The Simcha of Smicha

by Rabbi Leora Abelson

Ordination weekend began at the mikveh.

This felt right for our class, which had marked the beginning of each year of rabbinical school with a ritual at Crystal Lake. We know that the mere presence of water can be grounding and heart-opening.

We gathered early Friday morning. Our group of eleven had struggled all year to find times when we could all be together; scheduling even an hour-long meeting proved impossible most of the time, so it felt like a small miracle that we were all dedicated to being present with each other for the entire morning.

We each shared a bit about what was on our hearts that morning. I told my classmates that being with them was comforting and familiar, and what I anticipated would be the last familiar part of the weekend. With family and friends coming from near and far, a huge Shabbat celebration, and the graduation and ordination ceremonies on Sunday, I didn’t know what to expect from the weekend. But being with my beloved classmates in the warm and peaceful atmosphere of Mayyim Hayyim, I felt present and ready. And over the next several hours, as we sang each other through our immersions, I was able to access a wide spectrum of emotions about becoming a rabbi and the imminent ordination ceremony.

Our class has always loved to sing together. The connection and cohesion we experience while singing has helped us through difficult conversations, frustration, and disappointment. Grappling with ancient texts in order to find our way as 21st century spiritual leaders surfaced tremendous differences between us, and singing together held us amidst that difference. As the sun poured in from above, we sat or stood or paced in that beautiful foyer at Mayyim Hayyim, the space between the two breichot (pools), and offered up our song.

When it was my turn to immerse, I asked my first friend in rabbinical school to witness me. We were together from the beginning: learning, challenging, holding and supporting, and most importantly, witnessing one another. And after six years of accumulating knowledge and experience, gathering our rabbinic toolkit, and building up our sense of rabbinic authority, we each had a moment to stand on the edge of the mikveh naked, cleansed, with everything sloughed off and stripped away – just our humble selves, anchored by the presence of a beloved friend.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that just as God fills the whole world, the soul fills the whole body. And just as God dwells in the innermost part of the universe, the soul dwells in the innermost part of the body (Berakhot 10a). As I prepared for the mikveh, I felt my soul in the whole of my body. And as I entered the water, vulnerable and whole, I felt it come into alignment with the divinity that fills the universe.

As my class closed our mikveh ritual by offering one another blessings, my gratitude and attention for each of my classmates flowed directly from the living waters of the mikveh. And the feeling of connection, depth, and alignment stayed with me all weekend. It helped me feel centered and strong. It allowed me both to give and receive. And it kept me open to the astounding flow of blessing and love.

I am so grateful that Mayyim Hayyim offered my class, with our beautiful array of practices, genders, experiences with tevilah (immersion), and comfort levels, the opportunity to receive the blessing of the mikveh together.

Rabbi Leora Abelson was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew College Rabbinical School in June 2017. Leora serves as the rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, MA. Leora is passionate about queer embodied theology and making the ancient wisdom of the Jewish tradition accessible to social movements and anyone building a just and peaceful world.

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Beneath the Surface Magic

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

I first joined Mayyim Hayyim’s program for Bat Mitzvah girls and their mothers, Beneath the Surface, as an educator for the 11th cohort in 2014. I had heard a lot about the impact of the program: how beloved it is by the moms and daughters who participate, as well as those who facilitate it. Each year this proves accurate when I run the upcoming year’s dates by my fabulous co-facilitator, Bev Klau, and she replies: “This is my favorite thing that I get to do all year!” Having facilitated this program for the last three years now, I happen to agree.

Why do we love facilitating this program so much? Why do families enjoy it so fully? Well, I would tell you what I think…but it’s better to hear it firsthand from a participant. So, with her permission, I’d like to share with you an email I received recently from a woman who participated in Beneath the Surface five years ago, and recently enrolled her second daughter.

Dear Leeza,

Five years ago we signed our now 17-year-old daughter Antonetta (“Netta”) up for Beneath the Surface. It changed her life in a very positive way, making her move 180 degrees in her interest towards not only having a Bat Mitzvah, but towards Judaism, as well. Up until the point of attending Beneath the Surface, she had been saying that she didn’t want a Bat Mitzvah at all. Now she is active in our synagogue, Temple Israel of Boston (TI), on RYFTI Board, a madricha (guide) in the religious school (for the past 4 years), attending The Tent teen education (starting her 5th year), and a member of the TI Band, playing violin and viola as the only female and the only teen. She has also been asked by Cantor Einhorn for the 4th year to chant during Yom Kippur services.

