by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director
I love Fridays in the summer. The anticipation of a weekend filled with family, beach, sun, swimming, cousins, and a book — when every meal is al fresco, including Shabbat dinner lit only by candlelight and, by dessert, moonlight.
At Mayyim Hayyim, Friday afternoons in July are marked by the beautiful hubbub of groups of campers and summer high school program participants arriving to explore and immerse in our mikva’ot (plural of mikveh).
This is not a “jump in the lake before Friday night dinner” kind of immersion experience. Students take time before arriving to review our Seven Kavanot for Mikveh Preparation. They read, “Hineni, here I am. Take a minute and think about the transition mikveh will help you mark today.” And, “B’tzelem Elohim — I am made in the image of God. Each person enters the mikveh as naked as the day of his or her birth. Without rank or status. Simply a human being. Gloriously a human being.” They slow down and consider this action they are embarking on with kavanah, with full intention. They take that minute. They think about what it might truly mean to be b’tzelem Elohim.
Our role is to build a framework at the start of the experience so each participant has an appreciation for the history and tradition of this ritual. We share how it is usually performed and make the nuts and bolts of it clear, (where are the towels? what number do I call when I’m ready?). Most importantly, we metaphorically take our hands off the steering wheel and allow each person to own this ritual – start to finish.
Afterwards we offer them the option of writing their thoughts in our guest book. They write:
“Spiritual courage.” “Pure in God’s eyes.” “I got exactly what I needed.” “Coupling me with God, alone.” “I am blessed to be Jewish.”
To all those working with Jewish teens, please, do not ever underestimate the potential for these young adults to connect with spirituality, to comfortably use God language, to dive into an unknown ritual and come out with deep and profound meaning, to use ritual as a door to dramatic change — in an hour.
Read on, in their words:
“Today was my first time being immersed in a mikveh. As I was preparing, I felt nervous, trembling at the face of God. When I immersed though, time seemed to stop, and I felt closer to God than I felt before. For the three times I was under, all my worries seemed to float away. I felt natural, pure in God’s eyes.” –Matt
“I loved how open to interpretation it was. I got exactly what I needed.” –Sam
“If this past year was a test of my faith, I regretfully admit that I failed. This year I lost faith, myself, and people dear to me. This year was something that I never thought I would survive. Yet, here I am. I have not felt so pure nor had such clarity as I do right now.” –Daniela
“Of late I have taken it upon myself to take more time for Jewish ritual, and get better in touch with my Jewish identity. The experience just gave me a break. I could appreciate the silence, and take in the setting. Even with all of the experiences I have had in my community, this one, coupling me with God, alone, provided one of the greatest connections.” –Spencer
“Thank you for this experience. Coming out is hard to do as Modern Orthodox, and this experience gave me some spiritual courage.” –O.
“This experience was much different than I had imagined – I hadn’t realized how spiritual it is and how emotional it would get. I prayed for my mom who has breast cancer and am so thankful and blessed for this opportunity.” –Simone
“Thank you for giving me the courage to start my coming out process. I am blessed to be Jewish.” –L.
“I take a few awkward steps down the stairs, the stone as naked as my own body. This is meant to be spiritual and I close my eyes. In and out. In and out of the waters.” –O.
We learn so much from these young people about the possibility, the potential for the profound impact of this ritual of immersion. They are our teachers.
Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect and modesty, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.