Talking in the Dark… and the Light

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

carIt’s dark out. Cold. Inside the car we are warm and cozy, zooming along the highway. The heater vents whoosh warm air, creating a soothing white noise. My daughter sits in the passenger seat, eating her dinner from a divided plastic container – cut up chicken in one section, grapes in another, some pasta with butter. She’s a little sweaty, but not that pungent, teen boy kind of sweaty – just humid and smelling of chalk and mats and unwashed wrist guards. Her carefully brushed, eyebrow-raising tight ponytail has come loose and disheveled and droops to one side. She munches. I drive. There is none of the panicked insanity of four hours earlier when an on-time arrival seems always to be thwarted by a late departure, impossible I-95 rush hour traffic, palpable tension and high volume exchanges. Now, a little bit exhausted – maybe a lot – on a nearly empty highway, darkness cocooning us, we talk. Quietly, in short sentences, without drama or intensity.

Every parent knows about the car conversations. Captive audience? Perhaps just a safe, secure, place with a hint of anonymity. A time when small truths can be offered and absorbed.

I am reminded of these times when I work with mothers and daughters in the programs Mayyim Hayyim offers just for them, Beneath the Surface and Bridging the Gap. In each gathering, I see, not ground-breaking revelations, but rather small moments of closeness that build on each other, week after week, creating new threads of connection between girls and their moms – gossamer but resilient. Our programs are designed to provide both the environment that will permit participants to feel secure and comfortable enough to open up to each other, and fun, engaging activities that will give them a roadmap to do so.

m adn dBridging the Gap, our program for 8th and 9th grade girls and their moms includes activities that ask “when am I my best self?”, that teach how a simple ritual such as hand washing can be used to reflect on transitions in our days and lives, that reflect on what has been and will be passed on from mother to daughter, and that explore the traditions, stories, recipes, holidays, objects, and more that have been passed down through generations to create unique family tapestries. Together we write and draw and paint and create and talk and share and laugh and eat our way through two sweet, enjoyable, memorable Sunday afternoons. Here’s what last year’s participants had to say about Bridging the Gap.

“It created a closeness between us, and an opportunity and willingness to share with one another.”

“I had a good time, and I really bonded more with my mother.”

“It was meaningful to remember the special things about my daughter and tell her by incorporating them into the ritual.”

“It was lovely, welcoming, intimate, a chance to bond with my daughter, and a great learning experience.”

“It’s a really great peaceful experience overall, and I loved it.”

“It helped us to create a closer, more peaceful relationship.”

Join us this year on January 18th and 25th from 3:00 – 5:30pm for Bridging the Gap. It’s like a car conversation that magically works in the daylight, too. For more information and registration:, 617-244-1836 x203 or

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

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Bounty and Despair: Hoshiah na

by Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg

This has been a hard year. At this time last year my heart was a well of despair. Some of you may have read about how I emerged from having a miscarriage at 12 weeks gestation last year on this blog. Writing that post was extremely healing for me. Many of you reached out to me with your stories of despair and then of hope; or of great happiness to be followed by great devastation to be followed by great happiness again. You are a community of individuals who helped me feel loved and cared for. You reminded me that I was not alone in my despair.

Shira bio picThis year I gave birth to a daughter. She was born on Shabbat of Sukkot, the very holiday where we celebrate our bounty. We named her Ya’ara (honeysuckle) Zimra (song/first fruits) Aliya (ascendence) which we felt was the perfect name for our perfect child, born on the Sabbath during a festival of harvest. Our daughter is now 12 weeks old. She has fat cheeks, smiles, and a brother who adores her. My husband and I fell in love again. And in our sleep-deprived state, when we are not discussing logistics or managing her three-year-old brother, we are falling in love with her; our happiness filling up the deep hole left by the child I never had.

