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.

Posted in Holiday | 2 Comments

Getting Rooted

by Becca Shimshak

“For the Jews, there was light, happiness, joy and honor; so it should be for us.” ~Esther 8:16 with quote from prayer for Havdalah

When I got married ten years ago, I chose this quote for our wedding invitation. For all of our friends, there were big, beautiful weddings. Hotels, tuxedos, cute flower girls, awesome music and dancing. Why shouldn’t this be for us too?

becca selfIn my 20’s, I was diagnosed with a rare benign tumor in my femur bone that propelled my life in a very different direction than my peers. I was fortunate enough that part of that direction led me to my husband Steve however it also led to chronic pain and multiple surgeries…not so much joy and light and happiness, huh? Not yet.

So, it took me a while to regain my health and embrace all that happiness and May 29th, 2005, our wedding day, rocked the house.

Fast forward to my 30’s and once again I was itching for the next wave of blessings to shine on me…children. I thought the hard work was done. My husband and I had gotten settled in our marriage, our careers, our friendships, and we were committed to building a family.

So, when I was diagnosed with endometriosis and an ovarian cyst explaining why we were struggling to conceive, I was thrown aback. Who could I share this with and how am I going to get through this to achieve our goal of becoming parents?

To be honest, it was a long road of doctors and tests and learning more about my body than I had ever before. I lost weight; I went gluten, dairy and sugar free; I changed my sleeping patterns, took more vitamins. I embraced yoga; I worked with an acupuncturist. I knew I could not get through this struggle alone and needed to find others who “got it.” But how would I find people? Especially in the Jewish community when my friends were exploring pre-schools, not fertility clinics…

Then, I visited Mayyim Hayyim. My mother brought me to help me heal from my surgery for the ovarian cyst and to bring blessings of fertility to me. During one of my visits to Mayyim Hayyim, I saw a small sign on a coffee table among other resources from local Jewish organizations.  The sign said: “Are you struggling with infertility? Email and join our support group.” By the time I wrote, the group had disbanded because all of the women got pregnant. The leader introduced me to a chevruta (learning partner) who changed my life. I had finally found someone else who understood and could go through this journey with me. From that relationship, I learned to share with my friends and not be ashamed. I got support through surgeries, a miscarriage, and learned about PGD – Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, that ultimately led me to Zoe Ann and Isabella Rose – my two beautiful daughters full of light, happiness joy, and honor, who will be celebrating their first Purim this year.

Without Mayyim Hayyim, I would not be where I am today – still in my pajamas at 4pm in the afternoon, covered in organic baby formula – blessed with light, happiness, joy and honor (yes, even at 4am) and establishing Uprooted: A Jewish Response to Infertility.

becca 1As a result, I decided, that, although my daughters were going to be named at Reform, Conservative and Orthodox shuls, thanks to their pluralistic parents, their first stop as Jewish women must be Mayyim Hayyim. Ziva Yocheved and Vered Elisheva were named there. We blessed the girls in the presence of their grandparents, Marsha and Marc Slotnick and Marcia and Dan Shimshak, as we dipped their feet in water that we proclaimed as holy. We filled the bowl with rose petals for Isabella and precious stones for Zoe. Mayyim Hayyim was a key source of support for me in bringing these girls into the world so we wanted their Jewish journey to begin there.

becca flower

Becca family
Becca Shimshak is the Founding Executive Director of Uprooted. Uprooted provides a central address for educating American Jewish leaders in assisting families with fertility challenges, and for national communal support to those struggling to grow their families.

Posted in Grief, Healing, Holiday, Infertility, Inspiration, Marriage, Parenting | Tagged | 2 Comments

A Film is Worth a Million Words

by Carrie Bornstein

If you know about the mikveh, you’re probably aware that there are any number of reasons why a person might feel, well, less than comfortable with the idea. Let’s be honest here – the mikveh is not our easiest of rituals. Some people have anxiety about water, or with nudity, for that matter. The blessings are in Hebrew and sometimes people are concerned they will do it “wrong.”

DSC_0018Now imagine you feel all that, and you have a disability.

The staff and volunteers at Mayyim Hayyim work hard to make the experience of visiting the mikveh as accessible and meaningful as possible. Part of that means giving as much information as possible to people who have not yet visited – everything from explaining where the preparation rooms are in relation to the mikveh to the temperature of the water, to how much time it might take to prepare and immerse.