This year we have signed up our 12 year-old daughter Maya for Beneath the Surface. As we are a two-mom family, this time we thought we might give our daughters’ other mom, Ginny Remedi-Brown (cc’d here), an opportunity to participate.

Thank you so much,
Fern

Beneath the Surface does not make miracles. It simply takes the essence of this transitory moment – the movement from childhood to adulthood – and slows it down long enough for a small group of moms and daughters to enjoy it more fully, reflect on it together, and make it their own. Sometimes, this kind of experience leads to a growing interest in Jewish life, as it did for Netta. For other families, it simply offers some badly-needed quality time. Whatever the impact, Beneath the Surface works.

To read more about this program, click here. To find out why for yourself, enroll in our upcoming fall 2017 cohort. Beneath the Surface will run on three consecutive Sunday afternoons at Mayyim Hayyim from 3:30-5pm, October 29, November 5 and 12. Space is limited, register today.

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

 

 

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Returning to Mikveh

by Phyllis Hirth

Here’s my timeline, short and sweet: I was born in Connecticut, raised as a Catholic, moved to New York after college, met my husband, and married into a Conservative Jewish family.

My first experience with mikveh was during my own conversion to Judaism. My memory of that is less than pleasant. A woman who barely spoke to me examined my body, supervised and double checked my cleansing, and observed my dunking. I remember the place and the whole experience as a sort of dull gray.

I successfully managed to avoid mikveh thereafter until my daughter-in-law called me one day. After ten years of marriage to my son, she had decided to convert to Judaism. I was so happy for her, and I was delighted to accompany her for her immersion. That said, I was worried for her. I wanted to be there to ease her through it. Little did I know I need not worry because her immersion was at Mayim Hayyim. I was so impressed by how wonderful her experience was. Her immersion was not remotely demeaning, but celebratory. We sang songs of joy as she embraced this beautiful change in her life.

I was so impressed by Mayyim Hayyim that I pushed my adult education trip through the Woodlands Community Temple to include a visit on our recent trip to Boston. First we went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Henryk Ross photographs of the Lodz Ghetto, and then to the Holocaust Memorial near Faneuil Hall. Both were such moving, powerful experiences that I feared Mayyim Hayyim would pale in comparison.

Every member of our group found our visit to Mayyim Hayyim to be a profound experience. The atmosphere was bright, friendly, and joyous. The presentation was open, honest, and interactive.

Reflecting back on my life, I have always worked and struggled to achieve equal rights as a woman, and something about the mikveh had always left me with tension. This time, though, I came away with the feeling that I had found a place where my femininity was celebrated. I am left with gratitude – what a wonderful gift for our youth to have a place like Mayyim Hayyim!

Phyllis Hirth is a retired Physical Therapist living in White Plains, NY. She raised three children and now has nine grandchildren; all are active in Judaism. She is very active in the Woodlands Community Temple as well as American Association of University Women and the ACLU.

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Makeshift Mikveh-Poetry

by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

A few months ago, I attended a women’s Rosh Chodesh (new moon) gathering at the Moishe Kavod House. After discussing the themes of the month and checking in with one another about our many life transitions, we were asked to take a siddur (prayer book) and borrow lines and phrases from various tehillim (psalms) in order to create a new poem of our own. As the facilitator explained the activity, I remember thinking to myself, “This is way too granola for me. Quick! Grab a snack and bolt…” A friend encouraged me to stay, and I owe her for her nudging. I settled into my discomfort, begrudgingly propped open my siddur, and, suddenly, the sacred imagery flung off the pages and molded itself into my own hand-crafted, hodge-podge of holy writing, now adorning the wall of my home.

Weeks later, at a Mayyim Hayyim staff meeting, I decided to bring a revised version of this activity to the ladies upstairs. I hauled our growing pile of guest books, weighted down with years of memories dating back to 2004, and prompted the group to explore their delicate pages for new insights. Together we borrowed from years of transformative healing, metamorphic life transitions, and precious words of gratitude, and strung together new poetry of our own.

