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

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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,

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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.

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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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In Search of Roots

by Daniela Ovadia

fotodaniI bumped into Mayyim Hayyim almost by chance: I was in Boston last summer and I wanted to understand more about the Jewish life in the US. I am from Italy, where my parents arrived from Egypt in the 60’s. I married a non-Jewish man, but we have a Jewish family. Both of my daughters, as I did at their age, attend the local Orthodox Jewish community school, even though we have a very secular approach to Judaism. I grew up in Hashomer Hatzair: my “Jewishness” was linked to food, holidays, Israel, kibbutz life, and a sense of belonging to something important and valuable, independent from observance.

I would describe Italian Jews as more traditional than religious. Intermarriage has always been quite common, and conversions are common too. Recently, the Italian Jewish communities have adopted a more stringent approach to Jewish identity, and the Italian rabbinate decided to apply more restrictive norms to conversions. Italian Judaism used to have a long-lasting story of openness, inclusiveness, and acceptance of intermarriage that has changed quite abruptly. Reform synagogues have appeared, but they represent a small opposition to the institutional shifts, and they don’t have much influence over Jewish policies.

While observing those changes, I started thinking about how my community approaches intermarried couples and women. I don’t want my daughters to abandon their roots, but I don’t like the general attitude toward intermarriage; couples are struggling to be accepted and to keep their children among the Jewish people. I also realized that my two daughters are encountering models of Jewish women that are anything but egalitarian. When the oldest one, now 14, reached the age of Bat Mitzvah, I looked on the internet for educational programs with a more egalitarian approach than were available in Milan. Suitable resources came up short. So I googled intermarriage, Jewish education, and egalitarian, and I found Mayyim Hayyim for the first time.

In an attempt to reconcile my feminist identity with my Jewish one, I read many books on women and Judaism. They often mention the mikveh as a key ritual, but I had ambivalent feelings toward it: the immersion in water – linked to the menstrual cycle and the rules of niddah – was, in my view, as an instrument of control over women’s sexuality. So I simply rejected it.

I came across mikveh again when I took a course on ethnopsychiatry, the science that analyze mental diseases and symptoms in light of the cultural framework of the patients. I am a neuroscientist by training, and I read the studies by Tobie Nathan, a French psychiatrist of Egyptian Jewish origins (like me) who investigated the role of rituals in helping patients suffering from mental disorders, especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I discovered with amazement that Nathan used the mikveh to successfully treat the traumatic stress in children of Holocaust survivors, even the most secular ones. His research demonstrated that rituals have to be linked to the personal story of the patient: we cannot adopt a ritual that is not engraved in our origins, even if we don’t believe in its religious meaning. I am not a mystical person: I’m a scientist, I need to be rational. Although I reject many of the norms that would oblige us to practice them, I embrace some Jewish rituals because they ground me in my history.

I decided I wanted to go to the mikveh at least once in my life, as my mother, my grandmother, and probably all my female ancestors did. I asked my community mikveh lady, but she told me I wasn’t allowed to immerse: I was married to a non-Jewish man and I wasn’t keeping the rules of niddah, so why should I immerse? I didn’t want to explain my feelings to someone who was clearly unable to understand them. So I started my search of a welcoming place: I found one in Israel, but it was too far, so I gave up. Later, while in Boston, Google led me once again to Mayyim Hayyim as a top search. I read the stories on the blog, perused the educational programs and I decided it was the right place.

I arrived on a sunny morning, I sat in the garden surrounding the house. I observed a young lady with a bunch of flowers and a lot of family. There were three rabbis; clearly, a conversion was going on. Everybody was smiling and seemed happy. I compared such a beautiful scene with the conversions in my community: no friends and only few members of the family are allowed to be present at the mikveh and certainly not the non-Jewish family. I was witnessing a totally different approach to conversion, as seen in Mayyim Hayyim’s new documentary film about welcoming new Jews into the community.

Then I met Amy, my wonderful guide. I had a tour of the building and I discovered such warmth and inclusivity. When I entered the preparation room, I started crying. It was an unexpected reaction: I’m not used to crying in front of strangers, but emotions overwhelmed me.

Almost a month has passed. I’m back in Italy, but I find myself thinking of my immersion at Mayyim Hayyim frequently. I still need to better understand why a Jewish Italian woman from Egyptian origins had to travel to a Boston neighborhood to feel reconnected with her roots.

I want to thank the women who built and lead Mayyim Hayyim: we need welcoming places to practice our rites, like trees need strong roots to resist the windy days.

