Work and Play

by Lori Kramer, Office Manager

12235018_10207909055104207_765659722348366572_nThe first blog post I ever wrote for Mayyim Hayyim (well quite frankly, my first public blog post ever) was about intentionality, and how Mayyim Hayyim is the embodiment of all things thought-out and intentional. It is what first attracted me to the organization both personally and professionally. One of the best examples of thoughtfulness and intention I have experienced since joining the team last November, was our staff retreat last week.

We all had a wonderful day of incredibly delicious food, relaxing play time, a gorgeous view, perfect weather, and inspiring strategic planning for the coming months. My favorite part of our working time was a team-building activity called The Marshmallow Challenge. We were split into two groups of three and were given 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, scissors, and a marshmallow. The goal was to make the tallest tower you could using the supplies we were given, but the marshmallow had to be at the top of the tower… Oh and this had to happen in 18 minutes. The winner was the group with the tallest, free-standing tower.

The first thing I learned is that 18 minutes is not a very long time…at all. Also, thin spaghetti breaks very easily. I tend to be very analytical in my thought process in activities like this. I was doing a lot of the “Wait, how in the world is one piece of spaghetti going to hold a dense marshmallow?” type of thinking, while other members of my team were doing a lot more vocalizing, “Let’s just tape this here and see what happens.” image1

It struck me that those thought processes really relate to the work we do at Mayyim Hayyim. I am part of the back office staff, trying to ensure the physical plant of the building is working as it should be, processing gifts from our generous donors, preparing forms for our guests coming to immerse. My other team members are on the “front of house” team, interacting in a much more public role. Both roles are extremely important, and they turned out to be pretty important in our group’s attempts to get that tower together.

Sadly, our tower didn’t stand. That was okay with me though (not just because the other team’s didn’t either….). In the end I think you often learn a lot more from your failures than your successes, especially when you are intentional about your goals and collaborating with an unstoppable team.

Lori Kramer feels very fortunate to be a member of this team of hardworking women at Mayyim Hayyim. She lives in Woonsocket, RI with her four kids and her husband. 

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Europe’s Oldest Mikveh and the Jews of Syracuse

by Karen Suzukamo

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In 1984 my husband and I had a plan. We’d move to Minnesota for exciting jobs, work hard, explore the area, and then move back to the west coast. The thirty years since then made us into Minnesotans and taught us a thing or two about the possibilities and the limitations of plans. That being said, we never lost the desire to explore a new place by living there, to immerse ourselves, to see ourselves and our place in the world in a new light, and to reflect and grow.

Last winter we lived in Italy and Greece. A highlight of those months was our time in Sicily, particularly a visit to the ancient mikveh in Syracuse. Sicily is at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia: the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Phoenicians, the Normans, and the Spaniards all left their mark on Sicilian life today with awe-inspiring buildings and art that dot the landscape. The legacy of the Jews of Sicily and of their holy space require a bit more effort to find.

Some History of Jews in Sicily

Jews came to Sicily early, most likely as slaves of the Romans around 63 BCE. There were over 30,000 Jews in more than 50 Sicilian communities at the time of their expulsion by Spain in 1492. In Syracuse, Jews were an estimated quarter of the population of the Ortygia island center.

Mikveh in Syracuse, Sicily

Mikveh in Syracuse, Sicily

The Mikveh in Syracuse, Sicily was built around 600 CE, hidden in 1492 and rediscovered in 1989. It was the center of the Syracuse Jewish community. In the Middle Ages, the community would have first built a mikveh before building a synagogue or purchasing a Torah scroll. The mikveh was in use for almost 1,000 years, from its construction during the Byzantine era (around 500 CE) until the expulsion of the Jews from Spanish controlled Sicily in 1492. When the Jews of Syracuse were forced to flee or hide their faith, they decided to hide the mikveh. Tons of stone and sand were used to fill in the entrance, making a courtyard patio and preserving the mikveh 60 feet below. It remained hidden, lost to memory for 500 years.

In the late 1980s, the family that lived on the property for hundreds of years, long considered to be anusim (Jews forced to abandon their faith), sold their house to be developed into a boutique hotel. During the construction, the mikveh entrance and the preserved baths were discovered. The mikveh is now open for guided visits and is used by the very small Jewish community in the area.

