The Shave for the Brave: Getting Ready at the Mikveh

by Rabbi Emma GottliebEmma Gottlieb

It started with vanity. My friends and colleagues were shaving their heads and I didn’t think I could do it. I am told my hair is one of my best (physical) features. I couldn’t imagine being without it. I still can’t, to be honest, but in a matter of weeks I won’t have to imagine it. Because I’m doing it – The Shave for the Brave. Because I couldn’t sit comfortably with my vanity; because there are children dying of cancer; because there are so many awful things that happen in the world that we can’t do anything about BUT THIS ISN’T ONE OF THEM. There IS something I can do (and something you can do too, so stay tuned!).

It started with Sam. Brave Sam who wanted to be a superhero but who got cancer and died instead. He was eight. His parents are both rabbis. They’re brave too. They shared their horrifying journey with the world so that cancer couldn’t be silent; so that Sam could be famous. In return, when they said, Hey, let’s get some rabbis to shave their heads and raise some money, more than 50 rabbis joined the cause. I’m just one of them. I’m not a superhero. But for Sam and Phyllis and Michael and Solly and Yael and David I will put on a cape and shave my head and raise as much money as one little rabbi in one little congregation can raise.  

It started with a goal. 36 rabbis. One hundred and eighty thousand dollars. A good, solid, Jewish number.  An attainable number. Then 36 rabbis grew to over 50, with other non-shavee supporters to boot. And we quickly passed 180,000 and then 360,000 and now the goal is 540,000. Dollars. I have a friend whose fiance does cancer research. When I told her about my personal goal ($5,000), she told me that those labs use that up in a day. It’s a drop in the bucket. $5,000 might not make a big dent. But $540,000 will. And I’m proud to be a part of that. Even if it means I have to shave my head.

It started with Mayyim Hayyim. We can always count on them to ritualize our meaningful moments. I will go to the water to say farewell to my hair (and hopefully my vanity). I will emerge from the water, someone who has made a difference. The droplets of mikveh water will camouflage my tears. Tears for my hair, yes, but more tears for Sam, and tears of hope as well; hope for the children we might yet save; for the parents who might not have to blog their pain; for the rabbis who might not have to explain why children die when cures can be found.

Cures can be found

I’m doing my part. It’s time to do yours.

Please go now and make a donation.

Rabbi Emma Gottlieb has been the spiritual and educational leader at Temple Beth David since July 2012.  She believes strongly in building Jewish community on a foundation of relationships and meaning and she works hard with the TBD leadership to make sure that Temple Beth David is a community that is welcoming to all kinds of Jewish families.  Before coming to Temple Beth David, Rabbi Gottlieb served at Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, NY. She was ordained at the Hebrew Union College, New York Campus in 2010. Rabbi Gottlieb came to Temple Beth David ready to lead others in song while she continues to guide the community through teaching and dialogue, Jewish values and rituals of our heritage, and engaging us in the spiritual and beautiful Jewish worship.

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Changes at the Mikveh-Purim Edition

by Walton Clark, Office Assistant


Purim is upon us, a time of debauchery and merriment. Having lived in New Orleans for four Mardi Gras celebrations, I know a thing or two about ‘celebration’. Here at Mayyim Hayyim, we want everyone to have a safe and enjoyable Purim, so we have made several changes to enhance everyone’s experience.

Due to the carnival atmosphere that can happen when people immerse we have taken steps to have a Lifeguard tower built in our atrium so that there are no accidents. While at this time we don’t have a “lifeguard”, rabbis are expected to man the tower during conversion ceremonies.

Lifeguard tower in the Mayyim Hayyim Atrium.

No splashing in the living water

To enhance the immersions we are now offering two new types of mikveh experience. Ever wanted to know what is like to swim in the pools outside? Well now you can enjoy our outdoor mikveh experience, complete with diving board and sunshine (assuming it isn’t cloudy or night time when you immerse).

cannonball mikveh

Our other experience is Mikveh Karaoke. Both of our mikvehs are now fully equipped with 2000 watt PA systems with 4 wireless mics, three tambourines, and one flat screen television. You can choose from the Great Jewish Song Book with hits like Wind Beneath my Wings, Moves like Jagger (yes Adam Levine is Jewish), and everything from the show Fiddler on the Roof.

