De-fogging

by David Berman

12841329_1680803375520544_1236095860975836503_o (2)I’ve immersed at Mayyim Hayyim three times: once before my Bar Mitzvah, once before I left for a semester in Israel when I was a sophomore in high school, and once last September before a gap year program in Israel.

Going to Mayyim Hayyim when I was 13 was my mother’s idea. She works at Mayyim Hayyim. It was kind of a family tradition too, since my sister had gone before her Bat Mitzvah. She also encouraged me to do it, so I went with my dad. I felt comfortable there because I’d spent quite a bit of time in the building when I was growing up (my mom has worked there a long time.) It was a nice experience to have with my dad, and it felt as if it brought us closer that day. I think I was too young to really call it a spiritual experience, but it helped me feel more clear-headed going into my Bar Mitzvah.

Immersing before I left for my gap year in Israel was also something that my mom asked me to consider. I went in the hour before we got in the car to drive to JFK for my flight overseas. Taking a gap year was a big step for me – something very different than my friends were doing, and going to live and study in Israel made it feel like a spiritual experience, too. I wanted to start with something to prepare me for that transition.
For me, I wouldn’t immerse for something secular (like a big basketball game), or something that is not a “big deal” to me– I’d only do it for something that represents a personal choice to do something different or move on from something. I wouldn’t take a Jewish/cultural/religious ceremony (like mikveh) and turn it into a ritual for an entirely secular event that has nothing to do with spirituality or deepening a connection to myself. Secular events like big games are important in the moment, but ultimately they don’t matter – they don’t define who I am.

Immersing last September gave me a chance to go into the program with a clear head. Mikveh kind of de-fogs your mind from all the other preparations you’ve been focusing on. The immersion ceremonies I used (“The Beginning of the Journey” and “In Gratitude”) guided me in the right direction in terms of wanting to clear my mind and help me relax. I was happy that I had left plenty of time to be at Mayyim Hayyim. I didn’t have to rush, and I could go at my own pace.

Being in the mikveh was a very introspective experience for me. There’s something about being under the water for a relatively long period of time, not moving around – it makes you feel balanced and centered. The experience helped me look back and look forward at the same time. It was really beautiful. It helped me take a deep breath and see things from a larger perspective. You know, as in, larger than, “Did I pack enough toothpaste for a year in Israel?”

David Berman completed his gap year Hevruta in Jerusalem and will start his freshman year at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University next week. He is a graduate of Newton South High School where he participated in many big games and meets with the enthusiastic support of his parents, Jeff and Lisa Berman.

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The Mikveh is a Gift of its Own

by Laura Conrad Mandel

Lilaurafe isn’t about stuff, it’s about experiences.

Between baby showers and wedding showers, adoptions and graduations, I find myself constantly in need of gifts for friends and family who tend to have just about all the stuff they need, and for whom I know that something off a registry doesn’t typically feel meaningful enough. Recently, when I had the touching opportunity to celebrate with a close friend as her baby daughter’s adoption was finalized, I thought long and hard about the right way to mark this occasion. My usual go-to of making a gift (or scouring Etsy for something personal and handmade) just wasn’t hitting the mark.

 

I was then inspired by a celebration the month before at Mayyim Hayyim. I joined my dear, “oldest friend” for an immersion the week before her wedding, a very special life moment. This sentimental and unique experience reminded me that life is really about the things we experience with others. A trip to the mikveh is a beautiful, culturally, and spiritually significant Jewish way to mark any important occasion – meaningful to both the person immersing and to those who are close enough to be involved in such a personal and profound moment.

To me, gifts shouldn’t just be something you spend a lot of money on. Gifts are opportunities to enhance life for your friends and family, experiences that remind us of what matters in this world and why we exist.

Inspired by this bridal immersion, I immediately went to the Mayyim Hayyimn website and purchased an immersion gift certificate for a friend who had adopted a baby, and then a week later, I got two more for close friends who are getting married in the coming months. My next gifts are already in mind after having seen the impact this experience has had on these friends.

So while I know that a friend getting married would love a Le Creuset Dutch oven, I also know that she’ll never forget the pre-wedding experience of an immersion that made her pause to think and appreciate the beauty that lies beneath the big moments ahead.

(And it never hurts that this is a gift that truly keeps on giving, as the cost goes back into running the organization to enhance the whole community.)

Laura is a public art appreciator, obsessive maker, and social entrepreneur who developed a love of Jewish culture across years of Jewish day school and trips to Israel. Following her passion, Laura is Executive Director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, a new organization in Boston that is committed to bringing the best of Jewish culture and arts to the Boston area. Mandel graduated Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Art and English, and her non-profit management experience includes working at Hillel, Hadassah, and the New Center for Arts and Culture.

