Many Visits Later, Finally My First Immersion

by Rachel Bernstein

rbernsteinI had been preparing for my first immersion for eight years. I didn’t know exactly when it would be, but I could guess why it would be. The first eight times I had visited Mayyim Hayyim, I went in my capacity as Academic Adviser for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute summer internship. I brought undergraduate and graduate students to Mayyim Hayyim each summer for an educational program. The focus of the internship is on gender and Judaism, so our annual field trip to Mayyim Hayyim always created a great conversation.

During my first visit to Mayyim Hayyim with the interns, I was completely bowled over by the concept of mikveh and seeing the space itself. As we did a mock walk-through of how an immersion might take place, I envisioned how I would approach the ritual, and wondered when I might visit Mayyim Hayyim for my own immersion. As we outlined the traditional reasons for using the mikveh, I decided that before my wedding I would immerse as a bride.

Every year afterward I would daydream during our visits about my eventual immersion. The space felt spiritual to me—so serene—and the power of performing a ritual that had been performed by Jews for millennia really struck me. Every year I would get goosebumps thinking about this sacred heritage and my place within it at Mayyim Hayyim.

hbiFast forward to this year when I made my final trip to Mayyim Hayyim with the interns, as I marked my eighth and final summer working as the Academic Adviser at HBI. This summer’s trip was extra special because I was engaged and planning my wedding for this September. When we visited Mayyim Hayyim at the end of July, I was within a couple of months of getting married and immersing for the first time. As we talked about the uses and meaning of the mikveh and walked through the steps of immersion, I once again envisioned going through these steps and connecting with the ritual knowing that my appointment was set and it was really going to happen.

As I prepared to visit Mayyim Hayyim again, this time as an actual participant, I started to get nervous. I had built up a lot of expectations from my daydreams during previous visits. Would it mean everything I wanted it to mean? Built in to my vision of the perfect immersion was the hope that my mother would be there. I had called my parents almost every year right after visiting Mayyim Hayyim with the interns to say, “You have to see this place! You will have to come with me when I go before I get married.”

Planning the wedding and my visit to Mayyim Hayyim were not the only big plans evolving this past summer. My partner Margaret was also in the process of conversion to Judaism. The week before our wedding date, Margaret and I joined her Beit Din at Mayyim Hayyim for Margaret’s conversion. It was almost surreal to be in that space with no interns, when the place was pretty quiet in its everyday operations. It was incredibly powerful to see my partner use the mikveh for conversion.

My mom flew to Boston the next day so that she could help us with final wedding preparations—including joining me at Mayyim Hayyim. I tried to explain to my mom what would happen at the mikveh, and Margaret told her about her experiences with her conversion, but I don’t think we could really prepare her for what it would be like.

That quiet afternoon we went over to Mayyim Hayyim and were immediately enveloped by the welcoming atmosphere, beautiful space, and soft natural light. Our lovely Mikveh Guide gave us a copy of the Mayyim Hayyim’s immersion ceremony for brides and we poured over the sheet discussing what it meant and the ritual process. My mom was struck by the language of the kavanah (intention) before immersion:

“The water changes us neither by washing away something nor by letting something soak into us, but simply by softening us so that we can choose to remold ourselves into a different image.”

The kavanah also calls forth our mothers Rebecca, Rachel, and Yocheved. Having my mother read that intention invoking our mothers grounded this ritual for me in the strong lineage of women I am so proud to be a part of.

by Shawnee Custalow, A Lovely Photo

by Shawnee Custalow, A Lovely Photo

It was a very special day to share with my mom and to finally complete this ritual for myself. It lived up to every expectation, as I was sure to let the waters soften my nerves and bring me into the moment. It marked my transition from someone unmarried to someone ready for that next step, ready for my wedding, and ready to be the new person I was already becoming in the next phase of my life.

Learn more about Mayyim Hayyim’s resources for couples, including “Beyond the Huppah,” a workshop series for engaged and recently married couples that provides tools to solidify a strong partnership and explore different ways of creating a Jewish home. Stay tuned for the upcoming release of “Beyond the Huppah” curriculum, made available to your community soon!

Rachel Bernstein is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology at Brandeis University. Her love for the academic study of Judaism and Jewishness began as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and continued at Brandeis for a master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and now her doctoral work. She is currently working on her dissertation that investigates the cultural and ethnic connections of Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s.

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One Small Act

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

The wind swirls today. Is it here to strip us of our unwanted bits, to smooth our testy edges, to burnish the gems in our souls? It bends the trees, branches, and bowed heads. Can it bend us to our own wills, to release our pains, to emerge open and kinder, to bend but not break in the buffeting that comes with transitions?

We open the doors to the mikveh, warm and sun-filled. It embraces those who seek its silky depths of renewal.