But real life brings stories with peaks and valleys that don’t wrap up neatly into the shiny jewels of fairy tale fantasies. Just after Thanksgiving, my 15-month-old nephew was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia. My sister’s life has since been turned upside down. She and her husband take turns living in the hospital as they support their baby through chemotherapy and an upcoming bone marrow transplant, and my parents have moved across the country to provide care and support for their other two children, ages five and three. It is literally amazing how, as time marches on, we are subject to the twisting and turning, and breathing and yearning that is necessary to get us through today and into tomorrow.

And so, as I found myself back at the mikveh this year, marking, almost to the day, my transition out of, and now into, second-time motherhood, my heart was filled with yearning. I am not so much a person to ask, “Why is this happening to me/to us?” in the shadow of a traumatic event.  I am, however, a person who cries out to G-d, “Help me! Help us!” in the face of despair.

On the festival of Sukkot, we shake our lulav, hold our etrogand march around the room imploring G-d for salvation. Ana Hashem hoshiah na! Please G-d, help us!

In our Jewish year, the festival of Sukkot marks the end of the Yamim Noraim, the high holy days. We just read about Chanah who yearned for a child, and Yonah who ran to the water attempting to run away from G-d. We emerge into Sukkot, a festival of bounty, in awe of G-d’s power.   G-d can help and heal; G-d can provide.

Chanah called out to G-d without a formula, and I, too, have none. Yonah hid from G-d within the waters. That is where I go; I cry out everything that swells inside of me like tears that can’t get out.

We cry out to G-d when we have done all we can do. We cry out because we want, we need, we desire, we hope. The deepest, most bottomless outcry is that of yearning; of feeling that we cannot exist any longer unless this deep yearning is quelled and quieted.

And in the mikveh’s waters, I cry out: Ana Hashem hoshiah na! G-d, please help us!

For the health of my family. For the happiness of my children. For the continued partnership of my husband. For my ability to work, laugh, mother and love, I yearn to do it and do it better each day.

I stand in the waters, my shoulders covered with warmth. I am protected. I pray. One breath of yearning for each who is beloved to me, and one for myself.

Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community. She works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 3-year-old son, Hallel, and infant daughter, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.

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Asking, Asking, Asking

by Carrie Bornstein

CBTapestryAs a parent of three young children, I am constantly fielding requests for things: Ima, can you buy me a Superman toy? When can I get a cell phone? Can I have a sleepover? Read me a story. Pick me up. I promise if you get me a dog I’ll take care of it every single day!

It never ends.

As kids we were so accustomed to asking for things. We knew what we wanted, and we could almost taste the thrill of actually holding success in our hands. If we could only convince the people who could make it happen for us…

If I can tune out the whining, it is always clear to me how much my kids believe in their cause. Whether my daughter is asking for her own room or for a cookie for dessert, she is all in: passionate and articulate.

The thing is, it usually works. My husband, Jamie, reminds me that despite the guilty feeling that all I do is say ‘no,’ the truth is, I almost always say yes. We get up at 5:30 in the morning if that’s when the kids wake up, we clean up vomit from the back of a car (this is all hypothetical you realize, yes?), we put syrup on waffles before cutting it into pieces.

Jamie and I give and give and give because we believe in the cause. Because we know in our bones that their future depends on our generosity of spirit.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

This is the time of year when most of us feel like parents, with worthy nonprofit organizations tugging at us, asking for help.

I am not quite as unselfconscious or comfortable as my children when I make this request of you, yet here I am, because, just like my kids, I so truly believe in what I’m asking for. I know that the shape of our Jewish future depends on my asking – and you saying yes.

Last week we spoke with a woman who planned to drive four hours to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim to celebrate her survival and exit from the abusive relationship she stayed in for so many years.

Our upcoming class to help new Jews get comfortable and confident in their new Jewish lives keeps getting new registrants every day. Another woman told us how helpful our Jewish Healing Guide for Women with Cancer was upon her diagnosis. And a rabbi on the west coast recently told me that she knows Mayyim Hayyim is healing the pain of people who have been scarred by what they think is traditional ritual.