A thorough consultation means our visitors know what to expect when they arrive. But it’s not easy to alleviate someone’s doubts when, for example, they don’t have the use of their legs. Phone calls, emails, visits to our website can help, but there is much more we can do.

“Our foundation’s work is focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of the Jewish community. Mayyim Hayyim is right down the street from our foundation and although we have been aware of their great work, it was not until recently that we formed a partnership with them. Mayyim Hayyim, who understands the importance of inclusion to their work, was a perfect partner for our foundation.” Sharon Shapiro, Trustee and Director of the Boston Office (credit: Steve Lipofsky)

This is why I am so grateful to the Ruderman Family Foundation for their support for our newest documentary film, Open Waters, forthcoming this spring. Featuring people with all different kinds of needs and showing our aquatic lift, we can demonstrate how Mayyim Hayyim welcomes each person as if the mikveh had been built just for them – which, indeed it has. The film will show (rather than just tell) people with a variety of physical and cognitive abilities what to expect. It will also demonstrate to friends, family members, and communities that the mikveh is an option for everyone.

Finally, I hope every person who watches this film, wherever they are, remembers just how many barriers there are not only to visiting a mikveh. I hope they will consider their own synagogue, camp, or school and what kind of barriers exist there.

All of us at Mayyim Hayyim hope the film can inspire everyone to work so that there are no stumbling blocks in any of our Jewish communal organizations. We can’t wait to share it with you.

 

DSC_0023 DSC_0033

 

 

 

 

 

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. 

Posted in Carrie Bornstein, Disability, Immersion, Inclusiveness | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Holiness You Can Hold

by Donna Leventhal

Donna Leventhal better

As a member of the Mayyim Hayyim Art Committee, I am excited to introduce our “Vessels” year-long show. From September-January, “Vessels: Containing Possibilities” showcased the Raku vases of and mosaic art. Opening this Thursday and continuing through June is “Vessels: Holiness in Hand,” featuring work by glass blower Christopher Watts and porcelain potter Elizabeth Cohen.

The Art Committee’s exploration of “vessels” began with the mikveh itself. As a vessel carefully constructed to contain living waters for ritual immersion, this ancient pool was the perfect starting place. We asked ourselves: How does the act of defining space — shutting out, separating, containing — serve to create holiness?

Judaism is a religion replete with moments of separation. We separate the mundane from the special; blessing the fruit of the earth, the wine in a designated goblet, the challah between a plate and special cloth, and light itself in special candle holders. Most sacred of all is the space we carve out in time for Shabbat each week, and for the celebration of our holy days.

Defining spaces and creating boundaries is central to our Jewish lives. Vessels: Holiness in Hand brings to life this concept of holiness as embodied by objects often found in our homes. Chris Watts’ large goblets immediately command our attention. Pour wine into them, and the vessel itself is transformed. The emphasis immediately shifts from “wine tasting” to a spiritual moment. The vessel defines the substance and helps create the occasion. Watt’s goblets are full of elegant detail reminiscent of Venetian glassblowers. While traditional kiddish cups are silver, a material that reflects light, Watts’ glass goblets actually hold light, as if they are comprised of the light of creation.

Blueknot-1

Mayyim Hayyim is also fortunate to have a series of Chris Watts’ glass scrolls. The scrolls feel as though they were just pulled out of clay jars from Dead Sea caves. Unfurled before us, shimmering in the light they hold, the colorful glass presents us text to decode in line, shape, and color. The meaning is both before us and for us to make.

Elizabeth Cohen, a potter, brings a quiet sanctity to her exquisite ritual vessels.  The simplicity of the thin white porcelain and the disciplined clean forms create a hauntingly spiritual focal point for ritual. Each piece is a gateway, further engrossing the participant in the meaning and intent of the ritual.

handsEliz

Cohen offers a variety of moments for ritual connection. There are vessels for wine, hand washing, matzah, challah, charoset, and the seder plate; each form offers the possibility of many uses. What the user chooses to place in these vessels becomes special because it is placed within.  Cohen’s series of stacked bowls nestled within each other alludes to the spiritual, and yet they can be broken apart and used on the holiday table. The nesting bowls with openings are the essence of expanding infinity, the contained and containable.

