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:

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

Just a Blessed, Holy, Magical, Energizing Experience

by Carrie Bornstein

One hundred eighty-one people have already scheduled an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim for the month of September. By the time the month is over, we’ll be pushing well into the two hundreds. Our guests are coming for all different reasons, of course, but more than anything now we’re seeing women, men, and even children coming in to get ready for the New Year.Pre-Shabbat Immersion, faher and son photo by Rebecca Sher (1)

Ten years ago, for our first High Holiday season, 137 people came during the same time period. That’s about a fifty percent increase from where we started. Word has spread, and more and more people are looking for something – a moment… time and space… maybe even a song while they’re here – to get themselves ready.

So what’s this all about?

Here are some words from this year’s visitors:

“I came to bless my body for an upcoming stem cell donation that I’m giving, my first time at Mayyim Hayyim. Just a blessed, holy, magical, energizing experience and a transformative way to mark the upcoming New Year and other life changes. So much thanks to my amazing friend and Mikveh Guide, Salem, for holding this space for me.” –J.G.

Shanah tovah u’metukah – a sweet and happy New Year!” To a year of more sweetness all over this planet. May we all realize our potential and contribute to the reality of what is possible for each of us to achieve as individuals and collectively.” –L.G.

“My third New Year here – and it’s as renewing as ever.” – S.P.

“It was a beautiful and sweet experience of healing and teshuvah – repentance – as we enter the Days of Awe. Thank you for building such a beautiful mikveh and all your work to keep it going.” – S.C.

“Did not want to get out. I’m ready for the new year (I hope).” – D.K.

“My first New Year’s immersion was a beautiful experience. I hope for a sweet year ahead. I feel truly blessed.” – L.N.

“Thank you for maintaining this sacred sanctuary.” – B.L.

Haven’t made your appointment yet? We’re here for you, when you’re ready.

Say ‘you’re welcome’ to all those who continue to thank us by making a gift to Mayyim Hayyim for the New Year.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. 

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Change and Continuity in the Living Waters

by Gary Waleik

Front and center in the book of Leviticus, tractate Mikva’ot of the Talmud, Chasidic writings and throughout Jewish literature, is the idea that a mikveh is inherently and completely holy. But haven’t we always known that water is sacred somewhere deep in our souls? Water was a means of survival for our ancestors, and continues to be for us today. But more than that, it is revered and celebrated for its holiness by many religions and cultures through ritual and prayer.

Think about the times you’ve gone for a swim at the lake your family visited each summer when you were a kid, or at an ocean beach overflowing with memories, or in a river whose clear, moving waters cooled body and mind on late July evenings.

Remember the sensations as you went completely underwater. Semi-weightlessness set in, sound and vision went somewhat askew as your body adjusted to the water’s temperature. Did you feel different in a way that went beyond the physical? Were you imbued with a sense of holiness, or at least made more aware of something bigger than yourself? Was the DSCF0217experience encouraging to you as you prepared to face the challenges of the coming days, weeks and months?

Oceans, rivers, lakes and ponds have been used for mikveh immersion from biblical times until the present day. If you have ever stepped away from your everyday life and taken a few minutes to immerse in a natural body of water, you may have intuited the power of a mikveh.

At the age of six, my grandparents taught me to swim on the tiny beach of an all-but-hidden glacial pond in southeast Massachusetts. The pond’s shores are ringed with scrub pine and oak, except for a sandy strand no more than twelve feet wide. The sand is so fine that it feels like wet confectioner’s sugar between the toes. The spring-fed pond is relatively small, so in summer the water is always warm and inviting. My family and I made it a point to swim there for twenty years, and each time it was a hallowed pilgrimage. But my grandparents passed away and the nearby cottage was sold.  We simply stopped going. It was heartbreaking.

Seventeen years later, my wife and my sister suggested we return with our families for a summer vacation, so we did. One of our first stops was our favorite little pond. My daughter, who was six at the time, learned to swim on that same tiny beach, in the exact spot I had learned thirty-six years earlier, and where my son would learn two years later.

That day, my daughter popped out of the water and exclaimed with all the glee of a six-year old, “Daddy, I can swim!!!” I embraced the feeling of continuity, which made me happy, thankful and even a little sad at the same time.  My wife and I celebrated with her, and as we did, I submerged so that nobody could see that I was crying. It was a powerful experience.

Though we had obviously not followed the protocols of a kosher mikveh immersion (washing beforehand, saying the blessings) or fulfilled the mitzvah, that wonderful little pond was a mivkeh that day and we were a holy family. The experience energized us. It was a source of strength as we faced the challenges of that year, until we returned again the following summer and restarted the process.

I immerse at Mayyim Hayyim before the High Holidays each year to regain that same sense of holiness and purpose. It’s encouraging to know that no matter how badly I get it wrong during the previous year or how out of touch I am with my better self or how overwhelming daily life can be, I can always reconnect with the Source of holiness and try again.

Mikveh-goer Gary Waleik is Senior Producer of NPR’s Only A Game, the network’s only sports program that has been running for 21 years. He is also a musician and songwriter in beloved indie rock bands Big Dipper and Mars Classroom. He lives in Metrowest with his wife and two children. His son Daniel, (pictured above in a sukkah, and not in a mikveh), immersed at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time last year. 

To schedule an immersion for the High Holidays, or for any occasion, call (617) 244-1836 ext. 1 or click here.

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Five Questions for New Year’s Reflection

by Sherri Goldman

The High HSherriolidays, or Jewish New Year, is a time for reflection.  Every New Year gives us a moment to look back over the past year to see what was successful and what in our lives can use some improvement. It’s a time of year to give ourselves the opportunity to grow and make ourselves better in all areas of life: family, friends, community, work, etc.  For me, the High Holidays is always a time of introspection and meditation, a time for personal planning and goal setting.

Every summer, the Mayyim Hayyim staff gathers at the beautiful Cape Cod home of our 2014-08-21 14.25.28Vice President, Diane Black, for our staff retreat.  It’s refreshing to take time away from the office to form bonds with one another, contemplating our purpose and motives in doing our best work at Mayyim Hayyim. Add in a delicious lunch, walk on the beach, a fun, creative art project, and you have a unique opportunity to talk, work and play. We re-focused and re-energized ourselves as a team – the Mayyim Hayyim Team.

Thinking ahead to the New Year, our staff had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on reflection at the retreat. As Mayyim Hayyim celebrates its ten year anniversary this year, we focused on Sarah From’s Five Questions for New Year’s Reflection, a powerful tool to help us evaluate how we, as a staff and individually, can bring Mayyim Hayyim forward into this New Year and into our next ten years.

Five Questions for New Year’s Reflection

  1. Looking back over the past year, when were you at your best?
  2. What has changed within you this past year and what is just beginning to change within you now?
  3. At the end of this year, what is weighing you down? How can you shift your experience or perception of that which is weighing you down?
  4. Imagine that it is 12 months from now and you’ve had a fantastic, fulfilling year. How did you make that happen?
  5. In the coming year, what are the critical areas for your learning and growth?  What are your first steps for attending to these areas?

Looking out at the beautiful Cape Cod Bay, I thought about what I could learn in this New Year and decided on ways I could challenge myself personally and professionally. It’s hard to start ascending a new learning curve, but I realized that moving myself forward requires getting out of my comfort zone.2014-08-21 10.32.10

As the High Holidays approach, we can all ask these questions to reflect on the past year and the year ahead. If you can’t meditate on these questions at the beach on Cape Cod, stop by Mayyim Hayyim to reflect in our beautiful garden, art gallery, or in our mikva’ot.

Wishing you peace and joy in the New Year!

Sherri is responsible for managing Mayyim Hayyim’s financial and building management operations. Sherri holds an M.B.A. from Suffolk University and is a registered Notary Public in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Sherri also serves as Treasurer of the Medfield Music Association, supporting music education in the Medfield Public Schools and Treasurer of the Sisterhood at Temple Beth David in Westwood.

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Meditations of My Heart For Rosh Hashanah

by Ivy Helman

Rosh Hashanah represents a return to God.  Immersing in a mikveh renews my sense of purpose and grants me a sense of wholeness I just haven’t found elsewhere.  Yet, it’s also so much more than this.

Two thoughts come to mind that truly capture why I go to the mikveh before the High Holidays, as well as why I choose to go to Mayyim Hayyim. First, kavanah, or intention. Number four of their “Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation” reads, “B’tzelem Elohim, I Ivy Helman Appealam made in the image of God…Each person enters the mikveh as naked as the day of his birth, as the day of her birth. Without rank or status. Simply a human being. Gloriously a human being.”  To me, this says that in the mikveh I am exactly as God intended me to be.  There is no pretense, nothing to hide behind.  In the waters of the mikveh, it’s easier to remember that all bodies are beautiful. This reminder opens up a clear and intimate channel through which I talk to God.

Second, the mikveh is where I’ve felt the closest to both God and myself.  The kavanah is palatable.  I’m honest and sincere with God.  We talk, sometimes very seriously, sometimes not.  Sometimes I laugh.  Other times I worry. Occasionally, I sit silently in the presence of God.

Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrey fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’goali

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Tehillim (Psalms) 19:15

Whenever I say these words at the end of the Amidah prayer, I recall my experience in the mikveh and I once again feel as close to God as I did immersing.

Unfortunately, I just moved to Prague, so I won’t be able to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim this year. But I’m content with knowing that pre-holiday immersions will be meaningful for many people. Perhaps you too will consider immersing as a way to prepare for the New Year.

Despite my distance, Mayyim Hayyim is my partner in preparing for the High Holidays each year, as it is for so many people who come to mark transitions in their lives. I hope you’ll join me and become a partner in Mayyim Hayyim’s life-changing work by making a gift to welcome 5775.

With your help, Mayyim Hayyim will continue to bring renewal to our entire community.

May you have a sweet New Year. L’shana tova!

Ivy Helman has her Ph.D. in Religion, with an emphasis in Women’s Studies, from Claremont Graduate University and a master’s degree in religion from Yale University.  Her book, Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents, explores the creation of a Roman Catholic theology of womanhood by church officials. Ivy is a regular contributor to She currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

Join us this Sunday September 14th from 2-5pm, for fabulous teachers and learning at Mayyim Hayyim: “Get Ready: Releasing the Past, Embracing the Future”

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Infinite Vessels

by Donna Leventhal

Vessels: Containing Possibilities,” now in the Mayyim Hayyim Gallery, emerged from the concept of the mikveh itself as a sacred vessel. Mikveh defines and creates a Donna Leventhal bettersacred space that is both physical and spiritual. The individual’s experience in the space is concentrated, intense, and multidimensional. As a person immerses, the water is felt on every nerve on the surface of the body. The connection is total.

A two-part series running through May 2015, “Vessels” opens its fall exhibit on Thursday, September 11 at 5:30 pm. Artists Steven Branfman and Bette Ann Libby will discuss their work and their very different approaches to the concept of vessels.

Steven, a potter working within the discipline of Japanese Raku, is a purist. His pieces are methodical; a pound of clay becomes one bowl. Some of Steven’s vessels have such tiny openings that we cannot see the spaces inside, and are left to sense them. What do they hold? Our mind enters each hidden place, in search of the sacred and untouchable. Yet Steven invites us to touch.

“If you’re not drawn to touch my work,” he says, “I haven’t connected with you.” So we touch, connecting through physical sensation, mirroring the connection that occurs as we enter the waters of the mikveh.

Mosaic artist Bette Ann Libby approaches vessels in another way. She plays with the concept, starting with the utilitarian: the cup, the teapot, the commercial object. Then she shatters it, breaking the vessel into hundreds of pieces. She uses those pieces to create her work, forming entirely new two- and three-dimensional vessels. The tactile quality invites viewers to physically “feel” the container.

kettletableBette Ann’s “Genesis” piece references the Kabbalistic concept of Shvirat HaKeilim, literally “breaking of the vessels.” When the world was created its limited physicality could not contain the Divine light, and “shattered” into innumerable pieces. The Jewish people are challenged with tikkun olam – repairing the world, mending these broken vessels. Bette Ann’s process is a physical representation of this mending. She constructs new wholeness out of shattered pieces, creating vessels that are stronger than the brokenness from which they emerged. Similarly, the mikveh helps us mark life passages – from giving birth and marriage to illness, divorce, or trauma – and emerge with new found wholeness. If the world is the ultimate vessel, Bette Ann’s work reminds us that we can find great strength in reconstructing the shattered.

