“G” is for Galya

by Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum

“Every life is a unique expression of the great mystery that connects us. We ride upon the surface of the unfathomable deep, each one of us a wave from God.”

“I guess we’ll have to find a name that starts with ‘G’.” This was my first thought as we left the cemetery. We had just finished burying my father, Gary, alav ha’shalom, peace be upon him, and in the Jewish tradition, children are often named after deceased loved ones. I had never considered names that began with “G” before. That was my dad’s letter. He was really into things with his initials on them, “G” keychains and “G” coffee mugs. So, in my mind, “G” belonged to him.

I began to search for names that I liked that started with “G,” but nothing was catching my eye; so I put this on the back burner and turned my attention to my upcoming wedding. Two months later, the day before my wedding, I went to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim with my mother and soon-to-be mother-in-law.

My Mikveh Guide showed me to my preparation room, the one called Gal. I stood by the door reading the dedication on the wall to learn more about the suite I was in. The suite was made to be accessible to people of all kinds of physical abilities in honor of a young woman named Julie, whose Hebrew name is Galia, meaning “wave from God.” Julie and her family have worked to challenge the invisible barriers that people with differing levels of ability face in our world. I am intimately familiar with these challenges because my father was blind. He, too, was passionate about breaking through barriers for people who are visually challenged. He dedicated his life to making technology accessible and educating visually challenged people on how to use it. He was most proud of working on electronic voting machines that would make it possible for visually challenged individuals to vote independently.

When I read Julie’s story, I was so touched and I thought it quite bashert (a synchronicity) that I was in this particular room preparing for my wedding. I knew right then that I would call my daughter Galya in memory of her grandfather’s and Julie’s struggle for accessibility for all. We never picked out a name for a boy because I was so certain that this was no coincidence. I knew I was going to have a daughter, and I announced it to my mothers as soon as I came out of the mikveh!

Four months ago we brought Galya home from the hospital. The first book I read to her was Make Way For Ducklings. It’s the same copy that my dad used to read to me, with braille on a clear label over the print words. I’ll continue to read this book to her, and in time, when she asks what those dots are, I will begin to tell her the story of her name.

Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee, WI. Her roots are in Brookline, MA, and she is a graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Rabbi Berenbaum, her husband Joel, daughter Galya and beagle Clint are looking forward to moving back to the East Coast this summer!

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New Jews and Israel: Building a Relationship

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

I became a Jew (by choice) in December, 1980. I’ve been Jewish for 36 years — so long that many who know me don’t realize I wasn’t always Jewish. My observance, knowledge, and confidence about Judaism has grown each year. But, to be honest, for most of those 36 years, there was one Jewish connection I did not share with my friends who were born Jewish: I did not have a relationship with Israel – not the state, the land, the concept, the politics, the issues, or the people. Is this perhaps more common among “new” Jews than we realize?

Today we mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Next week we will celebrate Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). Until recently, these special days held little meaning for me. I wonder — is Israel often the last big concept that a new Jew embraces?

My path to Judaism was typical in many ways. I read, embraced the candle-lighting opportunities of Hanukkah and Shabbat, was nervous at my first seders, struggled with Hebrew, loved Friday evenings in synagogue as prayers became more familiar, and felt empowered to choose certain wedding rituals and create a baby naming ceremony for our daughter. It was all new, but it wasn’t very complicated — I’d seen some of it in movies, read about it in books, and had lots of family and friends around to help and support.

Just as new were the connections to Israel, but unlike Shabbat and holidays, they weren’t as practiced in my circles. It’s easy to learn Shalom Aleichem when you sing it every week. It’s hard to learn HaTikva or Yerushalayim Shel Zahav when you hear it once every few years. I can “feel Jewish” when I know the Friday evening liturgy by heart. But I feel uncomfortable and more than a little guilt-ridden because I lost no family in the Holocaust. I didn’t grow up in a home where the critical importance of the state of Israel was a spoken, or even unspoken, imperative. No JNF (Jewish National Fund) tzedekah box graced my kitchen counter, no Israel bond certificates were given at birthdays. These are little connections that, for some others, could create the strands of a relationship with the State of Israel — even if tenuous, oversimplified, or superficial.

