In Search of Roots

by Daniela Ovadia

fotodaniI bumped into Mayyim Hayyim almost by chance: I was in Boston last summer and I wanted to understand more about the Jewish life in the US. I am from Italy, where my parents arrived from Egypt in the 60’s. I married a non-Jewish man, but we have a Jewish family. Both of my daughters, as I did at their age, attend the local Orthodox Jewish community school, even though we have a very secular approach to Judaism. I grew up in Hashomer Hatzair: my “Jewishness” was linked to food, holidays, Israel, kibbutz life, and a sense of belonging to something important and valuable, independent from observance.

I would describe Italian Jews as more traditional than religious. Intermarriage has always been quite common, and conversions are common too. Recently, the Italian Jewish communities have adopted a more stringent approach to Jewish identity, and the Italian rabbinate decided to apply more restrictive norms to conversions. Italian Judaism used to have a long-lasting story of openness, inclusiveness, and acceptance of intermarriage that has changed quite abruptly. Reform synagogues have appeared, but they represent a small opposition to the institutional shifts, and they don’t have much influence over Jewish policies.

While observing those changes, I started thinking about how my community approaches intermarried couples and women. I don’t want my daughters to abandon their roots, but I don’t like the general attitude toward intermarriage; couples are struggling to be accepted and to keep their children among the Jewish people. I also realized that my two daughters are encountering models of Jewish women that are anything but egalitarian. When the oldest one, now 14, reached the age of Bat Mitzvah, I looked on the internet for educational programs with a more egalitarian approach than were available in Milan. Suitable resources came up short. So I googled intermarriage, Jewish education, and egalitarian, and I found Mayyim Hayyim for the first time.

In an attempt to reconcile my feminist identity with my Jewish one, I read many books on women and Judaism. They often mention the mikveh as a key ritual, but I had ambivalent feelings toward it: the immersion in water – linked to the menstrual cycle and the rules of niddah – was, in my view, as an instrument of control over women’s sexuality. So I simply rejected it.

I came across mikveh again when I took a course on ethnopsychiatry, the science that analyze mental diseases and symptoms in light of the cultural framework of the patients. I am a neuroscientist by training, and I read the studies by Tobie Nathan, a French psychiatrist of Egyptian Jewish origins (like me) who investigated the role of rituals in helping patients suffering from mental disorders, especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I discovered with amazement that Nathan used the mikveh to successfully treat the traumatic stress in children of Holocaust survivors, even the most secular ones. His research demonstrated that rituals have to be linked to the personal story of the patient: we cannot adopt a ritual that is not engraved in our origins, even if we don’t believe in its religious meaning. I am not a mystical person: I’m a scientist, I need to be rational. Although I reject many of the norms that would oblige us to practice them, I embrace some Jewish rituals because they ground me in my history.

I decided I wanted to go to the mikveh at least once in my life, as my mother, my grandmother, and probably all my female ancestors did. I asked my community mikveh lady, but she told me I wasn’t allowed to immerse: I was married to a non-Jewish man and I wasn’t keeping the rules of niddah, so why should I immerse? I didn’t want to explain my feelings to someone who was clearly unable to understand them. So I started my search of a welcoming place: I found one in Israel, but it was too far, so I gave up. Later, while in Boston, Google led me once again to Mayyim Hayyim as a top search. I read the stories on the blog, perused the educational programs and I decided it was the right place.

I arrived on a sunny morning, I sat in the garden surrounding the house. I observed a young lady with a bunch of flowers and a lot of family. There were three rabbis; clearly, a conversion was going on. Everybody was smiling and seemed happy. I compared such a beautiful scene with the conversions in my community: no friends and only few members of the family are allowed to be present at the mikveh and certainly not the non-Jewish family. I was witnessing a totally different approach to conversion, as seen in Mayyim Hayyim’s new documentary film about welcoming new Jews into the community.

Then I met Amy, my wonderful guide. I had a tour of the building and I discovered such warmth and inclusivity. When I entered the preparation room, I started crying. It was an unexpected reaction: I’m not used to crying in front of strangers, but emotions overwhelmed me.