On the walls, Cohen presents us with another examination of the infinite in a series of circular forms bound together within a larger circular shape. Our eyes move in and out of the many hollows that create room for reflection. On a more abstract level, Cohen brings us vessels that contain the promise of spring before us. Organic forms emerge from them and sway in an unseen breeze. What a wonderful moment they hold before us as we, here in Boston, sit immobilized by the ongoing winter.

The concept of building a “Fence around the Torah” holds a prominent place in rabbinic literature; establishing a literal or figurative vessel to protect the sacred is an important aspect of Jewish practice. Beautiful vessels create wider portals for entry, with God and with ourselves. The mikveh is not a bath tub. Challah is not a roll eaten on the street. Every moment of our lives cannot be spiritual, but we do need these moments of sacredness through separation. Through the elegance and craftsmanship in their vessels, Elizabeth Cohen and Chris Watts provide openings into the sacred that you will not want to miss.

Join us at Mayyim Hayyim this Thursday, February 26th at 5:30 pm to meet the artists and hear the stories behind their incredible work.

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

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What if You Can’t Swim: Part II

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaAfter my education program with Temple Emunah two weeks ago, I went looking through our records for primary source materials about our mechanical lift. I came across a very moving letter we received from Rabbi Peter Stein. In this letter, Rabbi Stein writes about how he was able to share mikveh immersion as a way for his congregant to mark a transition to the end of his life.  I wish I’d had it on hand to read to the students in that group of 6th graders from Temple Emunah, whose minds were so clearly ready to learn about accessibility. We hope you enjoy this letter; it is a stirring example of what is possible when steps are taken to eliminate potential barriers to Jewish ritual.

Peter Stein Letter (1)

For ease of reading, we’ve also transcribed the letter here:

Dear Carrie,

Thank you so much for enabling me to bring my congregant, Stephen Grubman Black, to the mikveh earlier this week. As you know, Steve has entered hospice care as his cancer continues to progress, and he has suffered terribly from pain and increased disability. Bringing him to the mikveh was an extraordinary experience for him, bringing him peace and comfort, and was also an extraordinary opportunity for me as his rabbi.

I am deeply grateful for all the kindness and sensitivity that was exhibited by you, Michael, and all the others who made this possible. The ability to use the lift was essential, and Steve felt comfortable and supported throughout his immersion. I don’t think I have all the right words to say how special and important it was to offer something physical like this to nourish Steve’s spirit during his illness. It is an entirely different kind of support than the intellectual and emotional support that is generally extended to the sick.

I feel very lucky that you and the other leaders of Mayyim Hayyim are doing such creative, beautiful, and inspirational work. Under ordinary circumstances, nothing like this creative immersion and healing ritual would have been possible, and I thank you for all that you have done. It is truly an act of chesed shel emet, sacred love and kindness. As I watched and listened to Steve during the immersion, I knew that together we created a genuinely sacred moment for him.

Thank you so very much for all that you have done, and all that you and the entire mikveh staff and volunteers continue to do. I look forward to sharing more special times together in the future.

Shalom,

Rabbi Peter W. Stein

rabbistein150Rabbi Peter Stein is senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY and the former rabbi of Temple Sinai in Cranston, RI. Rabbi Stein was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His undergraduate studies were at Cornell University, and he also completed the Jewish Leaders Program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What if You Can’t Swim?

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaWhen I teach about mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim, my students learn about the difference between a ma’ayan mikveh, (a natural, spring-fed or flowing mikveh) and a bor mikveh, (a human-made, part-of-the-ground pit mikveh). At which point, I stop to ask: “So, why might you care that we are able to build a mikveh indoors?”

My students have no problem coming up with reasons: regular snow storms and public nudity chief among them. This is also my moment to share my artistic skills, as I draw a shark on the white board (I’m actually terrified of all fish, but I draw sharks the best). Accessibility usually makes the list, as in, “Is there water nearby?” Last week, a student from a group of 6th graders from Temple Emunah went further, when she asked: “What if you can’t swim? What if it’s not safe for you to be out in a natural body of water?”