Unlike the other ways we live Jewishly — daily, weekly, yearly rituals and observances — I found it harder to personally connect to the ones about Israel. For me, Israel was abstract, and fraught at that. It was — is — complicated in so many ways.

But the abstract became real for me when I went to Israel. First a standard congregational bus tour, then more visits as our children studied there over the years. Visits where we lived in neighborhood apartments instead of hotels, shopped in the shuk for food to cook ourselves instead of just for gifts, chose where to pray, and struggled with issues of transportation on Shabbat.

I cried upon seeing the expansive beauty of the Negev, felt the pull of the Old City, saw parts of the West Bank up close to try to begin to understand the issues. And I was changed. For me, I had to be in Israel — in the land — to connect to it, whether emotionally or intellectually. Nothing else — no movies or discussion groups or rallies or books — came close. Yes, having children who lived in Israel several times for 5-10 months was an incentive to feel connected. But even just my first 10-day visit created a new relationship for me.

Over the years, I’ve jokingly said many times that there should be “Birthright for Converts.” I don’t joke about it anymore. I actively encourage anyone who has become Jewish to find the opportunity to go to Israel. I mention the idea to Jewish professionals. And now I invite our blog readers to share their experiences with this topic. Mayyim Hayyim has welcomed nearly 2,700 individuals becoming Jewish or affirming their Jewish identity here: a diverse group of individuals in every way, likely about their Israel connections, too. Let’s start a conversation about new Jews and Israel. Who knows, maybe this will be the beginning of something really interesting.

Lisa Berman is Mayyim Hayyim’s Mikveh and Education Director.

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The Mosque and the Mikveh

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Several weeks ago I visited a mosque in Roxbury. On April 2nd seventeen mosques across eastern Massachusetts opened their doors to anyone who wanted to learn about Islam and meet its local adherents. I went to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center because a) I was invited, b) I wanted to learn more about Islam, and c) I wanted to get to know my neighbors.

By the end of the afternoon, I had definitely learned a lot about Islam, and met several of the imams and lay people at the mosque. What really took me by surprise was the fact that this “open house” really reminded me of an education program at Mayyim Hayyim.

While Open Mosque Day may have been prompted by our current political climate, it didn’t set out to “prove” anything. It was a joyful community event, extremely well-organized, and engaging of all the senses. It had the energy of a celebration and the familiar feeling of a place where people are just “hanging out.”

The volunteers and leaders at the Islamic Society welcomed us with open arms. We were given the opportunity to explore and learn about the entire building. One of the imams pointed upstairs to a school and to the left, a carpeted prayer space. In the community café, delicious tea and treats were served. Women learned how to cover their hair the traditional way, and children had their names written out in Arabic.

This profoundly open atmosphere, the opportunity to ask questions again and again, the chance to explore a holy space (the prayer area), and even to observe and learn about Muslim prayer—all of this left me feeling much more connected to this community, rather than, as I initially expected, a voyeur or intruder of any kind.

I couldn’t help but think about my own experience welcoming visitors and Education Program participants to Mayyim Hayyim. Jews and non-Jews alike enter our building, nervous that they will be trespassing within a sacred and intimate space, while others show up believing that this ritual is foreign and unrelatable.

“Will we be seeing someone immerse?” some ask with alarm.

“Should I have brought my bathing suit?” others ask, worried they will be coerced into something they didn’t sign up for.

Mikveh is still not a very well-known ritual outside of the Orthodox Jewish community. For this reason and many others, it is shrouded in mystery, and, like many things that we know too little about, our lack of information leads to misconceptions. Mikveh remains something that, within the Jewish world, we treat as taboo, secret, and often times, oppressive. And yet, at Mayyim Hayyim, we know this is simply not the case.

