by DeDe Jacobs-Komisar, Development Manager
This week marks my first Mayyim Hayyim “work-iversary.” When I started as Development Manager in July of 2014, the very first thing I did was observe an educational program with high school students from Genesis, a Brandeis University Jewish studies summer program for teens from all over the world. It was my first chance to see Mikveh and Education Director Lisa Berman in action, and was an unforgettable introduction to what Mayyim Hayyim is all about.
First, Lisa asked the group of about 20 teens to tell her what came to mind when she said “mikveh.” Word associations rang out: “ritual bath,” “Jewish,” “cleansing,” “purity,” “conversion,” “niddah,” and many more. Together, Lisa and the students shaped a working definition of mikveh: a ritual bath that provides spiritual cleansing, used by Jews and those becoming Jewish. Then, the group got a tour of the mikveh itself, where they were asked to write down what they noticed about its design and makeup. The teens remarked on the beauty and serenity of the space, water-themed design elements, the evident care given to privacy, and most of all, small touches that subtly emphasized one’s ownership of their own immersion experience. Following the tour, the students were offered the option to immerse, which about two-thirds of them elected to do – a group including “spiritual” types as well as jocks with popped collars and girls in One Direction t-shirts. More from the group would end up returning that Friday afternoon to immerse before Shabbat.
Two hours into my tenure at Mayyim Hayyim and I was utterly blown away. These teens were as comfortable at the mikveh as they would have been at camp. They seemed perfectly at home asking questions, immersing, and casually discussing the intricacies of mikveh practice while waiting for their friends to finish immersing. Even if it was their first time at a mikveh, it was clear that they accepted their Mayyim Hayyim visit as a perfectly normal, natural part of their Jewish lives.
I couldn’t help but contrast this with my own first visit to a mikveh when I was 13. I was attending an all-girls’ Orthodox summer camp in upstate New York, and on an overnight trip to NYC we were treated to a tour of a Brooklyn mikveh (obviously a major tourist attraction). The building was beautiful, with handcrafted mosaics in each mikveh room and ornate fixtures and plush bathrobes in each prep room. The woman giving the tour spoke matter-of-factly about how married women immersed after niddah before “having relations” with their husbands. Our mothers adhered to the niddah practice, so we were all familiar with it. It was a foregone conclusion that we would all immerse at a mikveh too – but not that day. Not until we were married ourselves. We didn’t even think to ask to immerse that day. Mikveh was very clearly for one thing only, and didn’t yet apply to us.
I was taken to a mikveh twice more as a teenager, with the girls at my Orthodox high school (only the girls, never the boys), by my female Jewish studies teachers. Each time we went, they spoke about the beauty of the ritual, the spiritual intensity of immersing before reuniting with one’s husband after separating during niddah. This was as close as my “Modern” Orthodox school ever came to educating us about sex (because everyone knows that if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen!). We were taught that the laws of taharat hamishpacha, Jewish family purity, were of the utmost holiness; that there was pretty much nothing holier we could do as Jewish women. Somehow, immersing in the mikveh was key to the entire mystery of our future married intimacy.
It was thus with great anticipation that I immersed on my wedding night a few years later. After spending an hour meticulously preparing, I shyly followed the mikveh lady into the room and removed my robe when instructed, so that she could check my back for stray hairs, as well as my fingers and toenails for any errant dirt. Then she said “You’re all set,” and held the robe up in front of her eyes so that she couldn’t see my body as I stepped into the water. I dunked once, then, covering my breasts as instructed, said the blessing, then dunked two more times. Then I got out. It was over so quickly and I had been so nervous that I had forgotten to have any kavanah, intention. I had forgotten that this was supposed to be the spiritual apex of my life as a Jewish woman. “It’s okay,” I thought, “You’ll get better at this.”
The truth is, I didn’t get better at it. Immersing every month was an exercise in ambivalence at best, disempowerment at worst. I found spirituality as a Jewish woman, but never in the mikveh. This was the case for ten years of my otherwise very happy marriage, until I immersed for the first time at Mayyim Hayyim, which transformed my entire conception of what the ritual could mean for me.
Now, each time I immerse I’m consciously deepening my relationship with God through my body. I feel weightless and held. Immersing for niddah and before holidays, I have felt renewed. Most of all, I have felt at home. Each month I am calling out to God from a place that is my own. Somehow this is only more true when I think about how I’m sharing this holy place with so many others who immerse here.
A year has gone by since my first day here, and it’s Genesis time again. A whole new group of teens has come to Mayyim Hayyim, once again excited and assured in their experience of mikveh. I look at them and think about how different things could have been for me, and for all of my Orthodox female (and male) friends, if we were granted ownership of mikveh from a young age.
If I had a chance to immerse, to develop a relationship with this ritual as a teenager or younger, I may have immersed before holidays, at my bat mitzvah, before going to Israel for the first time, and at many other transition points. I like to think that I would have immersed before my wedding night with joy instead of fear. I would have called out to God from our shared place. I would not have put pressure on that moment as the spiritual end-all of my Jewish womanhood, because I would have had been developing that moment for years. It would have been natural, normal, the next level of a relationship with a mitzvah I knew well. It would not have diluted the intimacy I would share with my husband, because I would have known that the key to our intimacy is not the immersion, but the marriage that surrounds it.
I can’t go back to my 13-year-old self, but I can thank God that Mayyim Hayyim is here for all teenage selves in 2015.
DeDe Jacobs-Komisar is Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also editing an anthology of spiritual coming-of-age stories. If you have one to share, she would love to hear from you. You can send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.