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Liberal Mikva’ot in Israel: Good for the Jews?

By Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

DSC_0046tsPeople often ask us, “Is there anything like Mayyim Hayyim in Israel?” We certainly let them know about Mikveh Sh’maya, run by Rabbi Haviva Ner-David at Kibbutz Hannaton, and the innovative work happening at the Eden Center in Jerusalem, led by Naomi Marmon-Grumet. Outside of that, however, the mikveh scene is somewhat of a moving target for those who are not Orthodox – whether for conversion, weddings, or any other reason. Are they allowed in… are they not allowed in… must they use a witness… whose rabbi is valid, or not… it seems like every few weeks another bill is in the works either permitting or excluding use of the mikveh that we take for granted here at Mayyim Hayyim.

The latest round in these back-and-forth developments is a controversial funding plan by the Knesset Finance Committee to build four mikva’ot in Israel specifically for non-Orthodox use.

Some say, “What a win!” Now the liberal community can use the space on their own terms without being subject to someone else’s definition of the “right” way to use it.

Others say that this plan is a step backwards. It’s not helpful to further divide Jews in Israel and since mikva’ot are built and run with public funding from everyone’s tax dollars, they should be open to everyone.

So I want to know: what do you think?

A number of people have written articulately on this topic, and I encourage you to take a look. Here are a few posts I recommend:

“Separate but Equal: The Best Mikveh Option for Non-Orthodox Israelis?” by Leah Bieler

“Why Israel Funding Non-Orthodox Mikvehs is a Step Forward – and Backward” by Elana Sztokman

And what do I think? Honestly, I see both sides, though I lean more towards the positive on this one. What I do know for sure, is that MK Gafni who laughs at the idea of liberal Jews wanting to use the mikveh in Israel, saying it’s not a true desire on their part, simply doesn’t see what we see. He doesn’t see the 928 people who immersed at Mayyim Hayyim in the past year, 90 percent of them who are not Orthodox. And he certainly does not see all the liberal Israelis coming through our door each year, either. They come to learn, and are blown away. They come to immerse – some of them specifically traveling here to convert their child because they know they’ll be turned away from the existing mikva’ot in Israel, and they leave with tears in their eyes because of the potential they see here that is so foreign to them at home.

Whichever way we lean in our belief about separate Reform and Conservative mikva’ot in Israel, we can feel confident knowing that the need is real, the need is growing, and it’s not going away.


Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.

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My Trek to the Mikveh

by Janine Herrera

Headshot (5 of 1)To understand why my immersion at Mayyim Hayyim was so transformative, one would first need to understand the journey I’ve been on. I made the decision to convert because the synagogue and community I belong to was inclusive, open, and committed to accepting everyone. They unabashedly embraced me as part of their community. Little did I know how difficult the road to observing Taharat HaMishpachah (monthly immersion) would be. I was aware that few women within the Reform movement choose to observe it, but I hadn’t realized how challenging the choice to observe this ritual would be.

I began trying to learn as much as possible outside of the books I had read, but no one really discusses the topic, not within my community, and certainly not between friends. Understandably so, it’s a very private matter. Mayyim Hayyim proved to be so resourceful in connecting me with as many educational resources that one could possibly need. Then came the matter of my actual immersion. The more I inquired at local mikvehs in my area, the more I began to realize just how unique my situation was.

I am a Jew by choice. I didn’t grow up with mythical tales, or thinking that mikveh was taboo, or only reserved for some. I naively thought that as a woman wanting to grow in observance of Taharat Hamishpachah, nothing could possibly stand in my way. I was simply a Jewish woman wanting to preserve and observe what thousands of women before me had done, by adhering to this ritual as a way to inject holiness into marriage and family life. What could be so hard about that?

Finding a mikveh that would allow me to immerse, let alone recognize my Jewish identity, proved far more difficult than I had imagined it would be, so much so that the closest place that would allow me to immerse monthly was 248 miles away. I decided that if I was going to travel to immerse monthly, then I wanted my first immersion for my observance to be at Mayyim Hayyim. This was when I really became appreciative of the space that Mayyim Hayyim truly provides, a place that is inclusive and accepts you “as is.” It is a space for anyone Jewish, regardless of affiliation, to benefit from the healing, renewing ritual of immersion.