Mikveh Karaoke

And finally, we have new items available in the Mayyim Hayyim store for your Purim gathering. Our custom Bacchus shofar will announce that the party has arrived, but is also equipped with a BAC breathalyzer that will tell you how much you have had to drink. We also have full Mayyim Staff costumes if you really want to be the hit of the party.


Hat and Nametag included

Wishing you and yours a safe and fun Purim!

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Winter Blessing

by Sara Epstein

Sara Epstein

At 10 am, I arrived first at the mikveh Mayyim Hayyim in Newton.  I rang the bell and was greeted warmly by Amy, my guide.  She showed me around the building while we awaited the arrival of three friends who would be coming to witness my ritual cleansing immersion in the Living Waters of the ritual bath.  

Beth, my cantor at Temple Shir Tikvah, and Maura, my old neighbor, soon joined us.  Our guide explained that Mayyim Hayyim had opened about ten years ago as the brainchild of author Anita Diamant, who had wanted a place with fewer restrictions and more openness than existing mikvehs in the Boston area, for women and men to celebrate important life transitions.  This 150 year old house had been converted with an addition to house the baths.  The building was light and welcoming, the bath areas clean and sparkling in the winter sun.  Orange brown tiles lined the bath area walls, designed to evoke the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the earth tones deliberately non-gender-specific. 

It was 10:30 and no sign of my friend Ann.  I decided to call her because I knew she would want to be here, so something must have happened, or she had forgotten.  She picked up the phone and immediately realized she had forgotten.  I let her know we would continue without her but that she was welcome to come, as the ritual would take awhile to complete. 

Beth explained that she and Maura would sit outside the bathing area and listen quietly as I immersed myself in the bath.  I began the ritual preparations, which included seven commandments that were thoughtfully printed out and laminated for mikveh participants. These included prayers for each step of preparation that helped add spiritual meaning as to why I was to clean my body, brush and floss my teeth, clean behind each fingernail and toenail (no need to trim them!), and wash my hair.  I was encouraged to take my time, and I did, softly humming to myself.    Finally, I wrapped myself in a clean sheet and entered the ritual bathing chamber.  

The guide ushered me into the sun-filled room, where I hung the sheet on a hook and slowly stepped down the seven stairs into the water.  At the bottom there was a large red handle I had been told to open to let in the “living waters” of the rainfall from an outside trough.  I counted to three, allowing about a cup of the rainwater to join with the tap water of the bath, then closed the valve.  I lowered myself under the water in the deep part of the tub, three times as the ritual directed.  

I remembered why I had come:  I was beginning a new stage of life, kids grown, marriage over, having recently come out as lesbian.  I acknowledged the readiness I felt for entering this new life with all of my being.  I asked for my life to be a blessing.

“Done,” I said to myself, starting to climb the stairs, but immediately felt the anti-climax of merely following the rules.  I sank back into the water, noticing the unexpected buoyancy made me float on my back, arms outstretched, gazing at the many shapes and colors of the sun on the ceiling.  “This is more like it,” I sighed silently, then slowly walked up the steps.  There was a large white bathrobe waiting for me, so I put it on, then opened the doors of the sanctuary to my friends, inviting them in.  Ann had arrived during my immersion, so she now joined us as we pulled chairs and guitar in to the warm chamber.  Beth started singing familiar and spiritual songs, and we joined in, laughing, talking, singing for awhile, loving how unusual, quiet, and magical was this precious time together on an otherwise ordinary cold winter’s morning. Bless Mayyim Hayyim.

Sara Epstein is a psychotherapist and writer, mother of three mostly grown up children. She works in the Psychological Counseling Center at Brandeis University and in private practice in Waltham and Arlington, Massachusetts. She has published stories, essays, and poems.  She can be reached at  

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The Ripple Effect, Mayyim Hayyim’s First Ten Years

Jody Comins

by Jody Comins

As you’ve probably heard, we are approaching our tenth anniversary in May, and we are kicking off a year of celebration with a Benefit Event on May 29th at Temple Israel of Boston.  Our benefit events are an opportunity for the community to support Mayyim Hayyim in our fundraising efforts. This year we are celebrating education and two very special people, Lisa Berman, our Director of Education, and Diane Black, an extraordinary volunteer, who will be the recipient of our Nachshon award. In the last ten years, Mayyim Hayyim has touched thousands of lives. We have hosted more than 12,000 immersions and 2,000 conversions. Approximately 2,400 children and adults participate in over 100 education programs each year.

Lisa Berman, Director of Education, has been part of Mayyim Hayyim since we opened our doors in 2004, first as a volunteer mikveh guide and then creating and growing our education program to what it is today. Lisa is an active board member of Temple Shalom in Newton.

Diane has been an enthusiastic supporter of Mayyim Hayyim since its inception. She’s been a Mayyim Hayyim board member since 2006 and a volunteer mikveh guide since 2008. Diane and her husband, Chester, have been involved in many Jewish organizations including Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, the Boston-Haifa Connection of CJP, and Temple Shir Tikva of Wayland.

Working on a large-scale event involves a lot of moving parts. These two honorees have brought in a wonderful group of co-chairs who are working alongside me to plan a great evening that will tell our story to over 400 attendees. We are building our Host Committee and welcome anyone to join. For more details, click here.

The evening will include a performance by the ShenaniGanns, Gann Academy’s a capella group, and new stories from Mayyim Hayyim. We hope you can join us for a very special evening. Please consider putting a Blessing in our program book to celebrate Lisa Berman, Diane Black, and Mayyim Hayyim by clicking here.

Jody Comins is the Development and Events Coordinator at Mayyim Hayyim.  She has a Clinical MSW from Boston University and has worked in the Boston Jewish Community for almost 24 years in many different environments. 

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A Long Journey into the Mikveh

by Alice LevineAlice Levine

I’ve always been drawn to water, especially fresh and moving water.  Swimming in a fresh, clean lake with no motor boats allowed and no cars in sight or hearing range is my idea of heaven.  Hiking is not my exercise of choice, unless it’s to a mountain lake or waterfall.  I’m not generally a meditator, but I could sit for hours watching rivers wending their way and crashing against rock.  When I’m near a river, I will scramble over rocks to be able to put my foot or hand into freezing cold water as it rushes over rock.  There is something about feeling the water’s power against my body that I find both calming and thrilling.

The last time I had an important transition to mark—before my first-ever trip to Latin America—I brought a small group of friends to the ocean and we sang and chanted and talked.  But that was in late May or June so sitting together on rocks overlooking the ocean seemed reasonable.

Unfortunately, I was born in early January and I live in the Northeast.  So, when I was about to turn 60 and wanted to be near water, sitting near a river or lake or ocean hardly seemed doable.  I arranged for friends to gather on my post birthday weekend in an indoor spot right near the ocean.  But on the day of my birthday itself, when I planned to work, I wanted to do something meaningful alone to start my day.

I had been to Mayyim Hayyim several times and had very much liked both the physical space and the feeling of the place.  In particular I had loved a movement workshop I took part in as part of a Spiritual Preparation for the High Holidays event a few years ago.  Yet the idea of going to a mikveh to immerse—even one as welcoming and apparently progressive as Mayyim Hayyim—seemed far less than “my cup of tea.”

I have been a strong feminist since the 1970’s and I have considered mikveh use as one of the most archaic and regressive aspects of my tradition.  As I understood it, the whole purpose of the mikveh’s existence was to make the impure, menstruating woman, pure again so that she wouldn’t, God forbid, pollute her husband during sex.   I actually had no idea until about 10 years ago, that ritual immersions were also used and required by men or women who chose to convert to Judaism.  But even once I learned that, I figured that the “core purpose” of the mikveh polluted the act of immersing for any reason.