I paused because, for the first time in my six months here, a student had preempted a crucial part of our program. In a few minutes, we would be in the mikveh area opening all of the closets and cabinets in a frenzy, and sticking our hands into the warm pools. I would ask them to tell me what differences they saw between the preparation rooms. Some would have noticed that one is missing a rug and has a shower chair in the closet, but many wouldn’t. That’s the thing; like so much else in life, if it doesn’t affect us directly we often don’t notice it. The design of our education programs contradicts that tendency when I ask my students to touch everything and go everywhere. Afterwards, I ask them what they saw, and when the moment is ripe, I ask them to consider why they think we did things a certain way.

Needless to say, this particular class was ahead of the game. By the time we got into the mikveh area, this same student asked me point blank: “But how does someone get into the water if they can’t walk?” I explained that we have a mechanical lift that is shaped much like a a chair. The lift is rolled as close to the edge of the mikveh as it can safely go, and the person immersing is helped into the lift-chair or sits down in it themselves. A mikveh guide or friend of the person immersing will meet them in the water wearing a bathing suit. The arm of the lift (seen in the picture below) will slowly lower the person into the waters. The mikveh guide helps them out, helps them to fully dunk, and then helps them back in to the chair that then mechanically lifts them out.

Lift_4-copy1

Part of the immersion experience is about eliminating any barriers that might come between us and the water. I explain to my students that the shampoo, combs, and toothbrushes are not in the preparation rooms because we think our guests are dirty. They are there because dirt, jewelry, and clothing are all considered to be a physical barrier, a chatziza, between us and the water. But barriers come in all shapes and sizes. When students come to Mayyim Hayyim to learn, I ask them what might make immersion challenging for someone, and how we have or haven’t addressed that challenge. Mayyim Hayyim isn’t perfect, and there is a lot that can still be done –but when a group of 6th graders has left the building with a glimpse of what it looks like to use intentional design and the framework of our tradition to learn about accessibility for everyone, I feel like we are moving in the right direction.

After my education program with Temple Emunah two weeks ago, I went looking through our records for primary source materials about the mechanical lift. I found a powerful example and we’ll be publishing it next week…Stay tuned.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She continues to be inspired by the questions and insights of her students. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Weather Outside

by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager

LDeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_iving in the Boston area, it’s hard to think about anything these days besides snow. It’s hard to believe that just twenty days ago it had only snowed five inches the entire season; now we’re buried in a collective snowfall of more than six feet that has wreaked havoc on all of our lives. And they’re predicting more by the time this blog is posted. Snow is everywhere and always and forever. Spring, grass, flowers, what are these words? I am writing this after finally escaping my home after the latest round of interminable snow days with stir-crazy children. If someone makes a global warming joke, I’m stabbing them in the knee with an icicle.

So what’s the connection between mikveh and snow? You may have heard the urban legend of women in the USSR risking their lives to immerse by cutting holes in the ice in the dead of night. What else? For one thing, if you’re low on water you can fill a mikveh with snow or ice and let it melt. During a 2012 drought, the Omaha Community Mikveh did just that, carting in 250 blocks of ice to refill an empty mikveh. According to a minority of rabbinic opinions, snow IS a mikveh. Yep, if you have 40 se’ah (about 200 gallons) of contiguous snow, you have your own personal mikveh. I dare you to try it out, (no really please don’t).

ice house

A prep room at our satellite mikveh/ice fishing village in Vermont

When Jerusalem was hit by a snowstorm in 2013, there were reports of Kabbalists rejoicing that they would be able to perform the ritual of gilgul ba’sheleg, literally rolling in snow, to cleanse themselves of sin. In the ultra-Orthodox community of Mea Shearim, a Taharat Habayit (“family purity”) van was commissioned to transport snowbound women to immerse in the mikveh.

snow mikveh

Mayyim Hayyim – Ice Fortress

To me, the most important connection between mikveh and snow is the blend of outside and inside. It’s a way I can refocus my perspective, seeing the snow not as a nuisance but as part of the natural world and feeder into the mikveh in which I immerse. I can immerse in the warm waters of the mikveh, kissed by the melted snow from outside, and be refreshed, recharged in their sanctuary. I can meditate, focus…and yeah, pray for spring to come soon.

DeDe Jacobs-Komisar is Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim and hopes to one day see her front lawn again. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment