Jewish Survival: It Takes Chutzpah

by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

International Women’s Day is on the horizon (March 8), and this year, like every year, I am reminded of the enormity of the weight of the world carried on the backs of women. I am reminded that women are made responsible for creating history and carrying history. I realize that’s a vague statement with a variety of implications. So what do I mean by this?

Let’s zoom in on a particular group of women at a particular time in history: Jewish women in a climate of violent antisemitism (You might be thinking…aren’t we always in such a climate?).

Jewish women have been dipping in the mikveh in order to observe Taharat Hamishpacha (The Laws of Family Purity) for centuries. Love it or leave it, this ritual has played a central role in our survival as a people. Of course, we could spiral into complex debates about the biblical language of purity and our relationships to these practices, but for the purposes of this post, I want to redirect our attention to the hidden heroism of the Jewish women who have carried out this mitzvah. The unbridled courage and ferociousness with which Jewish women have insisted on observing this sacred commandment, even in the face of inconceivable obstacles, continues to baffle me. To be clear, my intention is not to equate womanhood with the ability to menstruate and observe the Laws of Family Purity, but rather to couple womanhood with a seemingly supernatural ability to persevere.

New mikveh in Warsaw, 2013

New mikveh in Warsaw, Poland: 2013

For example, during the Third Reich, the Nazis used the total destruction of mikva’ot as a targeted effort to crush Jewish practice and undermine the sanctity of this ritual so central to our tradition. Yet even in the face of genocidal violence, Jewish women risked their lives to help build, sustain, and immerse in secret mikva’ot in the ghettos. In Russia, women were forced to heat up water with pots and carry them down individually to hidden rooms in secret. In other cases, Jewish women would risk their lives to sneak out of the ghettos to immerse in rivers in nearby towns. Others living in unthinkably cold climates like Siberia would carve holes into icy lakes in order to fulfill this sacred mitzvah. The written testimonies of their steadfastness are plentiful,* and I’ve no doubt there are hundreds more untold tales of Jewish women’s bravery lost in history.

It is on the heels of their courage, their tenacity, their sacrifice, that a place like Mayyim Hayyim is possible. In breathing new life into ritual immersion for all Jews, the women who fought tooth-and-nail to create and sustain our sacred space at Mayyim Hayyim have honored the legacy of our ancestors.

As I set my intentions for this special day and begin to think of ways I want to honor the women around me, I want to sincerely thank the warrior women of the Mayyim Hayyim staff. Their resistance to ritual barriers, their selfless commitment to the survival of this ritual treasure, and their unabashed chutzpah is not unlike that of our foremothers, and for that, we should be proud!

(*You can read more mikveh testimonies in Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology edited by Rivkah Slonim.)

rjs_5650tsLeah Robbins is the Administrative and Marketing Assistant at Mayyim Hayyim. She feels extremely fortunate to be a member of this team.


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Sunday Fun-day at Water Wonders: A Parent’s Perspective

by Dalia Wassner

On a chilly, fall morning, my 3 kids and I headed out to Brandeis, excited to participate in our first Water Wonders, a Mayyim Hayyim family program for children in grades K-2. Mayyim Hayyim has been a special place for me since the day before my own wedding, just over 10 years ago; it has continued to be special as I’ve immersed in the 9th month of pregnancy before the births of my children.

I had known since I was a child that a Jewish community needed only two institutions to be viable: a cemetery and a mikveh. However, until I experienced my own immersions, I had no idea what a personally meaningful experience immersing could be. I realized that a mikveh was as much a community institution as a personal space, one that connected me to generations upon generations of Jewish people who had marked their own life cycles. This, I realized, illustrates a foundational concept of Judaism: We are here as a people because of the community, but the community needs the participation of each individual who is authentically immersed and invested in that community.

Grateful for my own positive experiences at Mayyim Hayyim as an adult woman, I knew that I did not want my own children’s first experiences with mikveh to be as adults, preparing perhaps for some of the more momentous occasions in their lives. I also knew that while they can learn rituals of other kinds: the Alef-Bet, lighting Shabbat candles, morning tefilot (prayers), or the Passover seder at school, synagogue, and home, the mikveh—such an integral part of Jewish survival—would be something I would have to seek out for them with specific intent.

So, when I came upon the announcement for Water Wonders, I was excited—a fun Sunday morning of books, snacks, science, and art. And in fact, my 3 kids—ages 7 to 2—each loved the event. They talked about other aspects of Jewish life that they felt connected to already. They saw pictures of the mikveh, while hearing about the importance of water not only to the earth, and life, but also to Jews, and they got to express their own personalities in science projects (see the colored water seep through the sugar!) and art projects (let’s make water/glitter bracelets!); and what 2-year old can say no to sensory play (water table anyone)?

The best part was that afterward, my eldest was curious to learn more about the mikveh and I was able to tell him: It is where Jewish people go to prepare their minds, bodies, and souls to live important moments in life. And he had a context, at his age, for starting the conversation.

Registration is now open for Water Wonders at the JCC of Greater Boston in Arlington located at Ready, Set, Kids! (April 23, 30) and Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham (April 9, May 7).

wassner-head-shotDalia Wassner is a scholar and teacher of Latin American Jewish History. Dr. Wassner teaches Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, and Jewish Studies, most recently at Emerson College, Boston University, and Brandeis University, and she is a Research Associate at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University. Dr. Wassner’s book Harbinger of Modernity: Marcos Aguinis and the Democratization of Argentina (Boston: Brill, 2014), illuminates the intersecting roles of Jews and public intellectuals in bringing democracy to post-dictatorship Argentina. She lives with her three kids and husband in Newton, MA.

Posted in Children, Education Programs, for children, Inspiration, Parenting | Leave a comment

There’s No I in Uterus

By Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director 

Life has been a little busy lately. For all the normal reasons, yes. And, there are some other reasons, too. Mayyim Hayyim has a funny way of having an impact on people, myself included. So I want to share with you some of what’s keeping me busy lately, in the form of the first post from a personal blog that I started keeping a few months ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can read the beginnings of it below, and then click over to to read more:

This Idea that I Had…

I used to joke that I should have someone else’s baby. I’m good at being pregnant, I thought. I get pregnant easily… I stay pregnant easily… I give birth easi fast… it just feels like something I do well. And in some sick way, I’ve enjoyed giving birth. I like hospitals… all those people coming to help take care of me, bring me water, bring me food that I don’t have to cook or clean up myself… no one with the chutzpah to argue with me over the remote control… (I know – I’m nuts, right?)

Except you know what I really don’t need more of in my life? Kids. They’re everywhere – we’re infested with them.

“I’d love to have another baby,” I’d say. “I just don’t want another kid.”

So I joked like this for a while until one day I thought to myself, “Huh. I wonder if I really could do that. That’s a thing, right? No – I’m sure I’m too old,” I told myself.

But then one day, I looked it up. Yes, it is a thing. No, I am not too old. Yes, I can do that, it seemed.

Nearly ten years ago, I started volunteering at Mayyim Hayyim. Two years later I joined the staff and I’ve been the Executive Director for the past four years. People come through our doors for all kinds of reasons, finding joy and healing in a small pool of water called a mikveh. Our visitors have had a real impact on me, particularly the ones who have been on some kind of journey to build a family. I’ve seen women and men in pain over repeated failed attempts to have children, more miscarriages than I could possibly count, and the loss of stillborn babies late in pregnancy. The sadness, isolation, and anger is intense. I’ve also seen the sheer delight when one of these women returns for an immersion in her ninth month of pregnancy, a couple brings their long-awaited adopted child to convert to Judaism, and when two men visit with their infant who undoubtedly has taken incredible determination to bring into their family.

Want to read the rest of Carrie’s story? See the full post here.

carrie-headshotCarrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.


Posted in Carrie Bornstein, Fertility, gestational surrogate, Infertility, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Making a Marriage: Inside Beyond the Huppah

As Beyond the Huppah 2017 approaches, we are reminded of these unique insights written and adapted by educator Judy Elkin.

Imagine it. Ten couples sitting around a table, munching on Terra Chips, hummus and carrots, mixed nuts, and Peanut M&M’s; some soon-to-be married, some already married, in their late 20’s and older, gay and straight, Jewish-Jewish, interfaith, and all, if they have children, interested in raising them as Jews. They want to start their marriages on the right foot. What that means is gaining tools for having productive and meaningful conversations on major topics, exploring how to create Jewish lives that match their values, and learning how to stay curious about each others’ lives. This is what Beyond the Huppah is all about.

One of the fun things we do in this workshop that hones in on one of the most serious issues marriages face – conflict – is becoming familiar with the 4 toxins that Dr. John Gottman identified as showing up most commonly during conflict. The toxins are: blame, defensiveness, contempt (which is the most toxic), and stonewalling. Now, we ALL do ALL of them, it’s just the degree to which they exist that is of concern. Gottman tells us that healthy couples have a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. One of the best antidotes when a toxin appears (besides naming it) is to build positivity in the relationship.

