It’s Not That Different

Leeann Simons, Mikveh Guide

From the Mayyim Hayyim vaults, written almost 9 years ago.

LeeannLast night I had the privilege of being part of one woman’s healing ritual. She had been sexually assaulted by a former “good” friend, and was coming to us as part of her moving forward with her life.

What I want to first say about this experience, though, is that I did not do anything different for her than I was trained to do for all our immersees. Since the domestic violence workshop for Mikveh Guides at Mayyim Hayyim, though, I have been closing the blinds for evening appointments, because we don’t know many women’s situations when they come, and privacy is of the utmost importance.

She was with another woman when I welcomed her in. I offered to make tea and asked her what I could do for her while she was at the mikveh. After we did the paperwork, and the tea was ready, we sat down in the reception area. She told me she came from hundreds of miles away, and it was actually her mother who, in an “off handed way” suggested she go to a mikveh to help her. She went online and found us.  The woman she was with had been her rabbi a few years ago, and had since moved to the Boston area. So she decided she would be able to visit her rabbi and come to the mikveh in one trip.

She had reached out to us in advance and our then Mikveh Director, and now Executive Director, Carrie Bornstein, sent her an immersion ceremony for healing. She wanted to see the facility, so I gave her a tour. When we were in the mikveh area, I explained we value modesty and privacy above all else, explaining I would only see the top of her head when she immersed.

While she prepared, the rabbi and I chatted a bit, I did the holy work of the laundry and responded to some calls. When the phone rang, I went through the bath, and opened the door. After her immersion, I asked if she’d like a few moments alone. She said yes, and I left.

When she came back to the reception area, she sat on the couch. She looked at us and said, “I didn’t think it would happen, but it worked.” When we asked how she felt, she said “clean.” She thanked me, and I told her how honored I felt that she came to us to be part of her healing.

After a short while, she signed the guest book and they left.

What is unusual about witnessing a sexual assault survival immersion? That it is not unusual at all. I did nothing we have not been trained to do. I welcomed her, offered her tea, asked what else we could offer, listened, and witnessed. I’m not sure we need to act differently for different types of immersions, as long as we listen. I think our immersees bring to us what they need, and we give it to them. We may not always feel comfortable, or confident, we may be nervous and scared. But we are the only ones who know that. Our immersees see a mikveh guide who is present; a guide to bear witness to whatever they want us to see and hear. And that is what we can do, all of us.

Leeann Simons is a registered dietitian and adjunct professor at two local business colleges. She has been a guide (and member) of Mayyim Hayyim for over 11 years. She is married and has two grown sons who live out of state.

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Stark

by Walt Clark, Office Manager

Stark: severe or bare in appearance or outline.

DSC_0057

This past week at Mayyim Hayyim the walls were empty. The art has come down as we wait for the next exhibit to go up. A fresh coat of paint has seemingly washed the nicks and scratches off the walls, so that all that is left is the empty canvass of the building.

This is a time of physical transition before we see colorful art again. In many ways the building has become a physical substantiation of why people come here.

Spring 2012: RAW Artists

Spring 2012: RAW Artists

Fall 2014: Steven Branfman

Fall 2014: Steven Branfman

Starting from starkness, there is freedom to add.

Freedom to grow.

Freedom for renewal.

 

 

The walls are bare now, but there is beauty in the possibilities. As we hope for all who come here.

Reflections in Water by Paula Brody

Summer 2011: Paula Brody

 

The walls won’t be bare for long. Our next art exhibit opening, Into the Blue: Works by Alison Shaw, will be on August 20th at 5:30pm. 

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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The Violin and the Joods Bad

by Iris Adams

I’ve always been curious about the tradition of mikveh, so I was pleased to accept an invitation to visit Mayyim Hayyim in June with a group of women from the Merrimack Valley.  When I walked through the gate by a pretty white and blue tiled bench set among greenery and gardens, I felt an immediate sense of serenity.