I ignored the warnings of our tour guide that the mikveh was down narrow, dark, slippery steps and headed off for a visit on a free afternoon. The mikveh is not well known, but there were about twenty fellow visitors. The steps are indeed narrow and dark, and visitors are not allowed to carry anything. I liked this. It was appropriate to leave our possessions behind, just bringing ourselves to the mikveh. Prior to the tour I sat in the hotel’s patio area to read about the mikveh directly below me.

Syracuse is a city of the sun, the sea, and the volcano. The bright Mediterranean light shines down on you, on the pale stones of the buildings and the sea. I felt my spirit lift as I walked this 3,000 year old city, sat in the cafes, and listened to the sounds of birds, wind, waves and Italians enjoying the company of each other in this beautiful place.

Then it was time to very carefully walk down into the dark, cool, quiet earth, time to touch the rock at my side and see the chisel marks made over 1,500 years ago to carve that wall, that step, that room. It was awe-inspiring to think about the effort that went into making this sacred space, about the choice to carve the mikveh deep into the earth, far removed from the pace and the trials of life on the surface. As I left the surface literally to walk down to a separate, deep time and space for purification, it was special to hear the sound of running fresh water and breathe damp air, to imagine what it was like to come into this space when it was lit by candles and lanterns and one fresh air shaft, to see the three small pools in the center and the two private pools to the sides and think about who used which one and why.

To imagine generations of Jews who came here for a holy ritual and found comfort and meaning in their experience; who found connection to self, to the earth, to community, to God… I listened to the guide as she explained the mikveh, first in Italian and then in English. And I looked and breathed and touched and listened to absorb this moment, created for me, for you, by Jews 60 generations ago.

This winter we sought a place to immerse ourselves, to see ourselves and our place in the world in a new light, to reflect and to grow. I found it there.

Karen Suzukamo is a member of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota. She describes her current occupation as ‘adventurer’ rather than ‘retired’, a far more accurate reflection of her desire to explore, appreciate, and contribute to the world around her.

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It’s Not About the Water

by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

Let me tell you a little secret of mine. I actually hate getting in the water.

I’m not a fan of summer, in part because I’d rather be cold than hot, but also because I hate swimming. I can’t remember if I liked it as a kid or not, but it’s just not my thing.

I recently went on a camping trip with some friends who wanted to go tubing. I did everything I could to find an alternative activity. I proposed hiking and canoeing instead. I reluctantly packed the one bathing suit I own. Eventually, my partner and I ended up driving to the top of a mountain to see the views while the rest of the group floated down- river.

I recently mentioned my aversion to water at a staff meeting and joked, “I might have chosen to the wrong place to work!” Except that in reality, I chose the exact right place to work.

You see, Mayyim Hayyim is about more than the water. Yes, mikveh is a ritual that takes place in the water. But it’s so much more than that.

Of course, there’s the “dry side” of Mayyim Hayyim, where we run more than one hundred education programs every year for all ages. There’s the art gallery, which makes the mikveh beautiful. And truthfully, even the mikveh pool itself isn’t always about the water.

I immersed for the first time last year in preparation for the High Holy Days. When I think about that experience, the part I remember most is reading the Seven Kavanot as I got ready. I remember the silence in the mikveh as I ducked below the surface. I remember taking a few moments to myself after the Mikveh Guide left, looking up at the beautiful tiles and the way the light broke through the windows. I remember spinning around in a circle in the mikveh and thinking about everything I wanted the coming year to be.

Mayyim Hayyim is special because it’s more than just the physical mikveh. It’s an idea and a belief that ritual belongs to all of us to embrace in our own way. Whether that’s through learning and sharing about ritual innovation and inclusivity, or by getting in the water itself, Mayyim Hayyim is there for us–whether we love the water or not.

Rachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. As a figure skater, she prefers water in its solid form—but she’ll make an exception for immersing in the mikveh.

Posted in High Holidays, Immersion, Rachel Eisen, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Cab Ride in Cuba

by Yasmine Moideen

“A donde?”

“Por la calle y la Calle trece.”