A poem by Leah Robbins:
(Words and phrases compiled from guest book entries from 2004 and 2006)

I am so full
So full of desired blessing
I am empty of words
I welcome the transformative – the introspective

The kindness you’ve shown
The warmth, the sacred, the renewal
Your gift to me
Gentle care, gracious hospitality, the delicate caress of the water

The highest of high this physical rebirth
My new beginning
Your prayer was already there for me – waiting
Refreshing – this moment in time
No longer fragmented
You let me take my first Jewish breaths
Today I am a Jew

I invite you to bring your joys and sorrows to this enchanted space and cement your memories in our guest book – our living, breathing testament to the magic of mikveh. Schedule your visit to Mayyim Hayyim here.

Leah Robbins is the Administrative and Marketing Assistant at Mayyim Hayyim. She looks forward to someday writing her own words of praise and gratitude in a Mayyim Hayyim guest book. 

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My Budding Feminist

by Leah Bieler

All four of my kids inherited things from me: some good, and some bad. And since I tend to be a bit strong-willed – some might even say stubborn – it’s no surprise that trait got passed down to all four of them…must be a dominant gene.

But my younger daughter, Nili – she brings stubbornness to heights I could only have dreamed of. If she sees injustice, whether in poverty, or in the allotment of the “scarce” resources in her home, or in her treatment by her history teacher, she can dig in her heels like a pitbull.

When she told me she was interested in going for a visit to Mayyim Hayyim before her Bat Mitzvah, I thought I knew why. As a staunch feminist, I assumed she wanted to take this mitzvah by the horns, and wrestle it to the ground. She wanted to turn what some women view as an anti-feminist ritual into a positive, empowering moment.

In a way, I was right. I asked her why she wanted to go. “We went with school last year. They talked about going before your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and it seemed like it might be a good experience. And you go.” Indeed. I go every month, and have found that Mayyim Hayyim has managed to transform what was my most difficult mitzvah to fulfill into something that I sometimes even look forward to.

She went with none of the baggage that I carried about the mikveh. When I asked what in particular interested her, she was clear. “It’s a grown-up thing to do. It will make my Bat Mitzvah feel more official.” And then this: “I get in trouble a lot. I thought the mikveh might be a fresh start.”

This had not at all occurred to me, but I loved how she had figured out her personal way of making mikveh her own. Afterwards, I asked how it was, what it felt like for her. “When I came up, and the water came off my shoulders, it was the things I didn’t want inside of me rolling off into the pool.”

This is all to say: I am so appreciative to Mayyim Hayyim for having uncovered so many new avenues for exploring a mitzvah that was, for so long, in the shadows. I wondered what Nili would tell her friends about it, if she would encourage them to go. “I would tell other kids it’s a good experience. Even if they don’t like tefillot (prayer), or being in Toshba (rabbinics) class, they can connect to their Jewish identity in a different way.”

I wished I had felt this way at thirteen. She mentioned she’d looking forward to going when she gets married. I’m only a little jealous of her comfort with something that I’m only now learning to love.

I think she may need to go back before then, though, because that stubborn thing? It seems it wasn’t entirely washed away.

Leah Bieler is a freelance writer, teacher of Talmud and a mom of four. Nili Fish-Bieler is a rising eighth grader at Solomon Schechter Day School of Boston, and resents that her parents saddled her with two last names.

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A Glimpse of What’s to Come

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

When Mayyim Hayyim was born in 2001, the world was a very different place. The internet certainly was, too. Most Americans, in fact, didn’t even have internet access and if they did, they connected via dial-up. (Go ahead and click here to relive the memories.)

Mayyim Hayyim launched its very own website in 2002. Blue and watery and feathery, the site contained a wealth of information not only about Mayyim Hayyim, but about what a mikveh was and how it could be used.

Mayyim Hayyim’s website in 2002

It served us well for a time… until it didn’t anymore.

Internet aesthetics were changing and functionality became more advanced. We had more events to promote, online giving became possible, and we needed to display photos of our work and its impact.

So seven years later, in 2009, Mayyim Hayyim upgraded to our current website. It was warm, rich in content, and we were even able to allow guests to request an appointment for immersion through the website.

Mayyim Hayyim’s website in 2009

It served us well for a time… until it didn’t anymore.

