Mikveh Guides: The Face of Mayyim Hayyim

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

Mikveh Guides: The Face of Mayyim Hayyim
These women and these men have much to teach,
But their pleasure is to learn and serve,
Stepping forward or stepping back,
Attending to the need, joyful or tearful,
Face to face.
–Anita Diamant

More than 13 years ago, a few passionate volunteers and staff created one of Mayyim Hayyim’s most unique characteristics: the role of the Mikveh Guide. Originally intended to be called madrichim, this moniker was soon dropped for the more accessible title “Guides.” Their uniqueness lay in their diversity, their roles as educators and mikveh attendants, and their instruction to place at the forefront of each guest’s experience the choice to engage with the ritual in the way that was most meaningful to each guest.

A Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guide’s reflection in the guestbook

Our Guides go through a rigorous selection and training process, and we’re so very proud of the 177 who have completed the learning process. Nearly 70 of them are still active and involved, greeting and supporting our guests each day.

This fall we will select and train our 11th cohort of Guides; this is a process that we take on only every other year. We are actively seeking applicants for this unique and meaning-filled volunteer opportunity – applicants from all walks of Jewish life, all ages, gender expressions, and backgrounds. In diversity is our strength. If you or someone you know would like to know more about the role and process of becoming a Guide, we would love to hear from you (see below for contact information).

Our Guides are the proud recipients of our guests’ praise, (confidentially, of course). Enjoy reading these beautiful testimonies, and consider applying to join the ranks of Boston- area’s most interesting and fulfilling volunteer positions: A Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim.

From our guests:

“The Guide was incredibly respectful, supportive, and comforting. The first words she greeted me with on the phone were, “How can I be helpful?” That was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.”

“My Mikveh Guide was wonderful! I really appreciated hearing his enthusiastic “Kasher!” after each immersion. My simcha (joyous celebration) would not have been the same without an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim.”

“The Guide was supportive of my having my own experience and difficult feelings at this time by being thoughtful and not intrusive. It was just what I needed.”

“I could not have asked for a better, more respectful experience. The Guide explained everything, answered questions, supported me, and gave me space. It was my first time and I was very slow in reading the prayers; I appreciate how patient and kind the Guide was.”

“Our Guide was fabulous and really made our visit and immersion as a family so special and true to who we are as a family.”

“Our Guide helped our experience to be incredibly meaningful, and whole, and safe. I can’t say enough about him; he more than enriched our experience. He had the perfect balance of support and space.”

“My Guide was absolutely fabulous. I was a nervous wreck and her calm demeanor was very soothing and confidence building. She even took pictures for us!”

“The Mikveh Guide who helped me was very welcoming and helpful. She made the experience very easy and accessible. She helped me and my mom understand the process for the mikveh and helped us with the guide for prayers for a bride’s immersion. She helped make it a great experience!”

“Even her voice was warm and welcoming. She made me at ease. My immersion was a wonderful experience I will never forget. I plan to visit Mayyim Hayyim again at important times in my life.”

Theirs is the art of tzimtzum, of making way.
He will seal your prayers with amen.
She will whisper kasher and it is to.
Their words and intentions are kadosh,
As your words and intetions are holy.
Face to face.
God-given and God-met.
Panim el panim
–Anita Diamant

Click here to learn more about becoming a Mikveh Guide. Already know you’re interested? Complete your application here

Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim.

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A Rare Treat to Toivel

by Karen Abraham, Mikveh Guide

“A guest is coming to toivel.”
“To make new dishes ready for use. Take a look in the file drawer for more information.”

I quickly set down the phone and opened the drawer. I found the two-page explanation about how to immerse kitchen items in the mikveh. It explained why this is done — likening the Jewish table to an altar — and why we “convert” dishes for use in a Jewish home. I quickly read through the details about appropriate blessings and procedural guidelines. Just a few minutes later, I welcomed two guests with armloads of bags and boxes, straight from Target and Ikea! The two housemates made another trip back to the car for more items as I assessed how to proceed.

I grabbed scissors and a trash bag and together we unwrapped, unboxed, and unlabeled dishes, cooking utensils, cutlery, pots, pans, and a whistling teakettle. When a person immerses in the mikveh, the waters must surround them, embracing and touching every nook and cranny. The same is true for items used for preparing kosher meals, so we began to remove every sticky price tag and label. I borrowed a bottle of nail polish remover from a prep room, and I rummaged through my pocketbook to find a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Both of these items aided in removing sticky residue so all the items would get a kosher immersion in the mikveh.