My friends and I entered the dented, sky-blue, 1954 Bel Aire landing on creaky seats, shutting the doors harder than we should have. We were in Havana, Cuba on a trip with our synagogue. It was nearing Shabbat, around 6:30 pm. That day, our group decided to split up and explore the city in small groups. The plan was to meet back at El Patronato (Temple Beth Shalom), the largest synagogue in Cuba, for Shabbat services around 7 pm. After walking around the hot, humid streets of Havana, my group of three found ourselves running late. We were strangers in a strange land, at the mercy of our broken Spanish, trying to make our way to services on time.

As we hurcarriedly drove through the streets, it began to drizzle. Our cab driver pointed out a fancy car parked on the street, with a Cuban flag and an American flag on the dashboard. He told us that this car was for President Obama’s visit; he was slated to visit Cuba in two days. This was a historic visit because President Obama was expected to begin the process of lifting the American embargo. Cubans refer to the embargo as, El Bloqueo. It has had devastating economic consequences for the Cuban people. With hesitation, I asked our cab driver, “¿Te gusta Obama?” “Do you like President Obama?” He said, “Si. La visita es una oportunidad para cambio.” “It is an opportunity for change.” He briefly explained how life in Cuba is difficult and that he has to work three jobs in order to provide for his family.

Soon it was 6:50 pm. The cab driver asked, “¿Buscando una casa?” “Is it a house we are looking for?54judaic tourism - cuba synagogue beth shalom” I said, “No. Es una sinagoga.” “It’s a synagogue.” He looked confused. I said, “Es un templo. Como una iglesia para los Judíos.” “It’s a temple, like a church for Jews.” He did a double-take and looked at me with curiosity. “Eres Judía?” “Are you Jewish?” He asked this incredulously.

I wasn’t surprised… I don’t “look Jewish” according to some. I was born in India and grew up in New York. I’ve lived in the Midwest for 30 years and have the accent to prove it. I have brown skin and black hair. I found Judaism at age 18, when I met a Jewish man who would later be my husband. Over the years, I grew to love the soul of Judaism, the search for your own personal truth. At the age of 46, I took the literal plunge into the mikveh. I officially became a Jew.

I frequently “out” myself as Jewish when I find the right moment and right person. I think I unconsciously observe people for signs of kindness and openness. Where I once feared not fitting into Judaism, I have found that others surprisingly embrace my Judaism. My “outing” forces people outside of their own narrow definition of what Jews are. I see them listening, curious, trying to connect the dots.

In that cab in Havana, my “outing” was by happenstance. Our cab driver said that he didn’t even know that there was a synagogue in that part of town, as Jewish life has had a precarious history. There are 1,500 Jews in Cuba, about 1,100 residing in Havana. Before the revolution, in 1959, Cuba had 15,000 Jews. After the revolution, many left. Under communism, people were not allowed to openly practice religion. They have survived so much. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring to be reminded of the resilience of Cuban Jewry en route to Shabbat services.

cuba1As the Bel Aire pulled up to El Patronato, the rain let up and we realized that we were not, in fact, late to meet the group. We asked how much the fare was, and he told us that we could decide how much we wanted to pay. Oy… What to do? We spoke in hushed tones and decide on 15 CUCs. We hoped that it would be enough and that this amount of money would convey our gratitude for his service, and above all, kindness to us as Americans and Jews.

 

yasmineYasmine Moideen is a clinical psychologist. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with her husband and boy/girl twins, age 14. They are members of Mount Zion Temple, in St. Paul. Yasmine went with Mount Zion to Cuba in March 2016 on a mission trip led by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker.

Posted in Inspiration, Religion, Shabbat, Synagogue, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Where Working is a Delight

leahby Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

Almost two months have passed since I began working at Mayyim Hayyim. I have settled into my desk, built a challenging, but civil relationship with our computer systems and their quirks, and am actively growing as a member of this extraordinary team of women who keep Mayyim Hayyim running.