Our guests reflect:

“Renewed and strengthened.”
“Cleansed and content.”
“Refreshed and ready.”

Remarkably: “I emerged the person I always wanted to be.”

With deep insight: “It’s amazing how one small act can make you feel so different inside.”

So true, and yet we hear many people say they are waiting to come to the mikveh for a dramatic moment, a life cycle event, healing from a loss, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. We all know that one small act truly can make a difference, but it’s something we need to believe. How intimidating life would be if we thought that only Herculean efforts could change our worlds, our lives, our relationships.

Mayyim Hayyim was created to provide a space for spiritual reflection, including those who would never have thought of themselves as mikveh-goers. Jews have been using mikveh as a ritual of renewal around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for nearly 2,000 years. However, in many communities, it is still the newcomer on the ritual menu. But it is growing. This time of year is a great entry point into the ritual of mikveh. You don’t have to wait for a big life event because it comes around every year all on its own. It is embodied, but it’s not just about our bodies. And you can do it right here, in a beautiful, warm, welcoming, inclusive, neighborhood space called Mayyim Hayyim.

Come. Emerge the person you always wanted to be. Remember how one small act can make you feel so different inside.

Preview Mayyim Hayyim’s Immersion Ceremony for Yom Kippur, “Turning to Forgiveness.”

Click here to schedule your immersion today.

lisa-blog-photoLisa 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.

Posted in Chaggim/Holidays, High Holidays, Immersion, Inclusiveness, Lisa Berman, Religion | 1 Comment

An Immersive Stroll

by Kelly Banker

banker-headshotMy monthly immersions have been interrupted, and their absence is showing up everywhere I turn. Each immersion felt like a suspension of time; a breath of new life into each month. This summer, though, I was living in western Massachusetts and only recently returned, and have not had the time to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim. What better time, then, to immerse but during High Holy day season and renew my commitment to monthly immersion?

I scheduled my ‘first’ immersion for last weekend – right before Rosh Hashanah began. I could not have been more excited to rest and rejuvenate once more in the loving waters of the mikveh. In the meantime, though, I was seeing and, in some sense, experiencing, the mikveh everywhere. It’s almost as if I had been undergoing mini-preparations for my immersion into the water.

I live just over a mile from school, so I typically bike to get there in the most time-efficient way possible. The other day, however, I had a bit of extra time on my hands, so I decided to walk. That walk, though by no means picturesque, felt immersive in itself. As I walked through the streets of Somerville and Cambridge, my breath began to deepen and I felt myself sinking into profound awareness. I took a moment to notice each person around me, and to greet the plants and trees that I encountered along the way. The air felt crisp, with a slight twinge of chill in it. It felt as though I was walking out of Mayyim Hayyim after an immersion, filled with serenity, newness, and a heightened awareness of all that is sacred, with the living waters still cool against my skin.

And in that space of honoring all that is, I encountered a round challah left outside of a building. The beautifully braided challah sat outside of an apartment building, directly on the earth. I stopped and blessed the intricately crafted challah, and also said a blessing to mark the uniqueness of this moment. How likely was I to find a round challah right around the Rosh Hashanah season on the streets of Cambridge? Obviously, this was no ordinary walk. I continued onwards after the challah sighting, filled with wonder and gratitude at this gift of a day. My ordinary walk thus became imbued with holiness, intention and a special gift.

Immersing in the mikveh, especially during the High Holy day season, is a beautiful way to carve out time to experience the ordinary and the sacred in the same breath. Preparing for immersion calls us to engage in the daily ritual of cleansing and caring for our physical bodies, yet our intention and awareness is heightened by the Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation. Just as my walk was imbued with holiness through my intention and awareness, so too is the preparation for immersion. I eagerly await my return to the mikveh, and with it the return of holy waters into my being.

Kelly Banker is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Religion at Harvard Divinity School. In addition, she teaches religious school at Temple Israel and works as a prenatal yoga instructor. Kelly is forever in love with her puppy,  poetry, exploring the woods, and the sacred cycle of the moon.

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Serenity in the City

by Nate Vaughan

12474093_10106632144191739_8727402411037313569_oLast year, around this time, I immersed at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Ever since I first heard about Mayyim Hayyim, I’ve listened to many people speak about their immersion experiences. In part, those stories led me to immerse. But this isn’t a story about the incredibly meaningful mikveh experience I had at Mayyim Hayyim. Rather, it’s a note of appreciation for the opportunity to explore a side of Jewish life I never thought I’d experience in this particular setting.