Inside, we walked past the art exhibit and wandered through the public part of the house.  I was swept up by the simple yet warm architectural elements, beautiful woods, and tiles.  As we sat around the conference table, Leeza, the Associate Director of Education, told us about the biblical origins of mikveh and the history of Mayyim Hayyim.  Then onto our tour of the atrium, the changing rooms, and mikva’ot.  Already in awe of the physical beauty, we moved poolside, as Leeza shared a story about a woman who brought along a violinist who played outside the closed mikveh doors in the atrium while the woman immersed herself in private.  The story caught me off guard, a few tears, and feeling embarrassed by my reaction, I quickly composed myself.  Hmmm….what was that all about?

Joodenbaw2A few years ago, my husband and I were on a bike and barge tour from Amsterdam to Brugge. One of the stops along the route was in Schoonhoven, a little Dutch town known for its silver shops.  One of the shops had a sign, Jewish Tours for One Euro.  The Jewish artifacts were housed upstairs and the mikveh, (called a Joods Bad – Mikwah) a cement hole in a stark tiny room was in back of the shop.  When I asked the shopkeeper if there was a Jewish community in the town, she replied in a crisp Dutch staccato accent, “There are no Jews left in this town.”  I shuddered at her terse tone.

joodenbaw

On occasion, I have thought about my reaction at Mayyim Hayyim.  I was so taken with the light, the warmth of the Jerusalem stone, and the architectural beauty.  The violin touches my soul and the thought of soft violin music combined with the harmony of being immersed in the mikveh seem to have merged together.  Perhaps my reaction, tucked away in the recesses of my mind came from Schoonhaven with its barren mikveh set in the back of the silver shop, and a Jewish community wiped out by hatred contrasted with the welcoming, spiritual and growing community of Mayyim Hayyim.

Whatever my reaction, Mayyim Hayyim is a gorgeous example of an egalitarian accepting Jewish community.

Iris is a member at Temple Emanu-el in Haverhill. She recently retired from Lawrence public schools as a middle school teacher. 

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Our Bodies, Our Mikveh

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

DeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_This week marks my first Mayyim Hayyim “work-iversary.” When I started as Development Manager in July of 2014, the very first thing I did was observe an educational program with high school students from Genesis, a Brandeis University Jewish studies summer program for teens from all over the world. It was my first chance to see Mikveh and Education Director Lisa Berman in action, and was an unforgettable introduction to what Mayyim Hayyim is all about.

First, Lisa asked the group of about 20 teens to tell her what came to mind when she said “mikveh.” Word associations rang out: “ritual bath,” “Jewish,” “cleansing,” “purity,” “conversion,” “niddah,” and many more. Together, Lisa and the students shaped a working definition of mikveh: a ritual bath that provides spiritual cleansing, used by Jews and those becoming Jewish. Then, the group got a tour of the mikveh itself, where they were asked to write down what they noticed about its design and makeup. The teens remarked on the beauty and serenity of the space, water-themed design elements, the evident care given to privacy, and most of all, small touches that subtly emphasized one’s ownership of their own immersion experience. Following the tour, the students were offered the option to immerse, which about two-thirds of them elected to do – a group including “spiritual” types as well as jocks with popped collars and girls in One Direction t-shirts. More from the group would end up returning that Friday afternoon to immerse before Shabbat.

Two hours into my tenure at Mayyim Hayyim and I was utterly blown away. These teens were as comfortable at the mikveh as they would have been at camp. They seemed perfectly at home asking questions, immersing, and casually discussing the intricacies of mikveh practice while waiting for their friends to finish immersing. Even if it was their first time at a mikveh, it was clear that they accepted their Mayyim Hayyim visit as a perfectly normal, natural part of their Jewish lives.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with my own first visit to a mikveh when I was 13. I was attending an all-girls’ Orthodox summer camp in upstate New York, and on an overnight trip to NYC we were treated to a tour of a Brooklyn mikveh (obviously a major tourist attraction).  The building was beautiful, with handcrafted mosaics in each mikveh room and ornate fixtures and plush bathrobes in each prep room. The woman giving the tour spoke matter-of-factly about how married women immersed after niddah before “having relations” with their husbands. Our mothers adhered to the niddah practice, so we were all familiar with it. It was a foregone conclusion that we would all immerse at a mikveh too – but not that day. Not until we were married ourselves. We didn’t even think to ask to immerse that day. Mikveh was very clearly for one thing only, and didn’t yet apply to us.

