by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Last week, Gann Academy brought over sixty Israeli and American teenagers to learn at Mayyim Hayyim. We set up stations located throughout our first floor, each one exploring an aspect of our particular mikveh, for the purpose of a big-picture conversation about how to welcome people into a Jewish ritual that has felt inaccessible to so many, for so long.
At three separate learning centers, smaller groups of twenty Israelis and Americans learned about how to immerse, the reasons why people come to Mayyim Hayyim, and the biblical roots for this ancient ritual. Armed with a sense of Jewish life through the lens of our mikveh, we began a broader conversation about the accessibility of Jewish ritual. I shared that last February, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that barring Reform and Conservative conversions in state-run mikvaot was unlawful. Last summer, the Knesset voted on a bill that overrode the Supreme Court, establishing once again that non-Orthodox clergy may not use state-run and subsidized mikvaot for their conversions.
Kenesset Member Moshe Gafni from United Torah Judaism led the effort, saying, “Reform Jews in the US don’t have a single mikveh. All of a sudden they need a mikveh here?”
I shared with these teens that the highest percentage of any denomination that comes to Mayyim Hayyim (27%) is Reform. We may not be a mikveh specifically for Reform Jews, but many of them call this mikveh their own. Some students were surprised to hear this. Others weren’t. They argued:
“The Rabbanut doesn’t recognize Reform or Conservative. They are not seen as legitimate.”
“The Rabbanut is seeking to preserve our national identity through Orthodoxy. They think only Orthodoxy will keep Israel Jewish.”
And yet these sentiments are not specific to Israel. I have found that many Jews in the U.S. will inadvertently undermine their own involvement and experiences by implying that Orthodoxy is the “real” and “authoritative” way of being Jewish. Many learners at Mayyim Hayyim say their first impression of mikveh is that it’s “only for Orthodox people.” They want to know, “Do Orthodox people come to your mikveh?” “Do they think you are a real mikveh?” These are fair questions, but in a politicized religious world, they seem to point to a deep-rooted insecurity that asks: Are we Jewish enough?
I decided to take the conversation down a different path. As the Israeli and American students shared a sense of frustration with the politics of religion in Israel, I brought to light a comparison that, while not exact, pointed to the challenge of religious freedom in America.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discriminating against same-sex couples is unconstitutional in all fifty states. During the court proceedings, Justice Samuel Alito made a comparison to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian institution that lost its nonprofit, tax-exempt status in 1983 because it had a policy banning interracial marriage and dating, which had also been ruled to be unconstitutional.
I explained that I believe that tax-exempt status is a type of governmental support. Religious organizations of different faiths have received this type of support since before the founding of our country, at least in part because these ‘voluntary organizations’ as the IRS calls them, are created for the public good. They are often poised to offer assistance to those in need, where the government might have done so. The question is, what if that public assistance is denied to someone because they are in a same-sex relationship?
Today, some religious organizations are arguing that it is their right to deny entry and/or services to same-sex couples. Do they have the right to bar entry to whomever they choose when it violates the constitution? Where is the line between religious freedom and our rights and freedoms as human beings? And if a religious organization does bar entry for someone for an unconstitutional reason, should they receive tax-exemption?
On this point, some of the students surprised me. “A religious organization has the right to deny anyone they wish,” one student shared. “It’s a private organization!”
“But should they be supported by the government if they act against the constitution and break the law?”
“Time to switch!,” our volunteer time-keeper yelled through the door. There is never enough time for these conversations. Needless to say we did not come up with solutions to these very real challenges of democracy and religious freedom, but I was beyond thrilled that we could dip a toe into this timeless conversation with a diverse group of young Jewish thinkers.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She lives in Jamaica Plain with her imaginary cat and real husband.