Since I first learned about ritual immersion in Hebrew school, I’d liked the idea of mikveh. The idea of submerging in water as a form of spiritual cleansing seemed both ancient and approachable. Later, as a Jewish outdoor educator, I found that mikveh was a unique way to engage children in the natural world through a Jewish lens. After all, what’s better after a long hike than immersing in a cold stream?

Yet, with all these positive connections to the ritual, immersion was never something I’d considered for my own practice. I’d seen plenty of urban, synagogue mikvehs–small pits in the basement that were generally used by women and otherwise kept locked. The ritual in those environments was devoid of all meaning for me. How could immersion in a grimy, tile-lined pool, in a dark basement room, compare to immersing in a cold, mountain stream after a long, contemplative hike? I honestly think I like mikveh and hiking for the same reason. One is about water and one about dirt, but both are about grounding yourself in the natural world.

As a nature lover, I know that setting is cruci13339548_10107182743201909_3042992024435627348_nal. The Mayyim Hayyim building completely contradicts what I imagined all mikvehs looked like. With its wood trim, natural light, and warm pools, the building architecture channels the ancient, elemental nature of mikveh more effectively than any synagogue basement mikveh ever could. It is amazing that a nondescript house in Newton, MA could contain the same sense of peace and serenity that I usually only find in nature.

As the New Year rolls around again, I’ve realized that I have not yet made an immersion appointment. Maybe I’ll immerse after the holidays, maybe not. My connection to mikveh doesn’t revolve around the Jewish calendar, but around my need to feel connected to the natural elements of our world. In February, when the skies are gray and hiking isn’t an option, it’s nice to know I can ground myself in water just as effectively at Mayyim Hayyim.

So this is my note of thanks to Mayyim Hayyim: for existing, for helping reclaim an ancient Jewish ritual, and for helping me feel connected to the earth in urban America.

With that I invite you to welcome in the Jewish New Year with your own sense of serenity at Mayyim Hayyim. Click here to schedule your immersion today.

Shanah tova u’metuka (Have a happy and sweet New Year).

Nathan J. Vaughan is a Jewish educator and research scientist originally from southern Kentucky. He is a fan of bourbon, bluegrass, and basketball and is an advocate for inclusion and accessibility in American Jewish life. Nate works as a consultant, helping Jewish organizations collect and analyze data to inform strategy and operations.

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The Kids are All Right – Thanks to You


October 2016/ Tishrei 5777

Enough with the hand-wringing about the Jewish future. The kids are all right—and then some. You want proof? Listen to Mayyim Hayyim’s young visitors.

Listen to Ira, who immersed before his bar mitzvah:

This has been one of the most meaningful, spiritual, serene, and overall       amazing experiences I’ve ever had.

Listen to Amalia, after her bat mitzvah immersion:

The whole experience would not be complete without doing this mikveh! I holy (haha get it?!) recommend this!

Listen to teens like Simone and Liza, who found solace and safety at Mayyim Hayyim:

I prayed for my mom (who has breast cancer) and I am so thankful and blessed for this opportunity. Thank you.

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

You make these experiences possible — make your gift today.

Fifteen years ago, I dreamed of creating a resource and refuge for every member of our community—regardless of gender, affiliation, race, background, belief, or age. Reading these comments from the Mayyim Hayyim guest book—and many more like them—you see that our tradition speaks to the next generation in profound and personal ways.

Ira, Simone, Amalia, and Liza discovered Mayyim Hayyim during class visits to our Education Center, where they got the message: this mikveh is for you, for good times and for hard times; this Jewish community is here for you.

Help me keep Mayyim Hayyim afloat for the next crop of kids who will come to learn, celebrate, heal, and connect. Join me by making the most generous gift you can.

Wishing you joy and peace in the coming year.

Shanah Tova,




Anita Diamant, Founding President

PS – We’re going green, so you won’t be seeing this letter in the mail. Not only is this good for the planet but it means your donation goes even further. Please consider a gift today.

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Enhancing the Bat Mitzvah Experience

ceceleyIn light of Leeza’s interview blog post with her now husband after doing the Beyond the Huppah class, I thought I would take a stab at one about the Beneath the Surface class I took with my 12-year old daughter, Elliana.

Ceceley: Do you want to write a blog post with me about the Beneath the Surface class we took at Mayyim Hayyim?

Elliana: No, I don’t remember it.

Ceceley: Really? Why don’t you get the stuff from it and we can look it over to refresh your memory.

Elliana: Oh yeah, now I remember. I really liked that class.

Ceceley: So why did you like the class?

Elliana: I liked it because it was preparing me for things to come, and it helped me think about my Bat Mitzvah.

Ceceley: How did it help you think about your Bat Mitzvah?

Elliana: It basically brought the essence of the mikveh, which is kind of free, spiritual, and creative, and helped me incorporate it into the planning of the Bat Mitzvah. What were you expecting to get out of the experience?