Daniela Ovadia is neuroscientist, neuroethicist, and science journalist based in Milan, Italy. She is married and has two daughters, 14 and 12. She is interested in the role of women in Judaism and is actively involved in groups that promote Jewish culture.

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Siman Tov U’Mazel Tov U’Welcome Tov!

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by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

There are definitely quirks about working in a building that is centuries old. Oftentimes, no two rooms are the same temperature. Once, running a microwave knocked out the power on the third floor. But my favorite quirk is the way sound travels in this old house.

Whenever there is a celebratory immersion and people gather around to sing, the melodies and notes float up the stairs and around corners. There’s a lot of “siman tov” and “mazel tov” that comes my way. And frequently, it’s because we’ve just welcomed another new Jew into our community.

Mayyim Hayyim opened 12 years ago. There were so many reasons why this community needed a pluralistic mikveh—but one of the most urgent needs was to create a space where conversion could take place in a warm and celebratory—and most importantly, welcoming environment.

12 years and 2,430 conversions later, people come from far and wide to convert here because of our reputation. In the past few weeks, we’ve had visitors from as far away as England and Thailand, as well as those in our local community, of course. It’s no secret that you can throw a big party here to celebrate this joyous occasion. It’s no secret, and so we want to shout it to the world: we are in the business of welcoming. We’re proud to be known for inclusiveness and accessibility.

And so, in collaboration with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we have produced a new Mayyim Hayyim film to show everyone what we’re all about. This new film, “Becoming Jewish: At the Water’s Edge,” demonstrates so beautifully the care everyone at Mayyim Hayyim takes to ensure that all people who come through our doors feel welcome. When the joyous sounds of singing make their way to my office, I always smile a little, reminded of what a special place this is.

See the film for yourself and share it with a friend:

Help welcome the new Jews in our community by making a gift to Mayyim Hayyim today.

Rachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. She is tone-deaf and glad the acoustics in the mikveh make everyone sound great. She’s so proud to come into work every day to ensure such an incredible place will exist today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

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The Jews are Alright

by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

leahI grew up in a very traditional Conservative-with-a-capital-C Jewish household: Shabbos every week, day school, Camp Ramah, USY, study abroad in Israel – the whole megillah. All of this exposure, (or immersion as we like to say) into Jewish life had given me what I thought was a full picture of my relationship to the non-Jewish world, and more importantly, my relationship to other Jews.

I must admit, I had some major biases about Jews from different backgrounds and affiliations – not that I was such a perfect Jew. Like many other day-school kids, I talked my way through davening (prayer) and passed notes about boys during Chumash class. I skipped out on a ritual here, a ritual there. I was definitely not one to judge others’ Jewish practices. But I did, however, hold some resentment toward the Jews around me for what seemed like total apathy about the future of Judaism.

From what I could see, in my albeit very small bubble of the South, Jews who did not identify with the Conservative or Orthodox movements were almost completely disengaged from Jewish life. I looked around me and saw patterns of indifference about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. I was hurt, I felt betrayed. Couldn’t they see how fragile Judaism is? How could they disregard such an enormous obligation to keep our people above water? Outside my home and day school, I saw no evidence that anyone but Orthodox (and some Conservative) Jews were willing to step up and ensure that we not only survived, but triumphed in maintaining tradition, Jewish literacy, and sustaining vibrant communities.

Moving to Boston, and even more so, working at Mayyim Hayyim has taught me a lot about a Jewish world I did not know existed. This community is comprised of folks with an enormous variety of relationships to Judaism. Whatever their practices, whatever their interpretations, however similar or different they may be from my own, Mayyim Hayyim has clearly created both an enormous demand and thirst for Jewish ritual. It has shown me that I need not worry one bit about the continuity of Jewish life because Judaism is alive and well within its walls. Not only do we welcome over 300 new Jews annually, but every day I see an enthusiasm and unwavering commitment to infusing our everyday life with ritual, with a twinge of Godliness. (Even as I write this, I hear a fellow staff member humming Jewish tunes at her desk.)

This place has taken mikveh, a ritual largely abandoned by American Jews and breathed new life into it. It has reclaimed, redefined, renewed, and most importantly, resisted these myths of Jewish fragility, myths I had once held onto very strongly.

Before living here, before working at Mayyim Hayyim, I was in a constant state of existential worry (I am, after-all, a Jewish woman) that we as a people are on the verge of disappearing. But when I walk into Mayyim Hayyim every morning, I sigh with relief that the Jews are doing just fine.

Leah Robbins is a recent graduate of the University of Florida with bachelors in Jewish and Women’s studies. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her partner Madison.

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