During the afternoon prayer at the mosque, a Muslim teacher named Barbara explained, step by step, what was happening. Her tone was both inviting and direct, and her descriptions were accessible – she translated all terms. It reminded me of the way I try to teach about mikveh. We learn the biblical underpinnings of this ritual and then, as I walk visitors through the steps of immersion, the process is demystified. People can now imagine themselves in the water; they understand why people do this. The misconceptions evaporate. The opportunity to inhabit the space fully, breaks something down inside of us; I’ve seen many learners moved to tears as they come to understand something that once felt so inaccessible to them.

As kids, we had a million questions. I would guess that at first this was exciting for the adults around us. Eventually, many of us were told (sometimes in plain terms and other times through people’s reactions) that questions are intrusive and even worse, they expose our stupidity and ignorance. Is it any wonder we end up with so much misinformation about people inside and outside of our own community?

What I loved about the opportunity to observe the afternoon prayers at the mosque and what I love about the teaching I do about the mikveh, is that both spaces are decidedly sacred and intimate. The mikveh is not a place where we are supposed to ask questions, welcome visitors, explore, or “learn” anything. And perhaps precisely for that reason, the opportunity to learn there can be transformative. Although on Open Mosque Day, I didn’t participate in Muslim prayer, I could imagine myself right there, and I felt welcome to be there, and welcome to understand it.

Neither the mosque nor Mayyim Hayyim open its doors to prove anyone wrong or defend ourselves from ignorance. In the words of one of the imams that afternoon: “In Islam, we believe that God created us all different (unique) so that we could know each other.” To paraphrase Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot (intentions) for Mikveh Preparation: “B’tzelem Elohim. We are made in the image of God.” What better reasons for learning about each other could there be?

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

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by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

This Passover has me thinking a lot about what liberation looks like to me. I wish I could say that the poignancy of our own liberation narrative, from slavery to freedom, have inspired in me words of transformation and moments of comfort and hope. But to be honest… I’ve got nothing. I’ve been racking my brain for any creative niceties that will put my heart at ease. I turn out to face the world, and I cannot see past the horrific, inexcusable suffering seeping into every crack and crevice of our planet. I see pipelines bursting, people slamming doors in the faces of refugees, people killing black and brown bodies without question, without remorse, without consequence, bombs, airstrikes… the twisted, dystopian list continues.

It appears that with each passing day, evil grows exponentially, along with our collective grief and my own bubbling rage. Of course, I can’t claim to know how to uproot oppression. I can’t claim to know how to ameliorate the anguish of millions. I can’t claim to know what liberation looks like for anyone or what it will really take to get us there. But there is one thing I do know.

I know that truth and justice are woven through the fabric of Judaism. Triumphant tales of radical compassion, mutual aid, and revolutionary resistance are etched into the eternal words of Torah. The tools to disrupt wickedness to intervene on behalf of the silenced, to reinvent, reimagine, and rebuild a righteous world, are embedded within our spiritual tradition.

I see Mayyim Hayyim as a key player in this work of spiritual resistance against slammed doors and hardened hearts. I see Mayyim Hayyim as an extension of a tradition rooted in the kind of compassion it takes to reinvent a world we’d be proud to live in. I see the mikveh itself as a spiritual tool for clarity and whole-body rejuvenation for those of us engaged in challenging resistance work.

Of course, there is no space free from the influences of the outside, and Mayyim Hayyim is no exception; but I have seen the mikveh’s other-worldly ability to break down barriers, open hearts, and catalyze people into action. I have seen our mission of inclusivity, accessibility, and commitment to accountability transform Jewish ritual life and open doors for the most marginalized among our own people. I have heard testimony of the power of the liminal space under the mikveh waters; waters that never fail to provide a brief, but welcome, respite from the tumultuous outside, a moment of peace, a glimpse of a world that could be.

