As a mikveh guide who volunteers regularly, I see the holidays in a way that I hadn’t before—while I have always known they mark time’s passage, celebrations, and events, when people come to the mikveh to immerse for a holiday, I see how some people carry tradition with them by taking time out of their schedules to prepare and immerse in living waters.
It is through this lens that I have come to see Shavu’ot, which begins tonight at sundown, as the holiday of conversion. This holiday, one of the harvest holidays, celebrates G-d giving Torah to the Jewish people and many communities read the Book of Ruth during Shavu’ot services. Ruth is known as the first person to convert to Judaism.
In the few years I have been lucky enough to be a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim, I have witnessed dozens of conversions: babies and little kids, an occasional grade-schooler, and many women—single, married, brides-to-be, mothers, daughters. Women who have chosen to be Jewish for many reasons—perhaps many of their reasons differ, but the one that they all have agreed on is that Mayyim Hayyim was the only place they wanted to have their ceremony.
Our unique mikveh, with its beauty, attention to welcomeness, comfort and respect, puts even the most nervous of immersers at ease. From the desk at the reception area, I can see people walking on the winding pathway through the beautiful garden. If I am quick enough, I can get to the door (or buzz them in) before they have to ring the bell. Welcoming them into the open, light-filled reception area, I try to exude a sense of calm and warmth—a handshake, if they offer, eye contact, a smile. It never ceases to amaze me how often a glass of water or cup of tea is declined—but I offer it each time—partly because it is polite, but also to let people know their needs are going to be attended to and that, especially with a cup of tea, there is no need to rush. We tour the building if they haven’t been before, and even if they have, we go back to look at mikveh where they will mark their final passage into the Jewish faith.
When it is just me and the person about to convert, I let her know that I am there to be a witness because it is commanded, but also to support her way of participating in this ritual. I explain that it is my hope that she not feel rushed in preparation or time in the pool. I try to hold myself in a way that shows I am open to hearing her questions and concerns, and I keep my arms loose and away from my body. Sometimes people have reached out and touched my arm, grasped my hand, or asked for a hug—mostly they do not.
When she calls to let me know she is ready and the rabbis are on the other side of the doors, I stand behind the sheet she has been wrapped in. I often feel the presence of what I can only imagine is the Shechinah with us as our guest walks down the seven steps into the warm, clear, clean living waters. She says the blessings and she immerses herself in Mayyim Hayyim.
Without exception, each time I have had the honor to witness the immersion of someone choosing the faith I love so much and from which I get such joy and comfort, I feel closer to my ancestors—all the way back to Ruth and beyond.
Lisa Port White gives massage and Reiki treatments to people in hospice. She is an active volunteer at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek and at Mayyim Hayyim as a mikveh guide. To learn more about her, visit her blog at www.lisaportwhite.com.