However, as I was turning 60, I started reconsidering my earlier stance. In order to see if I could make peace with the idea of revisioning the mikveh, I read articles and blog posts by other feminists, talked to a number of staff and guests of Mayyim Hayyim, and went to visit.  And this time around, I found the idea appealing, and the intellectual arguments against the “mikveh for progressive Jews” a lot less compelling than previously.

And so, I arranged for an early immersion, at 9:00 in the morning on my birthday, on a day when an intense snow storm was about to begin.  I found the whole experience both nurturing and exhilarating.   My need to rebel against oppressive traditions was obviated by the fact that there were almost no rules here—suggestions, but not rules.  I could choose everything about how I used the ritual waters.

I don’t have room here to describe the whole experience, but suffice it to say that entering water for a spiritual purpose felt familiar and right to me.  In fact I had been entering lakes and rivers with a similar kavanah for years.  I must say that my favorite moment in the mikveh was when I let the fresh water in from outside—I put my hand in front of the spout and felt completely soothed by the movement of the cold water.

And so, in the end, the immersion ritual at Mayyim Hayyim felt true and right and MINE.  Although I’d prefer to be able to immerse my body in wholly fresh water throughout the year, I found this particular mikveh to be a pretty good substitute in the winter months.   Although I’m still not sure I entirely understand the reasons that a group of progressive Jews chose to reclaim the mikveh, I can say that I am glad that they created this space called Mayyim Hayyim.  Although I would surely not visit just any Mikveh, I would unhesitatingly return to Mayyim Hayyim when I need a meaningful ritual to mark another transition or to help me heal from sickness or loss.  As I’ve known most of my life and rediscovered here, water gives me access to wholeness and sureness and peace.

Alice is an active member of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, a wonderful Reconstructionist congregation in West Roxbury.  She has been a lesbian-feminist since the 70′s and is currently married (even according to the federal government) and has one grown son and two grown (or almost grown) step-children.  She has worked in the field of adult basic education for the past 30+ years.  

In this photo, she swims at her favorite place, World Fellowship Center.

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In the Details

Robin Weintraubby Robin Weintraub

Adar II is now upon us.  We dust off our megillah trope, hunt for our groggers, and brainstorm costume ideas in prepation for celebrating Purim and reading the Book of Esther in a couple of weeks.  It is often taught that Esther is the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned.  It is a story of human actions, human heroism, human foibles.  In this way, it is easy to retell it, relate to it, celebrate it.  “Haman was mean, Esther was queen, let’s eat!” reads the invitation to my friends’ Purim seudah: user-friendly indeed.

In stark contrast, we just started reading the book of Leviticus in the Torah.  Leviticus is the book b’nai mitzvah students dread, the book in which many of us struggle to find meaning.  It’s about sacrifices and purity, priests and esoteric rules.  There are dead animals, unpleasant-sounding skin conditions, elaborate rituals, columns upon columns of obscure laws – very little we can relate to.  We have left behind the majestic creation stories and the family drama of Genesis, the sweeping, epic narratives of the exodus from Egypt.

The project of Leviticus is to bring God out of the hidden places and down to earth – to make holiness tangible.  Just as the end of Exodus detailed the intricate details of the construction of the mishkan (the not-so-helpful English translation is tabernacle, but essentially the mishkan is the physical manifestation of God’s presence in the wilderness), Leviticus continues that project, with all of its priestly rituals and concerns of purity, carefully delineating space and time and action to concretize God’s presence through minutia.  Though the rituals of Leviticus may seem strange to us, in effect they serve the same purpose as the rituals we know – lighting Shabbat candles, laying tefillin, immersing in the mikveh.  Ritual gives us a way of expression, a way of connecting to the divine.  As the scholar Mary Douglas writes, theology is pervasive in Leviticus:  it is embedded in every ritual.  Just as God is hidden in Esther, God is present in every detail in Leviticus.

Ritual helps us engage with more of ourselves, to connect on more levels.  We use all of our senses in reciting blessings, smelling spices, drinking of the wine, and lighting of the candles at havdalah.  Immersing in the mikveh engages our senses, too – bare feet on warm stone, reflections in the water, the smell of shampoo, the sounds of splashing and blessings, sometimes tears, sometimes singing.  Likewise, the ancient Israelites must have used all of their senses, seeing the ritual of sacrifice, smelling the barbecue, hearing the sounds of the people gathered together; just as the ancient priests must have used all of their senses in the purification rituals for the Tent of Meeting and for the person afflicted with skin disease.  By applying drops of blood to ears and thumbs and big toes, the priest uses the tools at his disposal to bring God’s presence down to earth.  This, for the Sfas Emes, is our task as humans: to integrate the divine into the physical world – and we do this through ritual.

Leviticus teaches us that washing in water – immersing in a mikveh – can be a means of purification, a procedure for reintegration into the community.  Despite the sacrifices involved, the blood and the oil and the priestly details, immersing in water brings stability and normalization, a return to order – much like other rituals can.  Perhaps Leviticus can speak to us through this testament to the power of ritual in our lives, in times like those of the book of Esther, in times when God seems hidden, in times when we need it the most.

Robin Weintraub is the Mikveh Center Coordinator at Mayyim Hayyim.

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Sacred Bodies, Sacred Time: Introducing a Blog Series on Niddah (Monthly Immersion)

Last December at LimmudBoston, Lisa Berman, Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Education, moderated a panel discussion entitled “Sacred Bodies, Sacred Time” about the observance of niddah, monthly immersion.  According to the laws of niddah, women immerse in the mikveh after menstruation or after giving birth.  They refrain from relations with their partners from the beginning of menstruation or from childbirth until after they have immersed.  There are different practices regarding how long one waits to immerse after menstruation or after childbirth and to what degree separation is maintained during that time.  Eleven women participated in the LimmudBoston discussion on the topic.  They included clergy and lay people; women who go to the mikveh and women who don’t; women who identify as Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox; and women who identify as none of those.  They came together to discuss questions about niddah – is it a source of spirituality or an archaic ritual?  What place does it have in contemporary or feminist Jewish life?  Mayyim Hayyim is continuing that conversation on our blog with a series of posts about niddah – and we hope you will join us.

We’re opening this blog series with a compilation of reflections from the LimmudBoston panel.  We hope that reading the panelists’ and participants’ impressions will inspire you to share yours.  If you’d like to submit a post, you can do so here.

Here is a sampling of what the panelists shared when asked what niddah means to them:

Niddah is a part of my practice as someone who follows halacha and tradition.  It is a spectrum of separation, a series of behaviors; it is about his space and my space: This is a time of the month when he doesn’t come into my space.  It’s not about me, not about him, but about us as a couple.  Niddah is a way of reflecting the major shift of marriage when life didn’t necessarily otherwise look different.

Niddah is a practice, like meditation or yoga.  It’s a part of tradition, a part of the search for meaning; tradition has meaning, even when it’s hard to see.  Some months, going to the mikveh is meaningful.  Like davening, it can be the most meaningful experience or just something I have to do.  But if one month it’s not meaningful, and I just do it, usually the next time I’m thirsting for a spiritual experience.  

On ways of understanding purity and impurity:

The waters of the mikveh are pure, no matter what your state is.  I can go to the mikveh my way and not wreck it for anyone else.  I always carry impurity of many kinds.  Every day brings new challenges, things that weigh you down.

On the right time to go:  

Don’t wait for that one big reason to go.  Just go.  You can go again when that reason comes.

Now we’d like to hear from you.  Do you observe niddah?  Why or why not?  How do you conceptualize purity and impurity?  Find meaning in the mikveh?  We hope you’ll join the conversation by sharing your thoughts here.

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