I was taken to a mikveh twice more as a teenager, with the girls at my Orthodox high school (only the girls, never the boys), by my female Jewish studies teachers. Each time we went, they spoke about the beauty of the ritual, the spiritual intensity of immersing before reuniting with one’s husband after separating during niddah. This was as close as my “Modern” Orthodox school ever came to educating us about sex (because everyone knows that if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen!). We were taught that the laws of taharat hamishpacha, Jewish family purity, were of the utmost holiness; that there was pretty much nothing holier we could do as Jewish women. Somehow, immersing in the mikveh was key to the entire mystery of our future married intimacy.

It was thus with great anticipation that I immersed on my wedding night a few years later. After spending an hour meticulously preparing, I shyly followed the mikveh lady into the room and removed my robe when instructed, so that she could check my back for stray hairs, as well as my fingers and toenails for any errant dirt. Then she said “You’re all set,” and held the robe up in front of her eyes so that she couldn’t see my body as I stepped into the water. I dunked once, then, covering my breasts as instructed, said the blessing, then dunked two more times. Then I got out. It was over so quickly and I had been so nervous that I had forgotten to have any kavanah, intention. I had forgotten that this was supposed to be the spiritual apex of my life as a Jewish woman. “It’s okay,” I thought, “You’ll get better at this.”

The truth is, I didn’t get better at it. Immersing every month was an exercise in ambivalence at best, disempowerment at worst. I found spirituality as a Jewish woman, but never in the mikveh. This was the case for ten years of my otherwise very happy marriage, until I immersed for the first time at Mayyim Hayyim, which transformed my entire conception of what the ritual could mean for me.

Now, each time I immerse I’m consciously deepening my relationship with God through my body. I feel weightless and held. Immersing for niddah and before holidays, I have felt renewed. Most of all, I have felt at home. Each month I am calling out to God from a place that is my own. Somehow this is only more true when I think about how I’m sharing this holy place with so many others who immerse here.

A year has gone by since my first day here, and it’s Genesis time again. A whole new group of teens has come to Mayyim Hayyim, once again excited and assured in their experience of mikveh. I look at them and think about how different things could have been for me, and for all of my Orthodox female (and male) friends, if we were granted ownership of mikveh from a young age.

If I had a chance to immerse, to develop a relationship with this ritual as a teenager or younger, I may have immersed before holidays, at my bat mitzvah, before going to Israel for the first time, and at many other transition points. I like to think that I would have immersed before my wedding night with joy instead of fear. I would have called out to God from our shared place. I would not have put pressure on that moment as the spiritual end-all of my Jewish womanhood, because I would have had been developing that moment for years. It would have been natural, normal, the next level of a relationship with a mitzvah I knew well. It would not have diluted the intimacy I would share with my husband, because I would have known that the key to our intimacy is not the immersion, but the marriage that surrounds it.

I can’t go back to my 13-year-old self, but I can thank God that Mayyim Hayyim is here for all teenage selves in 2015.

DeDe Jacobs-Komisar is Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also editing an anthology of spiritual coming-of-age stories. If you have one to share, she would love to hear from you. You can send submissions to djkomisar@gmail.com. 

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Are You Asking The Right Questions?

by Caroline Potter

caroline potterEarlier this month, I attended a conference called “Students are Not Asking Questions,” organized by the Cambridge-based, Right Question Institute (RQI). Chiefly a professional development conference for educators, it aimed to address the steep decline in question-asking as children mature and advance in school.

So, why do children stop asking questions?  In part, traditional pedagogy and standardized tests convince teachers and students that education means you “know the right answer.”  Which child is the best, the smartest, the most successful? Why, Little Sally, who has the most right answers! Beyond teachers and tests, the simple binary of right and wrong delivers a delectable dose of praise and confidence when a student comes out on the right side.  What is the capital of France? Paris! Which mammal lays eggs?  A platypus!  (You are so smart, Sally!)