That being said, I sometimes find myself feeling insecure about the work I am doing, questioning whether or not the content of my responsibilities is as useful to this organization in proportion to the meat-and-potatoes that some of my colleagues do. After all, I would love to someday co-pilot Associate Director of Education, Leeza Negelev in leading an education program. But then I think, “Relax, Leah.. You’re only 22… Everything that takes place within these walls is holy work, and you get to play a critical role in creating the experiences we read about in our guest book.”

As I sit upstairs giving myself this promotional pep-talk, I start to smile. I can hear the joyous singing in the atrium between the mikvaot, as our guests welcome a new Jew into the world. In these moments I remember the gravity of the holiness in this building. Every day I watch our guests enter and exit the building transformed. People choose to come to Mayyim Hayyim for a variety of reasons, but they always leave looking slightly different than when they came in– their faces fresher, their smiles brighter, their shoulders a little less burdened.

On other days, my moments of inspiration are less obvious.

Often times, when the Mikveh Guides worry that they may fall into the mikveh while removing the pool covers, they call me downstairs to help. In those brief, but delightful moments, I get to engage with the physical mikveh waters. You would think that taking the covers on and off couldn’t possibly evoke any emotion other than worry that I too, might fall in, but in fact, that split-second contact with the water strikes me with profound awe and gratitude for the privilege to work at Mayyim Hayyim. What might appear to be an ordinary moment is fundamentally elevated into a spiritual one.

Everyday, at unexpected times, in unexpected places, I am reminded that my place of work is a sacred space. My place of work is a community hub of healing and simcha (happiness). My place of work actively challenges me as a Jew. My place of work makes a monumental impact on the continuity of Jewish life. How many people can say that?

Leah Robbins recently graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelors in Jewish and Women’s studies. She is also a resident organizer at the Moishe Kavod House and lives with her partner Madison.

Posted in Celebrations, Conversion, Healing, Immersion, Inspiration, Mikveh Guides, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mikveh Moments in Madagascar: Immersion and Conversion on the Other Side of the World

by Bonita Sussman

20160629_112346This past May, a delegation organized by Kulanu, an organization that supports returning, emerging, and isolated Jewish communities around the world, journeyed to Madagascar. It was the culmination of a long process that brought Malagasys into the Jewish faith through conversion.

After ascertaining that all the men in Madagascar who wanted to convert to Judaism were proudly circumcised (in Madagascar all men are, per the cultural norm) and they only needed hatafat dam brit (a symbolic blood draw done with a hemoglobin needle used by diabetics), our focus was redirected toward the mikveh. It was actually the first question we asked more than two years ago and the last question to be resolved only four days before we arrived with the Beit Din (the Rabbinical Court) to perform the conversions for what we thought would be 60 people. Little did we know it would turn into 120!

Petoela, the communal leader tasked with the responsibility of determining the mikveh location, approached the Parks Department and asked if he could construct a temporary structure to be removed after the dunking. The answer was, “NO!” Thereafter ensued a flood of halachic (legal) questions to the Beit Din. Could they dunk with loose fitting clothes on? There seemed to be precedents in the rabbinic literature for this, but the general consensus was: it may be permitted, but if potential converts told people they immersed with clothes on, the established Jewish community would most likely denigrate their conversions. Doesn’t everyone know immersion for real conversion must be naked?

Petoela had to go back to the drawing board. He finally found a river about an hour and a half out of town, long bus rides away. It was deep enough, but Peteola still needed to shore up the concern of privacy. After another flurry of emails, we came up with a tarp and wood structure.

The men lined up to enter the changing room and dunked one at a time. The women and children did too. Dunk first, say the bracha (blessing), “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vstivanu al hat’vila.” It seems they all knew this bracha by heart with little coaching. Then two more times. The word, “kosher,” meaning that the immersion was done properly, from the mikveh lady and rabbis, must have sounded like words from heaven to the new converts.

After community members completed their immersions, the Beit Din drew them all together, the men first and then the women. Each group recited the Shema and V’ahavta followed by joyous dancing. MADAgascar mikva tent FIXED

When I told Elysha, one of the English- speaking Malagasy women, that I would be writing for Mayyim Hayyim about the Madagascar mikveh experience, I asked her what it meant to her. Elysha referred to the midrash that says that a convert becomes a like a new born baby. She said to me, “It is a unique experience to be reborn, I expected that moment for a long time. The mikveh was among the best days in my life.”