Leaving the pocket doors wide open, we moved the items to the side of the mikveh. The water was ready to receive them. Our guests paused to recite the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’Tzivanu Al Tevilat Keilim. Blessed are You, God of all creation, Who sanctifies us with Your commandments and commands us concerning the immersion of vessels.

I quickly realized that we were going to need many towels. I lined the side of the pool with dry towels to collect the newly immersed dishes. One of the guests grabbed a new stainless steel colander and filled it with smaller utensils to dunk, making sure that he momentarily let go of the container to assure that the mikveh water touched all of the items. We dipped red plates for meat and white plates for dairy. The guests chatted about meals that they hoped to prepare for themselves and friends. We created an assembly line for drying and repacking all of the new items. When we were finished toiveling, the guests left Mayyim Hayyim eager to cook kosher meals, share recipes and cuisine with friends, and celebrate Jewish holidays with their kashered dishes and utensils.

Thinking back to this guiding experience, at first I felt it was completely unique from any other immersion. The intimacy and private nature of human immersions was not a concern for toiveling. The nervousness and anxiety that also comes with human immersions was not present. Yet, upon deeper reflection, I realized that toivel-ing celebrated a transformation and the anticipation of change, just as a bride immersing before a wedding or an adopted child converting to Judaism. The ritual of dunking dishes and spoons was indeed a holy endeavor. As a Mikveh Guide, I felt especially privileged to have intimately participated in transforming and preparing a new kosher kitchen.

Karen Abraham is teacher at The Rashi School, as well as a Mikveh Guide. She resides in Natick with her husband and teenage son. 

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A New Life for the New Year

by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

Mayyim Hayyim is the home of new beginnings.

After ten years of working at Mayyim Hayyim, I’ve seen a lot of joyful celebration. But I’ve seen a great deal of heartache, too: couples mourning miscarriage, grieving after stillbirth, weeping after failed IVF cycles, immersing month after month, trying to conceive.

Beth wrote to us: “Your infertility ceremony broke down a wall I had unknowingly erected. Finally, someone understood what I was feeling and gave me permission to feel it. I emerged centered, peaceful, and for the first time in over a year, hopeful.”

Felicia and David wrote: “We have been grieving our loss and are ready to try to conceive our next child. We are grateful to have this resource.

Sometimes heartache turns to joy. I’ve seen couples return to immerse in the 9th month of pregnancy, or post-partum with a newborn in their arms, or to celebrate the adoption and conversion of their child. These are the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.

If not for Mayyim Hayyim, it never would have occurred to me to become a gestational surrogate. To turn sorrow into gladness.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be delivering a baby I’ve been carrying for a Jewish couple in London who were among the heartbroken for more than seven years. It has been an amazing journey and I am deeply grateful for the support of the Mayyim Hayyim community along the way.

This pregnancy is unlike my others in so many ways. For example, I’m not registering for onesies or a stroller. Instead, I’m asking you to join me in this mitzvah by donating to Mayyim Hayyim.

Your gift insures Mayyim Hayyim’s mission as a safe and sacred haven for all the seasons of life. So Lisa and Sarah can immerse before giving birth, Rachel and Robert can heal after a late-term miscarriage, and Randi and Daniel get to “be in the moment” as they become parents.

Every dollar you give will be a source of healing and renewal. So please, give generously. Shanah Tova.

To give someone a new beginning, make a donation now at www.mayyimhayyim.org/donate.

Carrie Bornstein is the Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim. You can read more about her journey on her blog, “There’s No I in Uterus.”

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The Holy One at the Mikveh

by Rabbi Jamie Kotler

As the month of Elul approaches, immediately preceding the High Holy Days, I am filled with trepidation. The rabbis understand it to be a joyous time. They traditionally interpret the Hebrew letters of Elul (אלול) as an acronym for Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” a verse from the Song of Songs, the great love story between the Holy One and Israel. Like the lovers in that most beautiful of love stories, God comes into the fields just ahead of the High Holy Days, searching for me, seeking my heart, if only I open to that Presence.

To meet The Holy One in that place of love and honesty means shedding the layers of protective covering I have managed, once again, to grow around my heart. How will I find my way this year? In the words of Deuteronomy: “What does Hashem, your God ask of you? Only to hold Hashem your God, in awe, to walk in all His ways, and to love him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and being… Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts… ” (Deut. 10:12-16).