This Passover, I am regrettably no closer than I was last year to understanding what that honest, just world will look like. But when I wake up in the morning, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and spring out of slumber into the reality of the world we live in, I am comforted in remembering that somewhere in our history, somewhere in our sacred texts, and somewhere under the living waters, lie the spiritual tools to pursue a justice so thunderous, it will jolt the earth.

Leah Robbins is the Administrative and Marketing Assistant at Mayyim Hayyim.


Posted in Accessibility, GLBTQ, Grief, Healing, Immersion, Inclusiveness, Inspiration, Religion | 1 Comment

Mikveh: What I Didn’t Know I Needed

by Terry Rosenberg, Board Member

My personal, direct experience with ritual immersion happened many years ago, and my memory is sweet. But the felt, lived, embodied experience has faded. I love Mayyim Hayyim for the same reasons as so many others – its inclusivity, beauty, and ability to empower me to enact an ancient ritual in my own way and on my own terms. But I had underestimated the true power of immersion until a couple of weeks ago.

I made an appointment to immerse as part of a reunion with a group of wonderful friends, as the first event in a weekend-long shabbaton. The day of my immersion had coincided with an especially difficult week, one that was extremely emotionally challenging for me personally. In other words, I was in no mood for anything, except hiding under the covers to sleep. This is not hyperbole; it was truly that bad (ask my husband). But I had a commitment to this group, and I rallied, quite certain that nothing we’d planned for that weekend, even the events that would normally fill me to the brim with joy, would pull me out of the depths.

In preparing for immersion, I chose a blessing for healing. I went through the motions while the tape in my head continued to play: “Just get it done, it won’t help, but it can’t hurt.” I followed the guidelines in the kavanot (intentions) for preparation and welcomed the warmth of the water and the beauty of the silence, but the intensity of my sadness remained. But then something unexpected happened. While I was getting dressed and blow drying my hair, I physically felt some weight had lifted. I felt spaciousness, an opening in my heart and soul that enabled me to take a deep breath. The sadness was still there, but the experience of the sadness – the heaviness of the suffering – had diminished. It was the first time in a week that I smiled – really smiled.

I have stopped trying to figure out what it is exactly about Mayyim Hayyim that resonates so deeply. The whole is greater than the sum of its beautiful parts. I am simply grateful that Judaism offers this space and place, both communal and private, that feeds my soul. I am even more grateful to Mayyim Hayyim specifically for revolutionizing this ritual for moments just like this one.

Terry Rosenberg serves on the board of Mayyim Hayyim. She is also an independent consultant and executive coach who has worked in various commercial industries and Jewish nonprofit organizations including CJP’s Leadership Development Institute and the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She has served on the boards of Temple Beth Elohim, CJP, the JCRC, and Hebrew College. She lives in Newton, MA.

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A National Network of Mikva’ot is Born

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

Since before Mayyim Hayyim opened, we’ve gotten requests to share our model with other communities. We’ve offered individualized consultations, hosted international conferences, trainings, and a blog, developed curricula and immersion ceremonies, and created short documentary films that celebrate how the mikveh (of all things!) can be a place where people feel most alive in their Jewish skin.

When I first started working here more than nine years ago, our founding director, Aliza Kline, and I were the only two people with a full-time job at a mikveh. We used to note its absurdity: Ha – who does that?! If you did a Google search for ‘mikveh’ (or ‘mikvah,’ ‘mikve,’ ‘mikva,’ and even ‘miqveh’) practically nothing showed up. And if it did, it certainly didn’t feature an experience that I’d want to be a part of.

Now, in 2017, it’s a very different world. We’ve helped other community mikva’ot get off the ground, each with their own particular model. Those communities have subsequently helped others do so, too. We no longer have to explain what a mikveh is in every conversation. On Facebook, Twitter, and in conversation elsewhere, educators are seeking out ways to teach about how the mikveh might be meaningful to their students, and the whole endeavor to offer a mikveh experience that is welcoming and inclusive is becoming normalized – even expected – from those who visit.