My immersion was just as overwhelming as the day I converted. I felt reunited, I felt whole. It was liberating and profound. Despite the struggle I face to be accepted as a Jewish woman of color, despite the struggle to be recognized as deserving of observing this mitzvah due to my religious affiliation, there I was….in the mikveh… before Hashem, before God. There was nothing but Hashem and me, Batya (the Jewish name I took at my conversion, which means Daughter of God). All else melted away.

As I remain committed to this mitzvah, each immersion brings a renewal of spirit, of purpose and of commitment. After almost 6 years of many things becoming routine and some things taken for granted, we have found a new level with which to relate to one another. The days of separation allow me time to connect with myself, with my spirituality, and to center myself. My husband and I have found that we are now more mindful in our interactions with each other and truly savor our time together. We use the time apart sincerely and earnestly to truly connect with the things we appreciate about each other. We have unlocked another aspect of security and commitment within our love and our devotion to God and a Jewish home.

I realize that I may be speaking on a topic not often discussed in an open way. But I hope that by relating my journey and thoughts so intimately, it reaches even perhaps one person who has ever wondered, doubted, or held any reservation towards seeking out immersion for whatever their specific need or reason may be.

 

Janine lives in Miami, FL with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is pursuing her second baccalaureate degree and works part-time as the Clinic Manager of a Multi-disciplinary health clinic. She enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and photography.

 

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Work and Play

by Lori Kramer, Office Manager

12235018_10207909055104207_765659722348366572_nThe first blog post I ever wrote for Mayyim Hayyim (well quite frankly, my first public blog post ever) was about intentionality, and how Mayyim Hayyim is the embodiment of all things thought-out and intentional. It is what first attracted me to the organization both personally and professionally. One of the best examples of thoughtfulness and intention I have experienced since joining the team last November, was our staff retreat last week.

We all had a wonderful day of incredibly delicious food, relaxing play time, a gorgeous view, perfect weather, and inspiring strategic planning for the coming months. My favorite part of our working time was a team-building activity called The Marshmallow Challenge. We were split into two groups of three and were given 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, scissors, and a marshmallow. The goal was to make the tallest tower you could using the supplies we were given, but the marshmallow had to be at the top of the tower… Oh and this had to happen in 18 minutes. The winner was the group with the tallest, free-standing tower.

The first thing I learned is that 18 minutes is not a very long time…at all. Also, thin spaghetti breaks very easily. I tend to be very analytical in my thought process in activities like this. I was doing a lot of the “Wait, how in the world is one piece of spaghetti going to hold a dense marshmallow?” type of thinking, while other members of my team were doing a lot more vocalizing, “Let’s just tape this here and see what happens.” image1

It struck me that those thought processes really relate to the work we do at Mayyim Hayyim. I am part of the back office staff, trying to ensure the physical plant of the building is working as it should be, processing gifts from our generous donors, preparing forms for our guests coming to immerse. My other team members are on the “front of house” team, interacting in a much more public role. Both roles are extremely important, and they turned out to be pretty important in our group’s attempts to get that tower together.

Sadly, our tower didn’t stand. That was okay with me though (not just because the other team’s didn’t either….). In the end I think you often learn a lot more from your failures than your successes, especially when you are intentional about your goals and collaborating with an unstoppable team.

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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Europe’s Oldest Mikveh and the Jews of Syracuse

by Karen Suzukamo

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In 1984 my husband and I had a plan. We’d move to Minnesota for exciting jobs, work hard, explore the area, and then move back to the west coast. The thirty years since then made us into Minnesotans and taught us a thing or two about the possibilities and the limitations of plans. That being said, we never lost the desire to explore a new place by living there, to immerse ourselves, to see ourselves and our place in the world in a new light, and to reflect and grow.

Last winter we lived in Italy and Greece. A highlight of those months was our time in Sicily, particularly a visit to the ancient mikveh in Syracuse. Sicily is at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia: the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Phoenicians, the Normans, and the Spaniards all left their mark on Sicilian life today with awe-inspiring buildings and art that dot the landscape. The legacy of the Jews of Sicily and of their holy space require a bit more effort to find.

Some History of Jews in Sicily

Jews came to Sicily early, most likely as slaves of the Romans around 63 BCE. There were over 30,000 Jews in more than 50 Sicilian communities at the time of their expulsion by Spain in 1492. In Syracuse, Jews were an estimated quarter of the population of the Ortygia island center.