Elul becomes a time of transformation – a spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days. It is a time to a shed the thickened layers, to cleanse the schmutz (dirt) that has covered my heart, in preparation for entering the Heart of Hearts. The process is akin to that undertaken by the High Priest at Yom Kippur. Each year, as the High Priest prepared to enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple where the Holy Presence dwelt, he, too, immersed in a mikveh. Today, our hearts serve as the Temple: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.” (Ex. 25:8). I immerse, as I prepare to meet the Holy One in the inner sanctum of my heart.

Each year, when I descend into the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim, and open the spigot that delivers the collected rain water, I access the primordial waters, the first “gathering of waters,” from which all life came forth. I immerse. I float. I let the waters of the Holy One support and surround me, giving me buoyancy. I feel the emergence of hope, a glimmer of recognition of the path inward that I will follow, as I journey to meet the One who awaits my heart with Abounding Love.

We invite you to make use of the mikveh as a physical and spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days. Schedule your visit here.

Rabbi Jamie Kotler teaches Torah to adults in the Boston area. Her goal is to open a door into to Torah for spiritual seekers, enabling them to reflect on our connection to The One, to one another, to the chain of generations on whose shoulders we stand, and to the world we inhabit. Rabbi Kotler also serves as a chaplain.

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Angst at the Mikveh

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

Just as Abraham ran to greet the three angels in Bereishit (Genesis) 18:2, the volunteer Mikveh Guides at Mayyim Hayyim are always prepared to greet our guests with enthusiasm. They are the ones in the back room quietly folding laundry while, in the preparation room next door, someone is cautiously removing a stray hair or a sock, one mundane step towards marking the end of mourning, or the beginning of a new life.

The Mikveh Guides try to mirror God in Creation, by drawing themselves in so that the finite can unfold around them. In the beginning, or so one version of the story goes, God retracted its infinite self to allow for the separation of the skies and water, and in order to breathe life into living things. For a Mikveh Guide, this act of tzimtzum (withdrawal) often means leaving space for the unknown.

Two weeks ago, Mayyim Hayyim offered a Mikveh Guide Appreciation Night: an evening with copious amounts of dessert and prosecco, and a facilitated discussion, during which we gave Mikveh Guides a chance to share guiding moments that felt powerful in some way.

That night, sitting in a circle of couches and chairs in Anita Diamant and Jim Ball’s living room, Mikveh Guides shared proud moments of reassuring nervous parents before the immersion of their child for conversion, and navigating extremely busy afternoons at the mikveh.

One Mikveh Guide answered the question: What happens when the unknown is uncomfortable? What happens when you retract yourself, and the person at the door is someone you have a really hard relationship with? The Guide hesitated before offering her story, “I feel a little vulnerable sharing this, but I’d like to…”

What followed was a candid description of her experience of showing up to guide, and unbeknownst to her, the person who arrived for an immersion was someone with whom she had a fraught relationship. For a moment, she panicked, unsure how to proceed. However, as soon as their interaction began, this Mikveh Guide described, “I realized that I had power in the situation, and a responsibility to make this go well.” She said she was surprised by her own capacity to temporarily let go of the baggage between them, and simply be a presence for this person. Perhaps the guest noticed; the Mikveh Guide reported that the guest seemed at ease, too, even though their last meeting had been a really difficult one.

This story has sat with me ever since. How many times have I gone through my day, satisfied with a knee-jerk reaction, or content with feeling powerless in a difficult situation? I am struck by the way the context of being a volunteer, and in a way, a leader within a ritual space, allowed this Guide to access something beyond her hurt feelings.
I am grateful to our Mikveh Guides for all that they do, but especially for teaching me that making space or others can be a singularly powerful act.

Interested in joining the fold of Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guides? Apply for Cohort 11 today!

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.

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Water for Life

by Fern Remedi-Brown

This is our family’s story:

Before we adopted our now-12-year-old daughter, Maya, from Guatemala, we had decided on her name. Her biological mother had given her the name María Guadalupe, which means “river of black stones.”

We are a two-mom, bi-cultural family. I was raised Jewish, and my wife, Ginny, was a former nun and raised Catholic. We had made the decision to raise our children as Jewish, due, in large part, to my having lost all of the family on my father’s side in the Holocaust. Therefore, we felt that it would be incongruous for her to have a Catholic name.

We did, however, want a name starting with “M,” to remember Ginny’s mother, Mary. We decided on “Maya,” which is used in many different cultures and means different things in different languages. But it is significant to us because it derives from “water” in Hebrew, like the water of the river Guadalupe. And, true to her name, she has loved water from an early age.