One way to do this is so simple, and yet, like many simple things, is also so hard – to acknowledge and appreciate your partner, out loud, each day. Even if the something seems mundane, do it.

To learn about these toxins, we get up out of our comfy chairs and go into the lobby of Mayyim Hayyim to find the name of each toxin arranged in a square on the floor. Participants stand in each one and recall times they experienced each one. They are asked to pick their favorite and talk to others who share that experience. They then move to the one they think their partner uses most. There’s laughter, new awareness, and a deepened understanding of what transpires when they fight. Couples then sit together in a private place to talk about what they learned and how they’d like to help each other when the toxins show up.

And then we look to our tradition, where in the siddur (prayer book) before the Shema we’re reminded that each day God renews creation. The rabbis understood that we’re going to fight, AND we need to remember that tomorrow is another day, a new beginning, another opportunity to create and maintain positivity.

There are times throughout the course where we deal head-on with how Jewish tradition and practice will be woven through the fabric of our marriages. In the session on ritual, we study relevant texts about Shabbat in particular and Jewish ritual in general. Then we enact a role play where two partners are in the midst of a frustrating conversation over Shabbat observance. One partner thought they were on the same page about keeping Friday night as a night for themselves or friends, but at home in a more traditional way and not out at a restaurant. The other partner thought they were still trying to figure it out and is more ambivalent about it, and accepted an invitation from the boss to go out as a couple on the upcoming Friday night. As participants jump in to play out the relational issues, they also get clearer about the importance of Shabbat in their lives, what shape it will take, how it’s similar or different from how they were raised, and for Jews-by-choice, how they want to bring to their relationship their new commitment to Jewish life.

Beyond the Huppah is about grounding the general wisdom about relationships in our Jewish tradition and creating opportunities for couples to dig deeper on important issues than they might otherwise on their own. With this sneak-peak of experiential activities in mind, I invite you to join me for the upcoming series beginning April 20th. You can learn more and register here.

Learn more about bringing the Beyond the Huppah curriculum to your community here.

judJudy Elkin, M.Ed., PCC  is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) from the International Coach Federation in both individual and relationship coaching.  In addition to her private practice in Newton MA, focused on career transitions, executive leadership, parenting and aging, Judy teaches Parenting Through a Jewish Lens for Hebrew College. She brings to her coaching a 25 year career in Jewish education and professional development.

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My Monday Morning Inspiration

by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

I want to tell you an amazing story.

A donor—let’s call her Susan—who received our end-of-year appeal letter went on to our website in late December to make a donation. By accident, she donated twice.
When we saw this, we naturally suspected something was up. Most people don’t donate twice in one day to the same organization! So we called Susan to let her know that her credit card had been charged twice – did she want a refund? Amazingly, she said no. She saw this had happened, and told us she decided to let both donations go through, because “Mayyim Hayyim is such a special place.”

Susan is one of hundreds of donors who understand the amazing impact Mayyim Hayyim has: Mayyim Hayyim breaks down barriers. Mayyim Hayyim’s impact is that no matter who you are or what kind of Jew you are, you have equal access to the beautiful ritual of mikveh. Regardless of your denomination, race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age, you are welcomed and proudly and proactively included into our Jewish space. You are able to ask questions, learn, and explore; you should be able to celebrate, heal, and mark big moments in your life.

But Susan also knows that her donation isn’t just about Mayyim Hayyim’s impact on her and her community. It’s about her impact on Mayyim Hayyim.

Mayyim Hayyim is a small organization. Every gift matters. By doubling what, to Susan, probably seemed liked small gift (just $50 for a total of $100), she made enormous waves for Mayyim Hayyim.

Hundreds of Mayyim Hayyim’s donors—60% in fact—make gifts of less than $250. These gifts add up: to nearly $30,000 in 2016. In 2017, we need to raise nearly $50,000 from donors who give gifts of this size.

Why the increase at this level? Because as great as Mayyim Hayyim’s impact is, we know it could be even greater. And because we believe so strongly in pluralism, in belonging to the whole community, we also want our financial support to come from the whole community.
Susan is an inspiration to me. If she inspires you, too, to make an incredible impact to support the values of pluralism and petichut—openness and accessibility—then I would ask you to join Susan and hundreds of others like you and her, and make your 2017 gift to Mayyim Hayyim today.

rachel-eisenRachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. She loves the culture of philanthropic giving that has sprung up in the past few months—and asks you to consider supporting a small organization—like Mayyim Hayyim!—that does the hard work of fighting locally for inclusion and equality from the ground up.