I am asking you to say yes in making a gift so we can accommodate the growing number of people who are visiting Mayyim Hayyim to immerse and to learn. We want to provide more educational offerings: for boys, for young children, for caretakers. We want to convene a national conversation about best practices for training volunteers, facilitating conversions, and providing a space that is accessible and inclusive.

So here I am, asking for a year-end gift. I hope that like me, you also believe deeply in Mayyim Hayyim’s mandate to create the Jewish future we all wish to see, and that you will help make it possible.

We still have a way to go in raising the money we need before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. Every gift of every size truly makes a difference.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. 

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A Great Miracle Happens in Our Home

by Leah Hart Tennen, Mikveh Guide

leah with signWhen I was growing up, each of us lit our own menorah.  There were five of us, so you can imagine how beautiful our table was with all of those candles.  At some point in my young Jewish life, we started lighting some of our channukiyot by starting with one candle and adding one for each night, and some starting with eight candles and decreasing by one each night.  I’m pretty sure we just thought it was a fun way to mix things up. In my family, we got grocery bags full of newspaper wrapped hotel soap and socks for Chanukah, so experimenting with candle lighting was right up our alley.

Little did I know that we were the literal embodiment of a centuries-old debate between good old Hillel (light candles to mark the days passed) and good old Shammai (light candles to mark the days yet to come).  These two wise scholars debated over many aspects of Jewish life, and this particular debate didn’t end with a resolution. The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism tells us: “Elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim,” “These and also those are the words of the living God” and therefore both interpretations should be respected.

When I first learned this teaching, it was a reminder to me of all the places in my life where Judaism comes alive because there is a freedom to interpret, explore and experiment. Even though this is a longstanding part of our history, sometimes it’s easy to get stuck on doing things ‘the right way.’ I’ve always been grateful to my Jewish community in Boston, and in particular, places like Mayyim Hayyim, where the diversity of Jewish experience is really embraced and ancient ritual is renewed in so many ways.

Just recently, I received a beautiful channukiah from a dear friend.  My husband’s first thought was, “Why do we need another one?”  As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much Judaica; but more importantly, we now have four channukiyot, one for each member of our family.  On the first night of Chanukah, two of our channukiyot had one candle in addition to the shamash (helper); the other two had eight candles each.


My boys are a little too young to understand the dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, but they are being raised in a home and within a larger Jewish community that sees ritual and tradition as an evolving and multi-faceted process. I’m looking forward to the day when I might watch them come up with their own interpretations of our most well-loved and well-disputed traditions.

Leah Hart Tennen is an extremely proud Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guide, Mikveh Educator and Ambassador.  Ask her…she can talk about Mayyim Hayyim all day, and used to when she worked there full time!  When not “gushing” (see what I did there?) about Mayyim Hayyim, Leah is the Academic Advisor for SocialWork@Simmons, the online Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Simmons College School of Social Work, where she is also on faculty.  Leah lives in Winthrop with her husband, Eric, and their two boys, Lev & Eli.


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A Phone Call I Won’t Forget

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Several weeks ago I walked into work, dropped my bag at the side of my desk, and settled into my chair.

leezaMy mind was calm, before the clutter of a to-do list had touched it, when the phone rang. On the other line was Jeanne, a mother of twin girls who are soon-to-be B’not Mitzvah and recent participants of Beneath the Surface.

Jeanne told me she recently experienced something that she was deeply moved by, and indeed, her voice shook with the feeling of whatever she was about to tell me. She said, “I started to write an email to you, but as soon as I did I realized this wasn’t an email; it was a phone call.”

I pressed my ear into the phone, as she continued:

“The other night, I walked in Leah and Becca’s room and they were on their knees by their beds. They told me they were praying. First of all, I was in shock. I’ve never seen them do this before. Then they asked me to join them. They led me through a whole ritual that they had created together. It began with saying things they were grateful for; then we said Mishaberach (a prayer for healing) for friends of ours who have recently been struggling with serious illness. Then we said the Shema. They created this whole thing completely on their own, and I know it was because of their experience at Beneath the Surface. 

After that first time, they said they wanted me to do this ritual with them every night. I’m just completely blown away.

They’ve never done anything like this before, and I know it was because of our time in such a sacred space at Mayyim Hayyim. You had so much acceptance and respect in the way you spoke to us and in the way you designed the program.

I remember right after the program, my daughters and I were talking and they said they wanted to come to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse before their Bat Mitzvah. They were so sure they wanted to come the night before. They knew exactly who they wanted to invite, and they knew they wanted it to be a small and intimate experience. It was incredible to me how much ownership they felt over their decision.

You created the space they needed to take that inspiration home with them. I know that was possible because you really made us feel that whatever we had to say and wherever we were at was exactly right. Out there in the world, it’s rare to find that. Thank you so much.”


Jeanne had taken me, as a guest, into a very fresh and private moment she had shared with her daughters. I thanked her for sharing her story with me. Moments later, I was off the phone, sitting very still on my swivel chair and feeling the cool air greet my ear where the receiver had been.

I sat there remembering how one of the first activities we did at Beneath the Surface was sharing a family ritual, both Jewish and secular. It was sweet to hear about a favorite bedtime tradition from five years ago, or how eating M&Ms had become an integral part of making havdalah. The best part: we were learning from each other and getting inspired by what each family had come up with.

Leah and Becca, Jeanne’s daughters, were listening too, and they took it home with them.  It might have helped that the final project of Beneath the Surface is a ritual creation activity for each family. We helped give them the tools, but the inspiration and creativity was Leah and Becca’s. What struck me most was that now these sisters were connected not only to their mother and each other in this new, yet very old practice, they also had a link to this group of women and girls that had shared their family wisdom with each other.

After the phone call and the stream of after-thoughts subsided for a moment, I found myself back in my swivel chair, at my computer. It was Monday. The week had just begun, but my heart was already full.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She loves hearing stories and thinking about new rituals.

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Don’t Go Near a Woman

by Salem Pearce, Mikveh Guide 

Salem PearceThis semester, as part of my rabbinic education, I am taking a class on the book of Exodus. Recently, we’ve been studying the account of the revelation at Sinai.  In the complicated choreography of Moses (and others) going up and down the mountain in chapters 19 and 24, a question arises regarding Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about preparations for receiving the Torah.

In Ex. 19:10-11, God tells Moses that the people should wash their clothes in order to be ready for God’s appearance on Sinai. In verse 14, we’re told that the people have done so, but in the next verse Moses makes his own addition to God’s instructions: אַל-תִּגְשו אֶל-אִשָּׁה, “Do not go near a woman.”

In the hetero-normative world of Torah, it would seem that Moses is now speaking to the men encamped at the base of the mountain. But God’s previous instructions were more inclusive. In verse 3, God tells Moses: “So you will say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” Concerned about the potential redundancy in “house of Jacob” and “sons of Israel,” Rashi identifies the first group as referring to women and the second, to men.

By comparison, the acceptance of the covenant in the last installation of the chumash (Five Books of Moses), in parshat Nitzavim, explicitly includes men, women, and children, both at that time and in the future (Deut. 29: 9-10).

It’s not at all clear what Moses intends with those four words; “Don’t go near a woman.” In all likelihood he is forbidding sexual intercourse. Indeed, this is how the phrase is almost universally understood.

The reason for the prohibition, following Rashi, is similarly widely accepted. Rashi believes that the abstinence is in order that the women may immerse themselves (in a mikveh) on the third day and be pure (spiritually ready) to receive the Torah. The idea being, that if any of the women in the camp had recently had intercourse, she would need three days to be considered ready for immersion, and in this case, ready for the revelation. (Rashi on Exodus 19:15) Rashi, then, is bringing women back into the picture with Moses’ directive— and is also introducing the idea of mikveh.

This is an incredibly powerful idea in and of itself: Women have an equal share in the giving of Torah, and they are required to be in a state of ritual purity to receive it. In a text that has so far seen women’s value as principally procreative (especially in Genesis), to be full participants in the foundational Jewish narrative is near revolutionary. And we’re doing so through the mitzvah of mikveh.

But what’s more, the text demonstrates the primacy of mikveh itself. This might be the first allusion to the mitzvah in Torah. We don’t see the patriarchs immersing, and while we do have midrashim about the matriarchs’ practicing niddah, there is nothing as strongly suggestive in the Torah to this point as Moses’ charge to the Israelites at Sinai.

In preparation for the peak moment of the Israelites’ relationship with God, women visit the mikveh. A holy teaching for a sanctified people. And yet another reason to immerse, in remembrance of this transformational moment.

10264870_10203535244519643_4414063284948966958_nSalem is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and was trained as a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim in the spring. A native Texan, she writes from her home in Jamaica Plain about her winding physical and spiritual journeys at

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Our Family Doesn’t Do Bridal Immersions

by Sherri GoldmanAdministrative and Finance Director

Sherri's Thanksgiving TurkeyThere was exciting news as my husband’s entire family gathered at our house for Thanksgiving. One of our nieces, Kayla, had just recently become engaged to be married. I thought, what better way to celebrate Kayla’s engagement than with a Gift Certificate for her bridal immersion?

Earlier in the day I showed the Immersion Certificate to my husband, his sister and her husband (Kayla’s parents) to let them know I would present the gift certificate to Kayla after dinner.  Their response was mixed. My sister-in-law looked at me and said with some sadness in her voice, “I don’t know if that is a good idea. Kayla is not having a religious ceremony.”

My sister-in-law thought giving her a gift certificate for a bridal immersion might seem that we were suggesting Kayla’s wedding should be a traditionally Jewish ceremony and that we didn’t agree with her nonsectarian choices. Oy! I certainly hadn’t been planning on any family immersion drama during Thanksgiving.

I suggested to them that Kayla decide on her own about the Immersion Certificate, although I wondered if our Thanksgiving festivities would become a bit awkward with the gift of this traditionally Jewish bridal immersion. After all, as my mother-in-law commented, bridal immersion has never been a part of our family tradition.

After dinner, there was silence at the table as I stood and gave Kayla the Immersion Gift Certificate.  “This is to give you the option of including immersion as part of your wedding celebration,” I said. “We love you and are so happy for you and Evan.” The entire family looked towards Kayla, and then at each other in wonder (and relief) as she screamed, “This is incredible. I love having this as part of my wedding. I was just reading that brides do this. I’m so happy – thank you.”

From a thank you note that Kayla sent me soon after:

“The gift certificate for a bridal immersion at Mayyim Hayyim was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to partake in such a sacred tradition (and the absolute love and support of my family for giving me this gift- thank you so much!).

To me, this process symbolizes a rebirth, the start of a new chapter. I plan on having my immersion a few days before our wedding ceremony- it will give me a chance to wind down and really dive into the spiritual meaning of the celebration. So often we get caught up in the details of things, especially when it comes to weddings. It will allow me to connect on a deeper level, taking me back to my roots, to my ancestors and the traditions that have shaped me throughout my life. It’s like stepping out into the world for the first time and slowly inhaling a deep, full, breath. It is my new beginning- a beginning that I will feel both physically and mentally.

There is no other way I’d rather prepare for one of the most important days of my life. I’m incredibly excited for this opportunity- now I just have to wait six more months!”

Kayla will be the first woman in the family who will have a bridal immersion and we will all be there to celebrate with her – at Mayyim Hayyim.  What a wonderful and momentous opportunity which can well be the start of a new family tradition.

Kayla's Immersion Certificate

 Sherri is responsible for managing Mayyim Hayyim’s financial and building management operations. She always looks forward to festive gatherings with her family.

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