For Maya’s middle name, we needed a name beginning with “E” to remember Ginny’s brother, Ernesto. We selected Ezrela, which means “God is my strength.” This felt significant because the black stones of the river Guadalupe also symbolize strength. Also true to her name, Maya is a very strong and resilient person, having endured much in her 12 years.

When Maya was 9 months old, she had her conversion ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim. The rabbis told me to completely let her go into the water, even though of course, she couldn’t stand up at the bottom. I was frightened to do this, but when I brought her to the surface, she was clearly filled with glee!

Maya’s name and her longtime love of water have become more significant as we have created a family nonprofit, Sowing Opportunities, Inc., our venture to aid her biological village, Chajmaic, so that they can have access to clean water. The ample, but polluted, water from the nearby river, el Río Cahabón, is a source of multiple illnesses among those living in the 1,600-person village of Chajmaic. Maya is working on what we call, “Water for Life,” as one of her community service projects for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, which includes a live music fundraiser on September 16.

Maya and Ricardo

In her 6th grade classroom, Maya was reading about Harriet Tubman, who was called “Moses in the Promised Land.” I told her that Harriet Tubman was extra significant because our associate and friend in Guatemala, Ricardo, spoke to me about Moses earlier that day. He said, “Remember the prophet, Moses. He was afraid to speak to Pharaoh and he became the liberator of the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s our turn to free Chajmaic of oppression, hunger, and misery, and bring this to all Guatemala. Go forward, Fern, always forward.”

Ricardo called Maya a messenger of God, because, without her, this project wouldn’t exist. It was Maya’s insistence at age 6 that led us to locate her biological mother and village of Chajmaic. We found them in January 2015 and visited her biological mother in July 2015, when Maya was 10½.

This photo is with Maya’s biological mother and aunt at
Cero de la Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala.

A few days before hearing the story of Harriet Tubman, Maya received her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah. The Biblical selection is “Bo,” which is Exodus, where Moses delivers the Israelites out of Egypt. How fitting that this is the portion she will chant in Hebrew on her Bat Mitzvah.

As we prepare to celebrate Maya, her passion for justice, and this Jewish milestone, we’ll be joining Mayyim Hayyim for their mother-daughter program, Beneath the Surface. Spots are still open! Won’t you join us?

Fern has a passion for eliminating global healthcare inequities, and works closely with the Guatemalan NGO CorGuate, inspired by her daughter Maya’s Guatemalan heritage. Her published works on Guatemala can be found here. She lives with her wife Ginny and their two daughters.

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The Mikveh is Calling

by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

I don’t know about you, but Elul has me totally out of sorts. This is supposed to be a deeply reflective moment in time, a month to really sit with our struggles, reevaluate our behavior, renegotiate our values, and renew our commitments.

There’s so much I’m itching to stop and think about. The existential questions that come with preparing physically and spiritually for t’shuvah (repentance, return) are mounting, and the precious time required for that kind of soul work is slipping away. Which of my relationships could use a little nurturing? Who in my life could use an apology? Where have I faltered in living my truths, staying true to my convictions? For whom can I show up better next time?

We learn that the month of Elul is about asking the hard stuff, and more importantly, confronting the hard answers. But who has the time? Between booking immersions, populating our education programs, recruiting new Mikveh Guide trainees, my local social justice involvement, studying for the GRE, trying to be a loving partner, friend, relative, (thinking about, but never actually) exercising, where and how can I drown out the noise of the Mondays and hone in on the responsibility of cheshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul)?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix, no shiny, red “STOP” button on the chaos. How fortunate we are, though, that Jewish tradition anticipates the challenges of the ticking clock, the monotony of the work week, the back-to-school madness. Ritual immersion was built into the blueprint of our spiritual repertoire for this very reason: to pull us, often by our kicking feet, under the living waters, and into a place of stillness – to force us, against the demands of all else, to bring our full bodies into sacred space and ask: What will I let wash away? Who will I leave behind in the water? Who will I be when I emerge?

As the High Holidays approach, and the to-do lists get longer, I invite you not only to take the time, but make the time. Don’t just get ready, feel ready. The mikveh is calling. How will you answer?

Let us welcome you for a High Holiday immersion. Schedule your visit here.

Leah Robbins is the Administrative and Marketing Assistant at Mayyim Hayyim. This High Holiday season, she’s looking forward to a trip home to Florida, repairing a few relationships, and her mother’s brisket.

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