Posted in Inclusiveness, Inspiration, Philanthropy, Religion | Leave a comment

Reinventing Ritual

by Rachel Karish, Bronfman Youth Fellow, translated from Hebrew by Daphna Ezrachi, Bronfman Educator

The 21st-century world that we live in is one of constant progress and change. The industrial revolution, which began a few centuries ago following the Enlightenment, led to a technological race. In that race, human knowledge continues to grow endlessly, and we don’t always know how to deal with the changes that result from it. One of the positive aspects of these changes, however, is the willingness to discuss and to deal with the clashes that arise from them.

As Jews, and as people who hold to a belief system, we find ourselves constantly trying to deal with the rapid advances and clashes that occur in our world. We struggle to find solutions that will satisfy people of different opinions; this is not easy. During my visit to the pluralistic mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim, I was deeply impressed with how this amazing institution is able to bridge our progressive and open world with that of halacha (Jewish law), worlds that often clash. The design of the building, the staff of the mikveh, and the work that is done at Mayyim Hayyim creates a powerful feeling that we are all equal, and we are all welcome to enter and find our place.

Immersion in a mikveh is an important and meaningful ritual in the lives of many Jews, men and women alike. The mikveh is a source of physical and emotional cleansing. The most powerful element for me was the fact that Mayyim Hayyim was able to find halachic ways to open up the mikveh for anyone to come and cleanse themselves – no matter what stage they are in their lives, no matter where they come from, or where they are going.

As an Orthodox young woman, I felt that the visit resonated with me personally. A few months ago, we started learning about marriage and the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha (Family Purity) in school. I was amazed to see how Mayyim Hayyim created a viable and halachic way to include all those who want to come to the mikveh, which I plan on and very much look forward to doing regularly upon marriage.

For a while now, I have been looking forward to immersion in a mikveh. There is something so purifying about this experience. During our visit, I realized how important it is to me that the option of immersion be available to every Jew, no matter who they are. It is such a basic and natural thing to want to purify oneself and connect to oneself and to God. I found Mayyim Hayyim’s ability to make this basic, natural, and fundamental aspect of Judaism accessible to everyone profound and deeply touching.

rachelllRachel visited Mayyim Hayyim as a participant in the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, a network of 1,100+ young Jews from Israel and North America. She is a senior at Ulpanat Shirat Hayam and majors in dance. Rachel is active in her local youth movement and will soon be a volunteer through the Israeli national service program. Daphna is an educator and alumna of Amitei Bronfman.

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Inclusion First

by Lori Kramer, Office Manager

Alongside my role as the Office Manager at Mayyim Hayyim, I have the pleasure of being Ema (mom) to four wonderful, amazing, patience-trying, and dynamic children. My oldest, Avi, is turning 17 next month. I have proudly worn the label of Special Needs Mom since Avi was in second grade (though I’ve really been a Special Needs Mom since he was born, we just did not have the words to describe it), and the more specific label of Autism Mom since July 1, 2014.

While my son’s autism diagnosis did not come until he was 14, we have been managing his Individualized Education Program, special services, and pullout classes for over 10 years.

13524545_10154194438710119_3654785534025217541_nLast year, Avi moved to a school for students with language-based learning disabilities. The change in him – not just academically – is astounding. He has evolved into a social teenager with typical drama with friends, rolled eyes about doing chores, and a wonderful sense of self-confidence he has never had before. Okay, I’ll be honest, he always rolled his eyes about doing chores.

It has always been paramount in my parenting to make sure there are accessible, welcoming places for Avi that accept him just as he is. Mayyim Hayyim has always made sure that people just like Avi feel included and embraced. Mayyim Hayyim’s commitment to accessibility can be seen in our film, Open Waters: Mikveh for Everybody.

In support of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month 2017, Mayyim Hayyim is so proud to launch our simplified, pictorial version of the 7 Kavanot (intentions) for Mikveh Preparation for people with developmental disabilities, non-native English speakers, and children, (created in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, along with the Open Waters film) ensuring that even more people can access the ritual of mikveh.

During Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, I am so proud to work for an organization that puts inclusion first.

rjs_5588tsLori Kramer comes to Mayyim Hayyim from an extensive background in non-profit administration. She previously worked at JCC of Greater Boston and JCC Camp Kingswood. She lives in Woonsocket, RI with her four kids and her husband. 

Posted in Accessibility, Children, Disability, Immersion, Inclusiveness, Inspiration, Parenting | Leave a comment