Mikveh in Syracuse, Sicily

Mikveh in Syracuse, Sicily

The Mikveh in Syracuse, Sicily was built around 600 CE, hidden in 1492 and rediscovered in 1989. It was the center of the Syracuse Jewish community. In the Middle Ages, the community would have first built a mikveh before building a synagogue or purchasing a Torah scroll. The mikveh was in use for almost 1,000 years, from its construction during the Byzantine era (around 500 CE) until the expulsion of the Jews from Spanish controlled Sicily in 1492. When the Jews of Syracuse were forced to flee or hide their faith, they decided to hide the mikveh. Tons of stone and sand were used to fill in the entrance, making a courtyard patio and preserving the mikveh 60 feet below. It remained hidden, lost to memory for 500 years.

In the late 1980s, the family that lived on the property for hundreds of years, long considered to be anusim (Jews forced to abandon their faith), sold their house to be developed into a boutique hotel. During the construction, the mikveh entrance and the preserved baths were discovered. The mikveh is now open for guided visits and is used by the very small Jewish community in the area.

I ignored the warnings of our tour guide that the mikveh was down narrow, dark, slippery steps and headed off for a visit on a free afternoon. The mikveh is not well known, but there were about twenty fellow visitors. The steps are indeed narrow and dark, and visitors are not allowed to carry anything. I liked this. It was appropriate to leave our possessions behind, just bringing ourselves to the mikveh. Prior to the tour I sat in the hotel’s patio area to read about the mikveh directly below me.

Syracuse is a city of the sun, the sea, and the volcano. The bright Mediterranean light shines down on you, on the pale stones of the buildings and the sea. I felt my spirit lift as I walked this 3,000 year old city, sat in the cafes, and listened to the sounds of birds, wind, waves and Italians enjoying the company of each other in this beautiful place.

Then it was time to very carefully walk down into the dark, cool, quiet earth, time to touch the rock at my side and see the chisel marks made over 1,500 years ago to carve that wall, that step, that room. It was awe-inspiring to think about the effort that went into making this sacred space, about the choice to carve the mikveh deep into the earth, far removed from the pace and the trials of life on the surface. As I left the surface literally to walk down to a separate, deep time and space for purification, it was special to hear the sound of running fresh water and breathe damp air, to imagine what it was like to come into this space when it was lit by candles and lanterns and one fresh air shaft, to see the three small pools in the center and the two private pools to the sides and think about who used which one and why.

To imagine generations of Jews who came here for a holy ritual and found comfort and meaning in their experience; who found connection to self, to the earth, to community, to God… I listened to the guide as she explained the mikveh, first in Italian and then in English. And I looked and breathed and touched and listened to absorb this moment, created for me, for you, by Jews 60 generations ago.

This winter we sought a place to immerse ourselves, to see ourselves and our place in the world in a new light, to reflect and to grow. I found it there.

Karen Suzukamo is a member of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota. She describes her current occupation as ‘adventurer’ rather than ‘retired’, a far more accurate reflection of her desire to explore, appreciate, and contribute to the world around her.

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It’s Not About the Water

by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

Let me tell you a little secret of mine. I actually hate getting in the water.

I’m not a fan of summer, in part because I’d rather be cold than hot, but also because I hate swimming. I can’t remember if I liked it as a kid or not, but it’s just not my thing.

I recently went on a camping trip with some friends who wanted to go tubing. I did everything I could to find an alternative activity. I proposed hiking and canoeing instead. I reluctantly packed the one bathing suit I own. Eventually, my partner and I ended up driving to the top of a mountain to see the views while the rest of the group floated down- river.

I recently mentioned my aversion to water at a staff meeting and joked, “I might have chosen to the wrong place to work!” Except that in reality, I chose the exact right place to work.

You see, Mayyim Hayyim is about more than the water. Yes, mikveh is a ritual that takes place in the water. But it’s so much more than that.

Of course, there’s the “dry side” of Mayyim Hayyim, where we run more than one hundred education programs every year for all ages. There’s the art gallery, which makes the mikveh beautiful. And truthfully, even the mikveh pool itself isn’t always about the water.

I immersed for the first time last year in preparation for the High Holy Days. When I think about that experience, the part I remember most is reading the Seven Kavanot as I got ready. I remember the silence in the mikveh as I ducked below the surface. I remember taking a few moments to myself after the Mikveh Guide left, looking up at the beautiful tiles and the way the light broke through the windows. I remember spinning around in a circle in the mikveh and thinking about everything I wanted the coming year to be.

Mayyim Hayyim is special because it’s more than just the physical mikveh. It’s an idea and a belief that ritual belongs to all of us to embrace in our own way. Whether that’s through learning and sharing about ritual innovation and inclusivity, or by getting in the water itself, Mayyim Hayyim is there for us–whether we love the water or not.

Rachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. As a figure skater, she prefers water in its solid form—but she’ll make an exception for immersing in the mikveh.

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