Ceceley: I was wanting to have some time for just the two of us where we could do something special. I also wanted to introduce you more fully to the mikveh ritual, and to Mayyim Hayyim because it is such an important place for me, and because the ritual is so meaningful. I wanted to give us a space to prepare for the work we were going to do in planning your Bat Mitzvah. I think Beneath the Surface was exactly what I wanted/expected!

What was it like to be in the group with the girls, most of whom you didn’t know, and all of whom had different ideas of what their Bat Mitzvah meant to them?

Elliana: It was very interesting, and it allowed me to think about what my Bat Mitzvah could be if I chose to go a different route.

Ceceley: What did you think of the parts where you and I were working alone together?

Elliana: I liked it because it was a time for us to talk about what we learned, what we were feeling, or a subject they guided us on. I really liked when we wrote the poem together about being a window in the mikveh:

A window would know better than to look down.
A window would hear the prayers.
A window would feel the vibrations of the longing of the hearts of those below.
A window reflects the sacredness and sends it on to the waters of the sky.

What was your favorite part?

Ceceley: I liked talking with the other moms, but I admit that I most enjoyed our alone time together where we could talk and reflect. I always had you run ahead of all the other girls and secure our favorite spot at the left mikveh. We took off our shoes and socks and put our feet in the water every time and did our assignments, which were always beautiful. Do you remember what we chose for our ritual we created?

ceceley-4Elliana: We did that book, right? We were supposed to use it to talk about the mikveh, my Bat Mitzvah, and other things.

Ceceley: But we didn’t really keep up with it did we?

Elliana: Nope.

Ceceley: Maybe we should get it out again and try to use it more?

Elliana: Yeah.

Ceceley: Now that you have become a Bat Mitzvah and the ceremony and celebration were everything you wanted it to be, how do you think this class contributed to it being the perfect day it was?

Elliana: We used some of the art we did in the class to decorate the room for the ceremony and it inspired some pages of the siddur (prayer book) we created.

Ceceley: I think the class really helped put us on the same page in our thinking. I realized by talking with the moms that my own Bat Mitzvah felt less about me and more about other things. This class helped me to articulate that, and I wanted to make sure you felt your Bat Mitzvah was more about your journey. I think that helped you to feel more supported by me… do you agree?

Elliana: Yes. I think it helped our understanding of each other and what we wanted from this Bat Mitzvah.

Ceceley: Any message you want to give to the moms or girls who might consider taking this class?

Elliana: Go to the mikveh and immerse because it is a magical and spiritual place where you feel connected and touched by God (or whatever you believe in).

There is one spot left for this year’s cohort; click here to register. 

Ceceley Chambers is blessed to be a chaplain at the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Milford, MA and at Hope Hospice in Providence, RI. Her husband, Stephen, daughter Elliana, and son, William, help keep her grounded in her home in Providence. She was an intern at Mayyim Hayyim in the summer of 2010 and is a proud Mikveh Guide (cohort 7) and Educator.

Posted in Bat Mitzvah, Celebrations, Children, Education Programs, for children, Immersion, Inspiration, Parenting | Leave a comment

As the Holidays Near

by Lori Kramer, Office Manager

12235018_10207909055104207_765659722348366572_nBack-to-school time is a very challenging time of year for me. I thrive on routines and rhythms and summertime; without systems in place, things tend to fall apart in a big family. This summer was a season of huge transition for our family. My husband, Ken, opened a cupcake/ice cream shop in Woonsocket, RI. My boys started working at the shop when they returned from their summer experiences, and my step-daughter was instrumental in making the shop open with a lot hard work. Starting a business is not for the faint of heart.

As we have moved into the school year, establishing and implementing new routines has been difficult. My youngest started first grade in a brand new environment, and my younger son moved into high school. My older teens, while comfortable in their schools still had to move out of their “summer” mode and into school mode while still working at the store. About a month into the chaos I am finally starting to find my groove, getting everyone where they need to be, when they need to be there, and feeling more grounded – just in time for the High Holidays when we are meant to reflect, regroup, and steady ourselves for the year to come.

The holidays have always been a time for me to take stock, set goals for the New Year, and be truly thankful for my family and friends. This year it feels a bit different. Working at Mayyim Hayyim gives me a whole new level of gratitude, especially as we assist our guests in their personal preparations for this special time of year.

The month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays is known in our tradition as a time of refuge, and it is empowering to know that so many people choose Mayyim Hayyim as their preferred place of refuge. Come visit us before the holidays to set your intentions for 5777; we’d love to welcome you.

Lori Kramer feels very fortunate to be a member of this team of hardworking women at Mayyim Hayyim. She lives in Woonsocket, RI with her four kids and her husband.

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