A Rare Treat to Toivel

by Karen Abraham, Mikveh Guide

“A guest is coming to toivel.”
Toivel?”
“To make new dishes ready for use. Take a look in the file drawer for more information.”

I quickly set down the phone and opened the drawer. I found the two-page explanation about how to immerse kitchen items in the mikveh. It explained why this is done — likening the Jewish table to an altar — and why we “convert” dishes for use in a Jewish home. I quickly read through the details about appropriate blessings and procedural guidelines. Just a few minutes later, I welcomed two guests with armloads of bags and boxes, straight from Target and Ikea! The two housemates made another trip back to the car for more items as I assessed how to proceed.

I grabbed scissors and a trash bag and together we unwrapped, unboxed, and unlabeled dishes, cooking utensils, cutlery, pots, pans, and a whistling teakettle. When a person immerses in the mikveh, the waters must surround them, embracing and touching every nook and cranny. The same is true for items used for preparing kosher meals, so we began to remove every sticky price tag and label. I borrowed a bottle of nail polish remover from a prep room, and I rummaged through my pocketbook to find a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Both of these items aided in removing sticky residue so all the items would get a kosher immersion in the mikveh.

Leaving the pocket doors wide open, we moved the items to the side of the mikveh. The water was ready to receive them. Our guests paused to recite the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’Tzivanu Al Tevilat Keilim. Blessed are You, God of all creation, Who sanctifies us with Your commandments and commands us concerning the immersion of vessels.

I quickly realized that we were going to need many towels. I lined the side of the pool with dry towels to collect the newly immersed dishes. One of the guests grabbed a new stainless steel colander and filled it with smaller utensils to dunk, making sure that he momentarily let go of the container to assure that the mikveh water touched all of the items. We dipped red plates for meat and white plates for dairy. The guests chatted about meals that they hoped to prepare for themselves and friends. We created an assembly line for drying and repacking all of the new items. When we were finished toiveling, the guests left Mayyim Hayyim eager to cook kosher meals, share recipes and cuisine with friends, and celebrate Jewish holidays with their kashered dishes and utensils.

Thinking back to this guiding experience, at first I felt it was completely unique from any other immersion. The intimacy and private nature of human immersions was not a concern for toiveling. The nervousness and anxiety that also comes with human immersions was not present. Yet, upon deeper reflection, I realized that toivel-ing celebrated a transformation and the anticipation of change, just as a bride immersing before a wedding or an adopted child converting to Judaism. The ritual of dunking dishes and spoons was indeed a holy endeavor. As a Mikveh Guide, I felt especially privileged to have intimately participated in transforming and preparing a new kosher kitchen.

Karen Abraham is teacher at The Rashi School, as well as a Mikveh Guide. She resides in Natick with her husband and teenage son. 

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A New Life for the New Year

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

Mayyim Hayyim is the home of new beginnings.

After ten years of working at Mayyim Hayyim, I’ve seen a lot of joyful celebration. But I’ve seen a great deal of heartache, too: couples mourning miscarriage, grieving after stillbirth, weeping after failed IVF cycles, immersing month after month, trying to conceive.

Beth wrote to us: “Your infertility ceremony broke down a wall I had unknowingly erected. Finally, someone understood what I was feeling and gave me permission to feel it. I emerged centered, peaceful, and for the first time in over a year, hopeful.”

Felicia and David wrote: “We have been grieving our loss and are ready to try to conceive our next child. We are grateful to have this resource.

Sometimes heartache turns to joy. I’ve seen couples return to immerse in the 9th month of pregnancy, or post-partum with a newborn in their arms, or to celebrate the adoption and conversion of their child. These are the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.

If not for Mayyim Hayyim, it never would have occurred to me to become a gestational surrogate. To turn sorrow into gladness.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be delivering a baby I’ve been carrying for a Jewish couple in London who were among the heartbroken for more than seven years. It has been an amazing journey and I am deeply grateful for the support of the Mayyim Hayyim community along the way.

This pregnancy is unlike my others in so many ways. For example, I’m not registering for onesies or a stroller. Instead, I’m asking you to join me in this mitzvah by donating to Mayyim Hayyim.

Your gift insures Mayyim Hayyim’s mission as a safe and sacred haven for all the seasons of life. So Lisa and Sarah can immerse before giving birth, Rachel and Robert can heal after a late-term miscarriage, and Randi and Daniel get to “be in the moment” as they become parents.

Every dollar you give will be a source of healing and renewal. So please, give generously. Shanah Tova.

To give someone a new beginning, make a donation now at www.mayyimhayyim.org/donate.

Carrie Bornstein is the Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim. You can read more about her journey on her blog, “There’s No I in Uterus.”

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The Holy One at the Mikveh

by Rabbi Jamie Kotler

As the month of Elul approaches, immediately preceding the High Holy Days, I am filled with trepidation. The rabbis understand it to be a joyous time. They traditionally interpret the Hebrew letters of Elul (אלול) as an acronym for Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” a verse from the Song of Songs, the great love story between the Holy One and Israel. Like the lovers in that most beautiful of love stories, God comes into the fields just ahead of the High Holy Days, searching for me, seeking my heart, if only I open to that Presence.

To meet The Holy One in that place of love and honesty means shedding the layers of protective covering I have managed, once again, to grow around my heart. How will I find my way this year? In the words of Deuteronomy: “What does Hashem, your God ask of you? Only to hold Hashem your God, in awe, to walk in all His ways, and to love him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and being… Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts… ” (Deut. 10:12-16).

Elul becomes a time of transformation – a spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days. It is a time to a shed the thickened layers, to cleanse the schmutz (dirt) that has covered my heart, in preparation for entering the Heart of Hearts. The process is akin to that undertaken by the High Priest at Yom Kippur. Each year, as the High Priest prepared to enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple where the Holy Presence dwelt, he, too, immersed in a mikveh. Today, our hearts serve as the Temple: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.” (Ex. 25:8). I immerse, as I prepare to meet the Holy One in the inner sanctum of my heart.

Each year, when I descend into the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim, and open the spigot that delivers the collected rain water, I access the primordial waters, the first “gathering of waters,” from which all life came forth. I immerse. I float. I let the waters of the Holy One support and surround me, giving me buoyancy. I feel the emergence of hope, a glimmer of recognition of the path inward that I will follow, as I journey to meet the One who awaits my heart with Abounding Love.

We invite you to make use of the mikveh as a physical and spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days. Schedule your visit here.

Rabbi Jamie Kotler teaches Torah to adults in the Boston area. Her goal is to open a door into to Torah for spiritual seekers, enabling them to reflect on our connection to The One, to one another, to the chain of generations on whose shoulders we stand, and to the world we inhabit. Rabbi Kotler also serves as a chaplain.

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Angst at the Mikveh

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Just as Abraham ran to greet the three angels in Bereishit (Genesis) 18:2, the volunteer Mikveh Guides at Mayyim Hayyim are always prepared to greet our guests with enthusiasm. They are the ones in the back room quietly folding laundry while, in the preparation room next door, someone is cautiously removing a stray hair or a sock, one mundane step towards marking the end of mourning, or the beginning of a new life.

The Mikveh Guides try to mirror God in Creation, by drawing themselves in so that the finite can unfold around them. In the beginning, or so one version of the story goes, God retracted its infinite self to allow for the separation of the skies and water, and in order to breathe life into living things. For a Mikveh Guide, this act of tzimtzum (withdrawal) often means leaving space for the unknown.

Two weeks ago, Mayyim Hayyim offered a Mikveh Guide Appreciation Night: an evening with copious amounts of dessert and prosecco, and a facilitated discussion, during which we gave Mikveh Guides a chance to share guiding moments that felt powerful in some way.

That night, sitting in a circle of couches and chairs in Anita Diamant and Jim Ball’s living room, Mikveh Guides shared proud moments of reassuring nervous parents before the immersion of their child for conversion, and navigating extremely busy afternoons at the mikveh.

One Mikveh Guide answered the question: What happens when the unknown is uncomfortable? What happens when you retract yourself, and the person at the door is someone you have a really hard relationship with? The Guide hesitated before offering her story, “I feel a little vulnerable sharing this, but I’d like to…”

What followed was a candid description of her experience of showing up to guide, and unbeknownst to her, the person who arrived for an immersion was someone with whom she had a fraught relationship. For a moment, she panicked, unsure how to proceed. However, as soon as their interaction began, this Mikveh Guide described, “I realized that I had power in the situation, and a responsibility to make this go well.” She said she was surprised by her own capacity to temporarily let go of the baggage between them, and simply be a presence for this person. Perhaps the guest noticed; the Mikveh Guide reported that the guest seemed at ease, too, even though their last meeting had been a really difficult one.

This story has sat with me ever since. How many times have I gone through my day, satisfied with a knee-jerk reaction, or content with feeling powerless in a difficult situation? I am struck by the way the context of being a volunteer, and in a way, a leader within a ritual space, allowed this Guide to access something beyond her hurt feelings.
I am grateful to our Mikveh Guides for all that they do, but especially for teaching me that making space or others can be a singularly powerful act.

Interested in joining the fold of Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guides? Apply for Cohort 11 today!

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.

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Water for Life

by Fern Remedi-Brown

This is our family’s story:

Before we adopted our now-12-year-old daughter, Maya, from Guatemala, we had decided on her name. Her biological mother had given her the name María Guadalupe, which means “river of black stones.”

We are a two-mom, bi-cultural family. I was raised Jewish, and my wife, Ginny, was a former nun and raised Catholic. We had made the decision to raise our children as Jewish, due, in large part, to my having lost all of the family on my father’s side in the Holocaust. Therefore, we felt that it would be incongruous for her to have a Catholic name.

We did, however, want a name starting with “M,” to remember Ginny’s mother, Mary. We decided on “Maya,” which is used in many different cultures and means different things in different languages. But it is significant to us because it derives from “water” in Hebrew, like the water of the river Guadalupe. And, true to her name, she has loved water from an early age.

For Maya’s middle name, we needed a name beginning with “E” to remember Ginny’s brother, Ernesto. We selected Ezrela, which means “God is my strength.” This felt significant because the black stones of the river Guadalupe also symbolize strength. Also true to her name, Maya is a very strong and resilient person, having endured much in her 12 years.

When Maya was 9 months old, she had her conversion ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim. The rabbis told me to completely let her go into the water, even though of course, she couldn’t stand up at the bottom. I was frightened to do this, but when I brought her to the surface, she was clearly filled with glee!

Maya’s name and her longtime love of water have become more significant as we have created a family nonprofit, Sowing Opportunities, Inc., our venture to aid her biological village, Chajmaic, so that they can have access to clean water. The ample, but polluted, water from the nearby river, el Río Cahabón, is a source of multiple illnesses among those living in the 1,600-person village of Chajmaic. Maya is working on what we call, “Water for Life,” as one of her community service projects for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, which includes a live music fundraiser on September 16.

Maya and Ricardo

In her 6th grade classroom, Maya was reading about Harriet Tubman, who was called “Moses in the Promised Land.” I told her that Harriet Tubman was extra significant because our associate and friend in Guatemala, Ricardo, spoke to me about Moses earlier that day. He said, “Remember the prophet, Moses. He was afraid to speak to Pharaoh and he became the liberator of the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s our turn to free Chajmaic of oppression, hunger, and misery, and bring this to all Guatemala. Go forward, Fern, always forward.”

Ricardo called Maya a messenger of God, because, without her, this project wouldn’t exist. It was Maya’s insistence at age 6 that led us to locate her biological mother and village of Chajmaic. We found them in January 2015 and visited her biological mother in July 2015, when Maya was 10½.

This photo is with Maya’s biological mother and aunt at
Cero de la Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala.

A few days before hearing the story of Harriet Tubman, Maya received her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah. The Biblical selection is “Bo,” which is Exodus, where Moses delivers the Israelites out of Egypt. How fitting that this is the portion she will chant in Hebrew on her Bat Mitzvah.

As we prepare to celebrate Maya, her passion for justice, and this Jewish milestone, we’ll be joining Mayyim Hayyim for their mother-daughter program, Beneath the Surface. Spots are still open! Won’t you join us?

Fern has a passion for eliminating global healthcare inequities, and works closely with the Guatemalan NGO CorGuate, inspired by her daughter Maya’s Guatemalan heritage. Her published works on Guatemala can be found here. She lives with her wife Ginny and their two daughters.

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The Mikveh is Calling

by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

I don’t know about you, but Elul has me totally out of sorts. This is supposed to be a deeply reflective moment in time, a month to really sit with our struggles, reevaluate our behavior, renegotiate our values, and renew our commitments.

There’s so much I’m itching to stop and think about. The existential questions that come with preparing physically and spiritually for t’shuvah (repentance, return) are mounting, and the precious time required for that kind of soul work is slipping away. Which of my relationships could use a little nurturing? Who in my life could use an apology? Where have I faltered in living my truths, staying true to my convictions? For whom can I show up better next time?

We learn that the month of Elul is about asking the hard stuff, and more importantly, confronting the hard answers. But who has the time? Between booking immersions, populating our education programs, recruiting new Mikveh Guide trainees, my local social justice involvement, studying for the GRE, trying to be a loving partner, friend, relative, (thinking about, but never actually) exercising, where and how can I drown out the noise of the Mondays and hone in on the responsibility of cheshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul)?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix, no shiny, red “STOP” button on the chaos. How fortunate we are, though, that Jewish tradition anticipates the challenges of the ticking clock, the monotony of the work week, the back-to-school madness. Ritual immersion was built into the blueprint of our spiritual repertoire for this very reason: to pull us, often by our kicking feet, under the living waters, and into a place of stillness – to force us, against the demands of all else, to bring our full bodies into sacred space and ask: What will I let wash away? Who will I leave behind in the water? Who will I be when I emerge?

As the High Holidays approach, and the to-do lists get longer, I invite you not only to take the time, but make the time. Don’t just get ready, feel ready. The mikveh is calling. How will you answer?

Let us welcome you for a High Holiday immersion. Schedule your visit here.

Leah Robbins is the Administrative and Marketing Assistant at Mayyim Hayyim. This High Holiday season, she’s looking forward to a trip home to Florida, repairing a few relationships, and her mother’s brisket.

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Eclipsed by the Divine

by Elisha Gechter

Last week my husband Sam and I endured a connecting flight from Boston to Knoxville, TN with our 5 year-old and 9 month-old. We were eclipse-bound and willing to make some sacrifices in the name of science. Aside from all the planning that went into the week we would spend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the day of the eclipse itself included a lot of prep time. We rose before sunrise (something our family is not in the habit of doing) in our hotel room, shuffled the kids and all the eclipse gear into our rental car, and drove an hour through the park to Cades Cove, a field my husband selected as the spot to watch totality from. He and several hundred (okay, maybe a thousand) other families narrowed in on the field as well. By 7am, hundreds of cars lined up at the entrance gate to this area of the park, each of us hoping to secure a spot to spend the many hours waiting for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. By 8:30am, we were driving through the gates that had finally opened, and by 10am, we were set up on our blanket in the shade. And then, we waited.

Well, actually, I waited and sat around with the kids, while Sam scurried around setting up all his eclipse gear: tripods supporting cameras with solar filters, an eclipse telescope, safe binoculars, plus eclipse glasses. All around us people were doing the same – and they were also passing the hours snacking and playing; adults chatted companionably, lending tools and tips, and kids shared toys, blew bubbles, and read books. People had come from all over. We met Canadians, Indians, and Asians, we sat next to a Christian family, saw a Muslim family a few blankets over, heard young ones next to grandparents. Everyone had put thought into what to wear. T-shirts marked the day in style – from NASA to Star Wars and all manner of eclipse-branded tops (including ones designed for Smoky Mountains). Sam wore “Tatooine – a place in the suns,” and my son and I had on matching “Goodnight Moon” shirts. They served as a point of conversation; folks complemented those they passed on their clever clothing choices.

After three hours the eclipse began at 1pm and people got up from their blankets and chairs to get their first looks from protected lenses. We had to crane our necks way back to catch the ever-so-slowly disappearing sun. Then we sat down, but in steady increments we rose to check on the progress of the moon dancing over the sun. An hour and 15 minutes in, and the light started to get weird. There were not just crescent-shaped shadows falling, but the light started to feel other-worldly, and the un-shaded parts of the field didn’t feel quite as hot and unbearable.

As we approached 2:35, it got dark, and the sky was purple. The moment when we saw the crown of light around the shadow of the darkness of the moon, there was collective clapping and whooping because we all had the need to give sound to the amazing, tingling feeling in our bodies. My eyes started to tear up, and I held my kids close as I looked at the sky, without any glasses, and marveled at the mystical thing I was witnessing. That bright white ring amidst a dark sky lasted less than two minutes, and I tried to be in the moment, and connect with myself, my family, the crowd and, really, the universe. I quietly cried for the entire totality. And I also smiled so much as I watched my daughter take joy in the sight and as I watched Sam snapping his camera set on the tripod as he repeated “wow, wow, wow.”

When it was over and the light returned and our glasses went back on, I was so grateful we’d traveled for this, and immediately wondered when I’d be able to see a total solar eclipse again, and brush with the divine in a way I never imagined possible. The day was long and hot, but next to my wedding day, and the birth of my children, it’s up there with most moving, awe-inspiring, and emotional moments. Of course the moment of totality had passed all too quickly. We had spent such a large amount of time preparing, not only leading up to the trip but that very day. We’d been up for hours, driving, sitting, moving, waiting, and the thing we’d been preparing for had passed in less than three minutes. Maybe that’s why we felt the need to stay another hour and a half until the eclipse had totally vanished. We felt the need to balance the time.

But I also was reminded of the way we use mikveh. When I first started going to Mayyim Hayyim after getting married, I remember feeling disappointed that I had just spent 45 minutes getting ready to immerse and then once I went into the mikveh room, the actual main event was over in just a few minutes. The proportion felt off until I started to view the entire process as an experience in and of itself. I embraced Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation to guide my preparations and enjoyed the moments to myself that were not rushed, as my normal goings about typically are. The time preparing became an opportunity for reflection before even entering the mikveh waters. And then I found myself able to use each second in the mikveh, even counting the seven steps I descended before dunking below the waters surface three times, as an intensely intentional way to more deeply process whatever was on the horizon – something special (getting ready to conceive or give birth) or something mundane. It’s my hope to bring those kavanot to help me prepare in the mikveh before a second-in-a-lifetime event when a total eclipse again crosses the US on April 8, 2024. Or if my husband and I follow our hearts to Chile to see a total eclipse in July 2019, to dunk before that, because once you’ve danced with the divine, can you really wait seven years to do so again?

Elisha Gechter is the Senior Program Manager for Wexner Israel Programs at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. She is passionate about Jewish learning, is a lover of bluegrass music, and lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband Sam, daughter Zoe, and son Erez.

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