The beauty of all this is that Mayyim Hayyim is no longer the central source of information, answers, or expertise. We have colleagues in the field who even send us materials to use here at Mayyim Hayyim.

Last week, Mayyim Hayyim celebrated a major milestone on our journey: bringing together four other communities to envision the creation of a national (and eventual international!) network of open mikva’ot. Thanks to the Natan Fund, we convened staff and lay leadership from ImmerseNYC in New York, MACoM – Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah, Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington, DC, and Libi Eir Awakened Heart Community Mikveh in Raleigh, NC, for two days in Boston to roll up our sleeves and envision our future collaborating together.

Expert trainer and facilitator, Rae Ringel, helped us build relationships with one another, consider our shared values and what the network will stand for, offer support and input on current challenges in our communities, talk about raising money for a mikveh, and envision some of the work that we might do together in the future.

It’s a very exciting time for us all, as we give some more structure to what this network will look like, and look forward to opening it up to many more communities in the future, when we’re ready. There’s a lot more work to do and money to raise as we build our core and the field as a whole. We’re on the cusp of some extraordinary impact ahead, I’m sure.

Carrie Bornstein is the Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim.

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Don’t “Pass Over” the Mikveh

by Wendy Handler, Mikveh Guide 

A friend recently sent me an email that said, “Keep calm and carry on…spring is coming!” with a beautiful picture of budding flowers in my favorite colors. The message did little to soothe my nerves.

Spring is coming…translation: Passover is coming, too…heavy sigh…already I anticipate the back-breaking cleaning. The signs are everywhere. Have you been to your local supermarket lately? Have you tried to find your regular purchases in their rightful places? They’re not there. The store is completely out of order. The aisles have been reorganized to accommodate the slew of Passover offerings.

Another sign…the To Do List has increased exponentially:

  • Item #5 – Arrange time for Sylvia to give kitchen a super-cleaning.
  • Item #25 – Find nut-free charoset recipe for Jessie.
  • Item #125 – Get shank bones at The Butcherie.

You should know that I take the Jewish holidays very seriously. I try to focus on the apparent meaning behind the holidays and reflect on my own behavior. With two of my three children out of the house and more time on my hands, I’ve been learning more and questioning the lessons I think the holidays are trying to impart. I like to go beyond the obvious and get deep and personal. I ask myself: what is God trying to teach ME with these commandments and rituals?

During the holiday of Passover, I challenge myself in two distinct ways. Just as I purge my house of all leaving products, so, too, do I work at rooting out the superficial elements that cause me to be too prideful and boastful. I try to practice humility and diminish my sense of “personal puffiness.” On Passover we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt. Mitzrayim is the Hebrew word for Egypt, but it is also translated to mean “narrow places.” My Passover rituals include soul-searching that moves me beyond my limitations and challenges me to become a better person.

I’m fortunate to live in Newton, Massachusetts, home to Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh. The ambiance at the mikveh was intentionally designed to delight and soothe the senses. I feel those emotions as soon as I walk through the mikveh gates. I like to play a game where I try to use just the “right” words to capture the essence of the mikveh. Some good ones that come to mind are serenity, warmth, and authenticity. When I go to the mikveh, I feel that the labels that define me slip away. I am no longer “wife,” “mother,” or “friend.” I move to a broader category…I am simply human.

Before my Passover immersion, I stand naked. I am vulnerable. But at this moment I also feel that I am my truest and most authentic self. This is the self that I need to take out of the mikveh…the self that I need to be back into the world.

I immerse three times. I recite the blessing for the immersion and then the Shehechiyanu. I am grateful for having made it to this moment, and also for this moment. I am now prepared to live the meaning of Passover and to do the physical and emotional work necessary to experience it fully.

Put down the dreaded To Do list, and prepare yourself for this holiday of renewal with an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim. Schedule your immersion today.

Wendy Handler is a Jewish communal professional. She volunteers at Mayyim Hayyim as a cohort 10 Mikveh Guide and is the Continuing Education Coordinator. She lives in Newton with her husband and has three children.

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