Sally’s right answers have merit, but research reveals endless benefits for students who know more than right answers —  students who follow their natural curiosity, exploring, observing, and questioning who, what, why, when, where, how, and what happens if I do this?

Some years ago, RQI developed a “Question Formulation Technique” that continues to mesmerize me.  Its steps include: producing as many questions as possible, categorizing them, prioritizing them, determining a course of action to approach one or several, then finally reflecting on the process, what it brought to the surface, and how.  I encourage you to learn more about this process by visiting their site and checking out their publications.

As a high school English teacher, I can already see specific ways to adopt the Question Formulation Technique next year.  As this week’s blog writer though, I would like to model how powerful the Question Formulation Technique’s first step alone can be: Produce as many questions as possible in response to your established Question Focus.

My Question Focus for this exercise?  Mikveh (of course!)

And a brief splash of questions to start:

1). Can mikveh be for everyone?

2). What happens when a mikveh decides it will be for everyone?

3). What happens when an ancient ritual is redefined?

4). Why do people immerse today?

5). Why don’t people immerse today?

6). Can the waters heal?

7). How could the waters heal?

8). Can the waters transform?

9). How could the waters transform?

10). What does it feel like to become a Jew?

11). How has the Jewish community changed since Mayyim Hayyim opened in its doors 2004?

12). Why do we need Mayyim Hayyim?

Asking questions is much more powerful than knowing the right answer ever could be. Questions let us explore, observe, dwell in uncertainty.  They bring us into dialogue with others.  They lead us to research.  They lead us to wonder. They lead us to discover even more beautiful questions.

I invite you to ponder my own list of questions.  I invite you to ask your own — all you need is a topic, image, idea, or belief that has meaning for you.

Caroline Potter is a high school teacher in Boston and a member of Temple Sinai in Brookline.  For the last three summers she has been volunteering at Mayyim Hayyim, where she asks many questions.

 

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Spiritual Courage

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

I love Fridays in the summer. The anticipation of a lisa bio picweekend filled with family, beach, sun, swimming, cousins, and a book — when every meal is al fresco, including Shabbat dinner lit only by candlelight and, by dessert, moonlight.

At Mayyim Hayyim, Friday afternoons in July are marked by the beautiful hubbub of groups of campers and summer high school program participants arriving to explore and immerse in our mikva’ot (plural of mikveh).

This is not a “jump in the lake before Friday night dinner” kind of immersion experience. Students take time before arriving to review our Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation. They read, “Hineni, here I am. Take a minute and think about the transition mikveh will help you mark today.” And, “B’tzelem Elohim — I am made in the image of God. Each person enters the mikveh as naked as the day of his or her birth. Without rank or status. Simply a human being. Gloriously a human being.” They slow down and consider this action they are embarking on with kavanah, with full intention. They take that minute. They think about what it might truly mean to be b’tzelem Elohim.

diving-crater-lake-oregon-3782483177Our role is to build a framework at the start of the experience so each participant has an appreciation for the history and tradition of this ritual. We share how it is usually performed and make the nuts and bolts of it clear, (where are the towels? what number do I call when I’m ready?). Most importantly, we metaphorically take our hands off the steering wheel and allow each person to own this ritual – start to finish.

Afterwards we offer them the option of writing their thoughts in our guest book. They write:

“Spiritual courage.” “Pure in God’s eyes.” “I got exactly what I needed.” “Coupling me with God, alone.” “I am blessed to be Jewish.”

To all those working with Jewish teens, please, do not ever underestimate the potential for these young adults to connect with spirituality, to comfortably use God language, to dive into an unknown ritual and come out with deep and profound meaning, to use ritual as a door to dramatic change — in an hour.

Read on, in their words:

“Today was my first time being immersed in a mikveh. As I was preparing, I felt nervous, trembling at the face of God. When I immersed though, time seemed to stop, and I felt closer to God than I felt before. For the three times I was under, all my worries seemed to float away. I felt natural, pure in God’s eyes.”  –Matt

“I loved how open to interpretation it was. I got exactly what I needed.”  –Sam

“If this past year was a test of my faith, I regretfully admit that I failed. This year I lost faith, myself, and people dear to me. This year was something that I never thought I would survive. Yet, here I am. I have not felt so pure nor had such clarity as I do right now.” –Daniela

“Of late I have taken it upon myself to take more time for Jewish ritual, and get better in touch with my Jewish identity. The experience just gave me a break. I could appreciate the silence, and take in the setting. Even with all of the experiences I have had in my community, this one, coupling me with God, alone, provided one of the greatest connections.”  –Spencer

“Thank you for this experience. Coming out is hard to do as Modern Orthodox, and this experience gave me some spiritual courage.”  –O.

“This experience was much different than I had imagined – I hadn’t realized how spiritual it is and how emotional it would get. I prayed for my mom who has breast cancer and am so thankful and blessed for this opportunity.”  –Simone

“Thank you for giving me the courage to start my coming out process. I am blessed to be Jewish.”  –L.

“I take a few awkward steps down the stairs, the stone as naked as my own body. This is meant to be spiritual and I close my eyes. In and out. In and out of the waters.” –O.

We learn so much from these young people about the possibility, the potential for the profound impact of this ritual of immersion. They are our teachers.

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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Transmikveh

by A. Fox

a.foxIn my parents’ home back in St. Paul, Minnesota, I used to tiptoe into the bathroom late at night, lock the door behind me, put a towel in the door’s crack and turn off the lights.

I knew how many steps it took to reach the faucet. How many inches to lift my hand for the shower knob. Slithering to the floor, I’d count the seconds until the tub filled to the sound of the falling water.

I remember the cold floor tiles against my back. I remember the bright ghost light from minutes prior behind my eyelids. The moving water offered me a moment of internal quiet. I relished the enclosure of the bathroom: a vessel for calm.

It was there I could strip my body bare. I would pull the lint from between my toes after 12 hours in wool socks. I would bite my fingernails short. And I’d submerge in the darkness. One. Two. Three times. And finally, exhale. This was my daily ritual.

I didn’t realize how Jewish all this was until my visit to Mayyim Hayyim for an educational program as a part of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute internship. As a person who grew up in a Conservative Jewish synagogue, one might have thought I’d have drawn this parallel earlier.

When I stepped through the door of Mayyim Hayyim, away from the sound of the trickling rainwater running along the base of the building, the word niddah (monthly immersion) slithered through my brain. My heart sank. Genderrrr, I thought to myself…how could I forget? The mikveh is yet another place that cements gender divisions.

As a trans/gender non-conforming Ashkenazi Jew, I’m accustomed to this sinking feeling in the Jewish spaces I navigate. So much of the Ashkenazi Jewishness I experienced growing up was predicated upon gender duality, after all. The effect is not a welcoming one.

Once I was actually inside Mayyim Hayyim I was immediately struck by the remarkable effect of entering a Jewish institution that was explicitly designed for accessibility and pluralistic practice. To my surprise, the sinking feeling gradually went away. I looked around and I didn’t see explicitly gendered decorations. In our introductions we were prompted for our names and pronouns, and Leeza showed us Immersion Ceremonies for coming out, publicly celebrating one’s gender/s rather than the gender assigned at birth, and rituals for before surgery. When we learned about the process of immersion itself, we enacted a pretend coming out ritual and I cried. I was able to imagine myself centered—not merely tolerated–in a collective Jewish space in a powerful way.

Mayyim Hayyim reminded me that I don’t need the blanket of the darkness or a locked bathroom in the middle of the night to find renewal through water. And though I haven’t yet “officially” immersed in the mikveh, I’m looking forward to doing so with a mikveh guide and the lights turned on.

A. Fox is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a summer intern at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, they are compiling a zine on LGBTQIA+ reclamation of the mikveh. Please send questions and submissions to afox1@ucsc.edu.

 

 

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