Freedom on the Other Side

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

CBTapestryOne morning at Mayyim Hayyim, the doorbell rang. I picked up on the intercom with my usual, “Hi, can I help you?” and was met with a nervous, “Hi… I, um… I wanted to get some information?”

I slapped on my nametag and went downstairs to greet our guest. The woman, likely not that much younger than I, apologized almost immediately for the tears that were about to come.

She explained how she’d immersed at Mayyim Hayyim before her wedding, and felt that she had to come back. “My marriage has gone seriously downhill,” she continued, “and I just feel safe here.”

I thanked her for coming and offered to get her a glass of water.

Yes, I said. I was glad she came.

I spent the next fifteen minutes or so trying to assess what kind of help she was looking for, and what exactly we could offer. I ran through a mental checklist of community resources… support groups, therapists, Journey to Safety, and it wasn’t until the very end of my list that I spoke with her about considering an immersion in the mikveh, if it ever felt right. I explained the slippery slope that sometimes arises – there is no magic here. The mikveh will not make everything better, nor will it cause all of life’s jumbled pieces to fall into place. It can, however, mark a step on the journey, bringing a level of consciousness and meaning not necessarily there otherwise.

The thing that struck me most was what she said next. “I feel like my life has been one danger zone after another – I run from something scary, and yet I always come to water. The thing is, I never know what’s coming next – it’s just a big unknown.”

Like crossing the Red Sea.

“In every generation each person is obligated to see oneself as though she/he personally came out of Egypt.”

For some, it’s easier than others.

Each of us carries around things we try to run away from. Sometimes, a stop at the water, that unknown threshold between the past and the future, can be just the right place to unload it for a bit.

Whether your own personal Egypt seems big or small, I invite you to come immerse at Mayyim Hayyim in preparation for Passover to mark that step on your journey. It just might be the one you need to take to move towards freedom on the other side.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.

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Make a Big Mess and Play with Everything and Other Educational Models

by Deborah Skolnick Einhorn

deborah S einhorn

Nine of us crowded around the mikveh.  I sat on the floor with several of my students, while others leaned against the door jamb, squatted by the side of the ‘pool,’ or leaned against a wall.  From my vantage point on the floor, I was struck by the variety and state of our shoes.  One student, an experiential educator who teaches on ropes courses and outdoor adventures, wore his muddied work boots.  Others wore their by now tired snow boots, covered with a month’s worth of snow, dirt and salt from walking around campus or sledding with their teens. No one had asked us to remove them.

We had Mayyim Hayyim to ourselves for two hours and our group of CJP/Hebrew College JEEP (Jewish Emerging Educational Professionals) Fellows had been encouraged to snoop around.  In pairs and armed with scavenger hunt lists and clipboards, they poked into closets, examined the showers and medicine cabinets, all for signs of Mayyim Hayyim’s Mission and its Seven Principles.  Embracing the audacious hospitality of our educator hosts, the students roamed while they discussed their discoveries: diapers in one room, shaving cream in another, nail polish remover here and q-tips everywhere.  These were clues to the range of Mayyim Hayyim’s mikveh users, and how each unique space sought to graciously welcome them.

As the scavenger hunt wrapped up, I headed back to our table in the education center where I assumed we would debrief.  A few minutes later, still alone, I went to find my students, who had gathered around the mikveh with our Mayyim Hayyim hosts and educators.  This small but intentional decision, to debrief mikveh-side, dramatically changed the process of reflection.  One student laid down to test the water’s temperature.  The space was demystified and open for interrogation.

This all reminded me of how a good friend welcomed my children to her home for the first time. As she squatted at their level by the front door, she told them about the house rule: “You need to make a big mess and play with everything . . . but you are NOT allowed to clean up!”  This delighted my kids and encouraged them to play with abandon and to feel at home immediately (though I’m sure it made for quite a bit of work for our hosts). Likewise at Mayyim Hayyim, my students and I were invited into an immaculate and often private space with our dirty boots and our questions.  We were encouraged to snoop around, to explore and to play.

In our time together, we discussed the history of mikveh, ritual innovation, experiential education and change-oriented leadership.  Yet, the modeling of welcoming space and open educators, hands-on experience and reflection, and the keep-your-boots-on hospitality were likely just as impactful on these educators as they develop their own philosophies of embracing their learners to come as they are.

Deborah Skolnick Einhorn is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Education and the Assistant Dean for Academic Development and Advising in Hebrew College’s Shoolman School of Jewish Education. Deborah’s teaching and research focuses on education, sociology and the history of American Jews, and particularly on women’s organizations and philanthropy.  She received her Ph.D. from Brandeis University and is also an alumna of Tufts University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.  

