stop talking about our feelings, while the Komisars don’t really get into all that. They’re very close and speak regularly, but somehow connect on deep emotional levels via conversations about car restoration, home repair, and assorted gadgetry. I don’t mean this condescendingly; I’m inspired by their ability to bond over these things. They say plenty to one another without needing to say anything.

This would be the first time we would see Mitch since an emotionally turbulent summer, and there was healing to be had. I naively thought this might take the form of the messy hugging and crying that is my family’s second nature, but I should have known better.

The therapy was direct and intense: for seven strenuous days, Yaakov and Mitch gutted the bathroom down to the studs, then retro-fitted 2014 fixtures, electricity, and plumbing into 1872 construction. There were approximately 14,327 trips to Home Depot. There was a lot of cursing and grunting and highly skilled work done. Mitch and Yaakov labored well into the new year, laying the floor and wall tile of our state-of-the-art new bathroom, and then collapsed before getting up again to drive to the airport for Mitch’s flight home.

Bathroom: Almost Done!

Bathroom: Almost Done!

When I immerse at Mayyim Hayyim in the future, I’ll appreciate the beautiful new tile as well as the hard work that went into it. The healing and renewal that people will continue to experience here will be a direct result of this labor. When I bathe my kids (and myself) in our fancy new bathroom, I’ll know that its construction was itself a process of healing and renewal, in which nothing–and everything–was said.

after mikveh

DeDe Jacobs-Komisar is the Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She loves her family, her father-in-law, her husband, her kids, and her new bathroom.

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