Both Steven and Bette Ann found strength in their art, which helped them face devastating family illness. Bette Ann responded to her mother’s struggle with cancer by creating “fetishes,” mythical artifacts of comfort and support. The act of creating this “fetish pottery” became a powerful misheberach, prayer for the sick, which Bette Ann “said” for her mother.

Steven faced a crisis when his son Jared was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s. While Jared was on a medical leave from art school undergoing treatment, father and son worked together in Steven’s studio, exploring the ancient art of Japanese ceremonial tea bowls. Jared passed away two and a half years later. A week after Jared’s passing, Steven went into the studio hoping to find peace. Instead he found grief. The next day he went in again, sat at his wheel and threw a tea bowl. The following day he went in again and threw seven more and then one each day. They were the only pots he made for a year, a total of 365 bowls. A Kaddish for his son.

After the exhibit was installed at Mayyim Hayyim, Steven brought in one more piece, that very first bowl, Jared’s yahrzeit bowl. Steven has brought it out to share with the Mayyim Hayyim community, and we are deeply honored.

When we touch this bowl, our fingers intertwine with the imprint of Steven’s hands. The coarse texture of the bowl brushes our skin and fires up our nerve endings. We come to know and honor a young potter we have never met.

Every week, people come to Mayyim Hayyim, seeking wholeness. In curating “Vessels,” we never expected that these artists, and the vessels they created, would connect so deeply to the way a mikveh can bring shalom, completion and peace, in moments of transition and hurt. How much do these vessels hold? The answer is infinite.

Donna Leventhal is a member of the Mayyim Hayyim Art Committee, and curated  Vessels: Containing Possibilities with Stepheny Riemer. She is a silversmith at Metalmorphasis, an art studio in Dedham, Ma.

We hope you’ll join us on Thursday, September 11th, 5:30-7:00 for our opening reception and artist talk. More info here.

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Immersed and Coated

by José Portuondo-Dember

It’s easy to think of going to the mikveJose Photoh in terms of “washing away.” My very first experience with a ritual bath was my baptism in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant. It was couched in the language of washing away original sin. As I turned to Judaism and began learning the rules and scenarios that require use of a mikveh, the emphasis always seemed to be on getting clean of some kind of impurity. It makes a certain sense: water is great for washing away the grime, sweat and dirt that build up on our bodies; we use it to wash dishes so that we can eat off them again.

Yet, for all the logic of the image, I have never liked it.

Partly, it’s because I have a hard time with the concept of getting spiritually clean. I don’t like the ways that applying the concept of purity to people is often a stepping stone to deciding certain folks need to be gotten rid of. People are mixed up and messy and I’m not interested in pretending otherwise. Furthermore, at a personal level, while I have certainly felt the need to repair negative consequences of mistakes that I’ve made, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of ‘washing away’ some part of my past. Most of my mistakes have been learning experiences and they have certainly shaped the person that I am today.

That’s why I love that the traditional blessings for the mikveh say nothing at all about washing, or purifying, or becoming clean. Instead, the key verb is immersion.

When I went to the mikveh to mark my return to the Judaism of my ancestors, I wasn’t going to wash away the Catholicism I had been raised in. I’ve never wanted to pretend that I didn’t grow up Catholic. It’s a part of my personal history that I will always cherish. Going to the mikveh wasn’t about not being Catholic anymore, it was about entering Judaism. I was going to mark my full immersion into Judaism: heart, body and soul.

Similarly, the next major mikveh event of my life came shortly before I married my husband in 2010. Once again, my intention had nothing to do with washing anything away. In a couple of days I would become someone that I had never been before, a husband, and it only becomes more true every day that this is a role that can’t be compartmentalized. Going to the mikveh was about diving fully into this new adventure and letting it surround and infuse me with everything it had to offer.

In a way, I see going to the mikveh as analogous to glazing ceramics. The dunking isn’t about leaving something behind—it’s about picking something up. It’s about being immersed and coated, and bringing some of that essence back with me as I engage my future.

 José is a descendant of the Jews of Spain that converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. He cherishes the religious legacies of Catholicism, Judaism and Lucumí that are deeply interwoven in the Spanish Caribbean cultures. As an M.Div. candidate at Andover Newton Theological School, one of his primary vocational interests is understanding and meeting the needs of people that have connections to multiple religious traditions.


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