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Springing Forward

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

DeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_“Spring,” that mythic season of thaw and bloom, arrives this weekend. Boston has yet to be convinced. It’s 26 degrees outside as I write this, with the same three feet of snow on the ground as have been there since January. Last week it was sunny and got up to 45 and it really seemed like we had turned a corner. By the weekend, it was snowing.

I may have had a quiet little breakdown.

After a long, harsh winter, I feel like we’re all in desperate need of a spiritual, mental, and emotional jumpstart. We’re ready for a change. So it’s time to stop waiting for our messianic age of spring to come upon us — it’s time to create our own spring. Forget these so-called “Arctic temperatures” and “wind chill” and “ice dams.” The weather may still be freezing, and even if you’re lucky enough to live in a more temperate climate (stop gloating), I invite you to join me in my Spring Yourself Forward (TM) program: I’ve decided to give up on spring coming and to be proactive. So what if it’s still freezing outside? Let’s make our own spring happen! Just follow these easy steps and you’ll be living your own spring in no time:

1) Make a Spring Reminder: Start the Spring Yourself Forward process by personally welcoming in spring in your home. Buy a plant, paint a picture, write a poem — create a representation of the spring you want to see, and put it where you’ll see it every day.

2) Clean Something: Yeah, I know. Boring. But necessary! It will feel so good to clean out that old closet or drawer, to straighten up that spare bedroom or office. Get rid of the clutter, spray some Febreze, and give your surroundings a fresh start.

3) Get Rid of Stuff: Go through your house and make a Goodwill and/or trash bag of everything you don’t need. If you haven’t worn it or used it all winter, it’s gone. Face it, you’re never going to go through that stack of old magazines or put together all of the puzzle pieces your toddler scattered through the house. Get ’em out!

4) Move Your Body: Go to the gym, take a class, do yoga, dance around the house to Spotify, it doesn’t matter. Energize yourself out of hibernation.

5) Dress for the Sun You Want: I’m not saying to go outside in a sundress and flip-flops, but start wearing more bright colors, even a sun hat.

6) Immerse in a Mikveh: Welcome in spring spiritually by marking the transition to a new season, one of budding life, freedom, and creation. If you like, use Mayyim Hayyim’s Preparation for Passover Immersion Ceremony, which emphasizes springtime renewal.

poppy

If you will it, it is no dream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe if enough of us spring ourselves forward, we can collectively will *actual* spring to happen. But no more waiting around. Who’s with me?

DeDe Jacobs-Komisar is the Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim and the inventor of the Spring Yourself Forward Program (patent pending, all rights reserved).

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Renewed, Refreshed, Ready

by Eliana Southworth

trazi fountainI’ll always remember that July afternoon visit to the Trevi Fountain—the clear blue water glistening under the Roman sun while crowds of visitors, armed with cameras, stood in awe of Bernini’s masterpiece. There, my painting professor told us the legend. To get ready, you stand with your back to the fountain and toss coins over your left shoulder with your right arm. Toss one coin to insure your return to Rome, two coins to meet a new romance, and three coins to lead you to marriage. I figured, “when in Rome,” as I tossed all the coins I had in my change purse over my shoulder.

The sound of the coins splashing the water’s surface, immersing in the fountain, reminded me of the animation I had completed for my motion graphics course that previous semester. Our assignment was to create a movie that communicated something about travels or a journey, whether physical, spiritual or emotional.

Coming off the heels of my quarter-life crisis and three years of soul-searching in California, I wanted to create an animation that reflected my emotional and spiritual journey—one that marked a period of personal growth, healing from childhood trauma and broken trust, to a place of being ready to create space in my life for a partner and love.

 

I was inspired by the idea of the mikveh but had never actually been to one, much less immersed. On my first visit to tour Mayyim Hayyim I was struck by the beauty and intention of such a sacred space. There, it became clear to me that watercolor was the best medium for expressing fluidity and immersion. I wanted the piece to feel meditative and reflect the undulating feel of being in the water. I realized that I also wanted to save my first actual immersion experience to mark the special transition to marriage.

While at the mikveh I picked up copies of the Gratitude and Toward Healing ceremonies. I connected with the healing words and wove them into the animation. The creative process of making “Hineni” helped release the burden of secrets and discover forgiveness within myself. Its completion marks a close of one chapter in my life and the beginning of the next.

When I returned from sunny Italy to autumn in Boston, I met my future husband. We both worked at the same university at the time but found each other online. Apparently the magic of the Trevi Fountain had lead me to a new romance and marriage, after all.

Before our wedding, I took off a few days from work and again thought of “Hineni” as I prepared for my immersion in the mikveh and my transition to this new stage of life. The title, “Here I am,” comes from the first of Seven Kavannot (intentions) for Mikveh Preparation, written by Mayyim Hayyim. It inspired these words, taken from my journal that day:

“I’ve been thinking a lot about feeling ‘ready’ for this wedding and this marriage. The mikveh marks a transition—and it certainly did. It brought me from a place of rushing around in the craziness and chaos of wedding planning to a place of quiet and stillness, feeling in the moment and properly ‘ready’ for this event. I am ready for marriage and to make such a public commitment.

I got ready for almost an hour—cleaning completely—nothing can come between you and the water.  I took off my nail polish, shaved, flossed and bathed, and then called for the Guide to come to the mikveh. She stood behind a sheet and made sure I dunked three times completely under water. She loudly said ‘kasher’ after each dunk so I knew I had gone all the way under.

After she left, I dunked three times on my own: 1) for who I was, my past, my healing, my becoming whole, 2) for me and him, who we are now as we make this commitment to each other, and 3) for who we will become together, in our marriage and our adventure together.

And then I floated—trusting that the universe has my back and will hold me up and support me when I need it most. The warm embrace of the water felt inviting and solitary. I was renewed, refreshed, ready.”

eliana hubby

photo credit: Lovely Valentine Photography

 

Eliana Southworth is a corporate Senior Graphic Designer who works in Watertown, MA. She spends much of her time developing videos, animation and multimedia. She holds a Master of Arts in Graphic Design from NESAD at Suffolk University and a Bachelor of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute. You can follow her design portfolio and blog at www.elianarosedesign.com. Eliana volunteers on the New Center NOW Executive Council and serves as co-chair of the DIY Arts Circle. 

 

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“I Have a Question”…the Answer is “Yes” Part I

By Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

0016Q: How do you know if you are succeeding at running a warm, welcoming, open-minded mikveh?

A: You get a lot of really interesting phone calls and you love answering them.

In my role as Mikveh (& Education) Director at Mayyim Hayyim, I love fielding calls because inevitably it is someone with a fascinating and often emotional story, often seeking our guidance. The answers to these calls are as varied as the situations. Here’s a sampling from the past few weeks alone:

phoneCaller: “My teen son is transgender and is taking a new name. We’d like to incorporate a Jewish element for this life transition. Could he immerse for this? Could we have a naming ceremony for him at Mayyim Hayyim?”

Me: How wonderful — absolutely! I’m so glad you thought to reach out to Mayyim Hayyim. I think it’s terrific – and very creative — that you thought mikveh might be the ritual solution you were looking for. How can we best support him? Would you like to tell me about what gender mikveh guide your son would prefer? Many of our mikveh guides have received training about how to welcome people from the transgender community, so we will have a mikveh guide that is sensitive and respectful of your son and this important transition in his life. Would you like to use our celebration space? We created it for just these kinds of gatherings.  I’ll send you our Immersion Ceremony for a Joyous Life Transition.

anonymous callerCaller: “My wife and I are trying to conceive and our doctor wants to do a procedure to help. It’s important to us that my wife goes to the mikveh beforehand, but our local mikveh says it’s ‘too soon’ in the month and that she may not immerse there. We live several hours away from Mayyim Hayyim. Can you help us?”

Me: I’m so sorry you’ve had a negative experience at such an emotional time. You are welcome to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim anytime you want, but I understand it’s a long trip. Would you like us to contact our network of halachic advisors? I can put you in touch with someone who will be able to advise you on your situation and seek support for your wife to immerse before this procedure, or be in touch with the mikveh in your town. Oh, you’ve decided to come to Mayyim Hayyim after all? Wonderful. Yes, of course you can both immerse while you’re here. We have two immersion pools and you can choose how you want to be present for and support each other at this sensitive time. We’ve already emailed you our Immersion Ceremony for Preparing to Conceive. Travel safely.

Woman on phone behind screenCaller: “My son will be the age of bar mitzvah soon, but his cognitive challenges will not allow him to have a traditional bar mitzvah celebration. He loves water and is very sensory. Do you think that we could celebrate his Jewish coming of age at Mayyim Hayyim with an immersion and a ceremony for him?”

Me: What a great idea; I’m so glad you thought of this as an option for your family. I’ll be delighted to help you plan a meaningful experience. Would you like us to contact a local rabbi who would help you structure a ceremony around this ritual? Mayyim Hayyim’s staff and mikveh guides will provide you information and support for your son’s immersion itself. Will you tell me more about your son so I know just how to help?

Yes. Yes, we can do that. Yes, we can help. Yes, we think it’s a great idea. Yes, we know how. Yes, we will it figure out. Yes, we want to. No, we will not be the barrier between you and this ritual, because we believe in its power and its accessibility to those who reach out to us, seeking it. Yes.

Stay tuned for Part II next month.

Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect and modest, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

 

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The 21st Century Agunah Problem: A Reaction Against Women’s Equality Gains?

by Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

lisa fishbayn joffeThe day before Purim is marked by many Jews around the world as Agunah Day; a day to remember and speak out on behalf of women trapped in dead marriages unless and until their husband decides to let them go. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of women gathered at Mayyim Hayyim about the agunah problem in the 21st century.  I spoke about how there have always been agunot, women whose marriages are effectively over, but who are unable to divorce under Jewish law and go on with their lives.  The shape of this problem has, however, changed over time. I believe that the contemporary version of the agunah problem reflects an attempt, by some men, to undermine the equality already won under American family law.

The Talmud, (our redacted oral teachings) describes the sad plight of the classical agunah whose husband could not consent to divorce.  This might be because the man had disappeared while travelling to another town to trade or been lost on a ship at sea.  No one could be sure whether the husband had drowned, fallen victim to bandits on the road or whether he had simply taken up with a new companion somewhere else.  Perhaps he had been injured and lost his memory of where home was and of who waited there for him.  In those situations, rabbis wanted certain evidence of death before allowing a woman to remarry, lest her wayward husband should someday return.  Alternatively, the husband might have been physically present but unable to form the requisite intent to consent to divorce because of mental illness or a malady rendering him unconscious.  In these situations, rabbis developed strategies to try to minimize the suffering of these women, through establishing grounds to presume death or to validate the consent of a mentally ill man during moments of lucidity, but still many women remained agunot.

The historian, Haim Sperber, identifies a second dramatic change in the agunah problem which came in the late 19th century.  In this era, the agunah problem became one of men abandoning their families.  Sperber, currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, studies how agunot used popular Yiddish media to try to find their missing husbands, putting advertisements in the classified sections or writing to advice columns.  These men had disappeared into another province, another European country or on a boat to America.  With the emancipation of Jews in Europe, Jewish men could for the first time travel freely outside of Jewish ghettos and find even greater freedom in the promised land of America.  They could leave behind their Jewish identities, and for many, this meant leaving their Jewish wives as well.

An open letter to a missing husband in the Bintel Brief, the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward in 1908, captures one such woman’s pain:

bintel brief

Example of an Original Bintel Brief Article from the Jewish Daily Forward

Have you ever asked us why you left us?  Max, where is your conscience; you used to have sympathy for the forsaken women and used to say that their terrible plight was due to the men who left them in dire need.  And how did you act? I was a young, educated decent girl when you took me.  You lived with me for six years, during which time I bore you four children.  And then you left me.

From the late 20th century to the present day, we have seen a new kind of agunah problem emerge.  We still have instances where the husband has absconded or is unable to consent, but now the most common context for the creation of an agunah is a contested civil divorce.  This husband is physically present and mentally sound, but seeks to use his power to withhold a religious divorce to inflict pain on the wife or as a bargaining chip in negotiations over property, alimony and custody in the civil divorce.  He demands that the wife give up her rights to family property or make cash payments in order to be granted a divorce. Why has this transformation taken place?  One explanation may be the dramatic changes that have taken place in civil family law over this period.

In the wake of the second wave feminist movement, states across the US rewrote their family laws to recognize the value of women’s contributions to the family enterprise and award spouses equal rights to assets accumulated over the course of marriage.  Some men perceive their rights to withhold divorce under Jewish law as an appropriate tool to use to claw back some of the hard-won gains of the women’s movement.  Our community should be united in rejecting these actions.

Feminist legal scholars are divided on how to fix Jewish family law. Some argue that the problem can be prevented if those marrying in Orthodox ceremonies sign an halachic (within the framework of Jewish law) prenuptial agreement in which the husband undertakes to give a divorce when asked. Others argue that the time has come to create a new understanding of Jewish marriage that recognizes our contemporary understandings of the fundamental equality of men and women, and allows women to initiate divorce, too. Just as Mayyim Hayyim has worked within halacha to re-imagine a mikveh experience that speaks to women’s needs, it is possible that both of these options provide an opportunity for a creative revision of marriage and divorce rituals.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion. She is also the director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce and is the author of  “Gender, Religion, and Family Law: Theorizing Conflicts between Women’s Rights and Cultural Traditions.

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Goodbye Purim

by Walt Clark, Office Manager

 

1457456_10101420936364092_6735314213358244645_nIn the throes of late evening
cold snow gleaming
there is left steaming
food and drink
and texts from years of old.
And masks of costumes
depicting heroes and monsters
and the gurgle of bellies who are now full.
There sits a frog by the pool,DSC_0055
which is a usual taboo,
tonight though
immersing to find itself anew.
Goodbye evening
Goodbye party
Goodbye dessert that was a little hearty
Goodbye stories
Goodbye costumes
Goodbye Purim and your famous lore
but honestly I could do without seeing snow anymore.

 

photo (1)Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office manager 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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