Bonita Nathan Sussman serves as Vice President of Kulanu. She is so glad to see that the Jewish men and women of Madagascar appreciated and valued the mitzvah of tevilah (immersion) as a cornerstone of their conversion. Mikveh is a mitzvah that has tied Jewish people together throughout Jewish history.

Posted in Conversion, Immersion, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Miracles as Usual

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

leezaphotoI’ve been engaged to be married since November, 2015. That’s a long time to ruminate, dread, panic, romanticize, and (sometimes) plan a wedding. I’ve done a lot of wondering “what it will be like to…” well, you name it. I’ve done some thinking on the oppressive past and present of the institution of marriage and weighed it with my desire for a tax-break. I’ve thought about why I want my relationship blessed by the loving attention of family friends. I’ve also done some online dress shopping. Maybe a lot.

I didn’t know how to imagine my bridal immersion. I just knew it would happen. As someone who teaches about the mikveh, I often spend hours thinking and learning about all of the different ways people have made this ritual their own. Yet when it came to my immersion, my head was swimming (water pun intended).

Every time I imagined it, I walked into a familiar wall. I wanted three generations of women present: my mother, grandmother, and sister. As someone who is very connected to my family, I wanted this transition to be witnessed by the weightiness of generations, the many struggles and successes that brought me to this moment. I wanted my grandmother, the matriarch, my mother, my rock, and my sister, my life-long friend and sometimes sparring partner.

So why didn’t I plan this mikveh party months before? Because the matriarch, the rock, and the friend are also the kvetcher (complainer), the chutzpenik (someone who doesn’t give a hoot), and the sometimes no-show. Yes, just like your family, mine is meshugene, too. (Can you tell I’m practicing my Yiddish?)

I was stuck between two worlds: I wanted to experience a powerful, ritual moment that would transcend time and space… and I wanted my family to be there. I knew that with all of the positive associations of a Jewish wedding, the day of would be full of these profound ritual moments (and it was). But the mikveh invoked my grandmother’s bridal immersion in a dirty pool in the remote woods of Uzbekistan, and for my mother, it was another potential indicator that her daughter would soon become a religious fanatic.

bab and leeza dancing

Leeza and “Bab”

Eventually, I settled on the fact that it would be whatever it was, and I just wanted them to show up. At one point in the planning process, getting everyone to Newton felt like it would be its own miracle. I did eventually let go of the expectations, but I decided that I really cared that we were together and that I had a pastrami sandwich afterwards. Although my sister’s flight didn’t work out, on the day of my immersion, Bab (babushka, grandma) and Mam were there.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Lisa Berman’s smiling face. I heartily toured my Bab and Mam as they “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” over the art, the Jerusalem tile, and the peace of mind they didn’t expect to feel. When it came to immersion, I had Lisa as my witness, and I told my family I wanted them to stand outside the closed sliding doors. I planned to immerse three times, and before the third, I asked them to share a blessing for me.

I went under the first time and “kasher!” Lisa’s voice boomed beautifully. I heard my Bab and Mam chatting behind the door. I took another breath and went under. “Kasher!” I said the Shehecheyanu blessing for my first (and hopefully last) bridal immersion.

Waiting for my family to chime in with words of hope and wishes for my happy future, I chuckled to myself as I heard them arguing about something from behind the closed doors. Lisa called out: “You can share a blessing now…” They did not hear.

Some moments passed.

I took matters into my own hands and yelled: “Bab! Mam! Stop chatting! Can you share a blessing?” And they did.

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Leeza and her Mam

No, I didn’t feel the heavens open up. I was slightly irritated, chuckling to myself, and also wildly grateful for both of them. My family made it there, and they came as themselves. After all, these are the two women who taught me the art of showing up as I am.

I left the mikveh feeling accomplished: I had let go of previous expectations, I’d articulated what I wanted directly in the moment, and best of all, we made it. I dried off, gave Lisa a big hug, and we headed off for that pastrami sandwich.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim and she loves her family, meshugas and all.

Posted in Celebrations, Immersion, leeza negelev, Marriage, Uncategorized | 2 Comments