In the past year mobile internet access exceeded desktop usage for the first time in history. Websites can now contain responsive design, which allows the viewer to see a layout best optimized for their particular screen. Back-end technology has advanced and can be maintained by sites powerful enough to keep the coding constantly updated, resulting in significantly fewer bugs for our users and much greater efficiency for the people logging in to update the site’s content on a regular basis.

So later this year, Mayyim Hayyim will launch our most robust website to date. It will be beautiful, with lots of photos, and easier to navigate. Our blog will be integrated within, and it will look great whether you’re on your smart phone, tablet, or desktop. The overall look and feel will be refreshed – including a first-ever update to our logo, too.

Change can be hard, and yet, it is ever so necessary. We will maintain the essence of who we are, bringing the best of our past and updating it as we move into the exciting unknown of the future. After all, this is what Mayyim Hayyim does best, isn’t it?

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (and quoted on our current website, of course): “‘The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.’ That is Mayyim Hayyim.”

Carrie Bornstein is the Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim.

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Off the Deep End – Revisited

Originally posted on February 1, 2017. In honor of the recent launch of “Now What?,” Mayyim Hayyim’s newly-available post-conversion curriculum for new Jews and their partners, we wanted once again to share this reflection from Cantor Treitman on the next steps for new Jews after conversion.

by Cantor Louise Egbert Treitman

I converted to Judaism almost 45 years ago and have been immersed in the Jewish world ever since. I was still in college when I began studying with my sponsoring rabbi, went to the mikveh, converted, and got married. But what happens when you get out of the water? It can take a while to feel Jewish. The important thing is to connect with a community of like-minded people who want to “be/do Jewish” together. Thankfully, that’s what happened to me in college. I had started attending the Introduction to Judaism course offered by the Reform movement. This program is a wonderful way for folks to learn about Judaism, whether or not they choose to convert. For me, I wanted more. I decided to take a course in Jewish philosophy with a young Jewish instructor at my college. She became my mentor and helped lead me on my journey. She came to celebrate with me at my mikveh in Boston. I continued to study with her; the next year it was Biblical Hebrew, Bible, and Jewish History. By that time, I had made friends with the other Jewish women in my class, but I still didn’t feel Jewish.

That took years, but these friends were the beginning of my Jewish community. They made me feel welcome, they taught me, they took me to the synagogue and helped me find my way around the siddur (prayer book), they celebrated holidays with me, they cooked Jewish food with me. All of these women are still my friends. This ultimately led me to a double major in music and Judaic Studies. I went to college not knowing what a hazzan (cantor) was. It’s ironic that my studies were, in fact, critical in leading me to my life’s work as a cantor. I’ve been swimming in the “deep end” as Jewish clergy for many years, so something must have worked for this convert! In fact, many of my congregants, students, and colleagues may not even know that this all started when I chose Judaism.

I was fortunate to find a space where I felt comfortable exploring my Judaism after I converted, but oftentimes that space is missing. Mayyim Hayyim is always thinking out of the box and coming up with creative ways to serve the Jewish people. Mayyim Hayyim’s “Now What? A Post-Conversion Program for New Jews” program is exactly that space – a wonderful opportunity to wrestle with your toughest questions while connecting to others.

In a way I think my Biblical Hebrew class became my own personal “Now What?” program. It is next to impossible to be Jewish alone. I am forever grateful to my sponsoring clergy, Rabbi Herman Blumberg, who has remained a dear friend, to my professor at Wellesley College, Myra Siff Weiss, as well as my Wellesley classmates – Muriel, Dorit, Karen, Sally, Abby and Barbara, and to my Hillel director, Danny Freelander (now a rabbi and president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism).

“Now What?” can be there for you in the way these friends were there for me. I have been so fortunate to build this community. Perhaps you will find yours at Mayyim Hayyim.

Contact Associate Director of Education, Leeza Negelev at education@mayyimhayyim.org for more info about next year’s “Now What?” program at Mayyim Hayyim.

Cantor Louise Egbert Treitman currently serves as one of the spiritual leaders at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont after spending many years at Temple Beth David in Westwood. She also teaches at Hebrew College in Newton and sings in the Zamir Chorale of Boston. In 1972 she decided to embrace Judaism and has never looked back.

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