by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
When I teach about mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim, my students learn about the difference between a ma’ayan mikveh, (a natural, spring-fed or flowing mikveh) and a bor mikveh, (a human-made, part-of-the-ground pit mikveh). At which point, I stop to ask: “So, why might you care that we are able to build a mikveh indoors?”
My students have no problem coming up with reasons: regular snow storms and public nudity chief among them. This is also my moment to share my artistic skills, as I draw a shark on the white board (I’m actually terrified of all fish, but I draw sharks the best). Accessibility usually makes the list, as in, “Is there water nearby?” Last week, a student from a group of 6th graders from Temple Emunah went further, when she asked: “What if you can’t swim? What if it’s not safe for you to be out in a natural body of water?”
I paused because, for the first time in my six months here, a student had preempted a crucial part of our program. In a few minutes, we would be in the mikveh area opening all of the closets and cabinets in a frenzy, and sticking our hands into the warm pools. I would ask them to tell me what differences they saw between the preparation rooms. Some would have noticed that one is missing a rug and has a shower chair in the closet, but many wouldn’t. That’s the thing; like so much else in life, if it doesn’t affect us directly we often don’t notice it. The design of our education programs contradicts that tendency when I ask my students to touch everything and go everywhere. Afterwards, I ask them what they saw, and when the moment is ripe, I ask them to consider why they think we did things a certain way.
Needless to say, this particular class was ahead of the game. By the time we got into the mikveh area, this same student asked me point blank: “But how does someone get into the water if they can’t walk?” I explained that we have a mechanical lift that is shaped much like a a chair. The lift is rolled as close to the edge of the mikveh as it can safely go, and the person immersing is helped into the lift-chair or sits down in it themselves. A mikveh guide or friend of the person immersing will meet them in the water wearing a bathing suit. The arm of the lift (seen in the picture below) will slowly lower the person into the waters. The mikveh guide helps them out, helps them to fully dunk, and then helps them back in to the chair that then mechanically lifts them out.
Part of the immersion experience is about eliminating any barriers that might come between us and the water. I explain to my students that the shampoo, combs, and toothbrushes are not in the preparation rooms because we think our guests are dirty. They are there because dirt, jewelry, and clothing are all considered to be a physical barrier, a chatziza, between us and the water. But barriers come in all shapes and sizes. When students come to Mayyim Hayyim to learn, I ask them what might make immersion challenging for someone, and how we have or haven’t addressed that challenge. Mayyim Hayyim isn’t perfect, and there is a lot that can still be done –but when a group of 6th graders has left the building with a glimpse of what it looks like to use intentional design and the framework of our tradition to learn about accessibility for everyone, I feel like we are moving in the right direction.
After my education program with Temple Emunah two weeks ago, I went looking through our records for primary source materials about the mechanical lift. I found a powerful example and we’ll be publishing it next week…Stay tuned.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She continues to be inspired by the questions and insights of her students.