Almost a month has passed. I’m back in Italy, but I find myself thinking of my immersion at Mayyim Hayyim frequently. I still need to better understand why a Jewish Italian woman from Egyptian origins had to travel to a Boston neighborhood to feel reconnected with her roots.

I want to thank the women who built and lead Mayyim Hayyim: we need welcoming places to practice our rites, like trees need strong roots to resist the windy days.

Daniela Ovadia is neuroscientist, neuroethicist, and science journalist based in Milan, Italy. She is married and has two daughters, 14 and 12. She is interested in the role of women in Judaism and is actively involved in groups that promote Jewish culture.

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Siman Tov U’Mazel Tov U’Welcome Tov!


by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

There are definitely quirks about working in a building that is centuries old. Oftentimes, no two rooms are the same temperature. Once, running a microwave knocked out the power on the third floor. But my favorite quirk is the way sound travels in this old house.

Whenever there is a celebratory immersion and people gather around to sing, the melodies and notes float up the stairs and around corners. There’s a lot of “siman tov” and “mazel tov” that comes my way. And frequently, it’s because we’ve just welcomed another new Jew into our community.

Mayyim Hayyim opened 12 years ago. There were so many reasons why this community needed a pluralistic mikveh—but one of the most urgent needs was to create a space where conversion could take place in a warm and celebratory—and most importantly, welcoming environment.

12 years and 2,430 conversions later, people come from far and wide to convert here because of our reputation. In the past few weeks, we’ve had visitors from as far away as England and Thailand, as well as those in our local community, of course. It’s no secret that you can throw a big party here to celebrate this joyous occasion. It’s no secret, and so we want to shout it to the world: we are in the business of welcoming. We’re proud to be known for inclusiveness and accessibility.

And so, in collaboration with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we have produced a new Mayyim Hayyim film to show everyone what we’re all about. This new film, “Becoming Jewish: At the Water’s Edge,” demonstrates so beautifully the care everyone at Mayyim Hayyim takes to ensure that all people who come through our doors feel welcome. When the joyous sounds of singing make their way to my office, I always smile a little, reminded of what a special place this is.

See the film for yourself and share it with a friend:

Help welcome the new Jews in our community by making a gift to Mayyim Hayyim today.

Rachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. She is tone-deaf and glad the acoustics in the mikveh make everyone sound great. She’s so proud to come into work every day to ensure such an incredible place will exist today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

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The Jews are Alright

by Leah Robbins, Administrative and Marketing Assistant

leahI grew up in a very traditional Conservative-with-a-capital-C Jewish household: Shabbos every week, day school, Camp Ramah, USY, study abroad in Israel – the whole megillah. All of this exposure, (or immersion as we like to say) into Jewish life had given me what I thought was a full picture of my relationship to the non-Jewish world, and more importantly, my relationship to other Jews.

I must admit, I had some major biases about Jews from different backgrounds and affiliations – not that I was such a perfect Jew. Like many other day-school kids, I talked my way through davening (prayer) and passed notes about boys during Chumash class. I skipped out on a ritual here, a ritual there. I was definitely not one to judge others’ Jewish practices. But I did, however, hold some resentment toward the Jews around me for what seemed like total apathy about the future of Judaism.

From what I could see, in my albeit very small bubble of the South, Jews who did not identify with the Conservative or Orthodox movements were almost completely disengaged from Jewish life. I looked around me and saw patterns of indifference about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. I was hurt, I felt betrayed. Couldn’t they see how fragile Judaism is? How could they disregard such an enormous obligation to keep our people above water? Outside my home and day school, I saw no evidence that anyone but Orthodox (and some Conservative) Jews were willing to step up and ensure that we not only survived, but triumphed in maintaining tradition, Jewish literacy, and sustaining vibrant communities.

Moving to Boston, and even more so, working at Mayyim Hayyim has taught me a lot about a Jewish world I did not know existed. This community is comprised of folks with an enormous variety of relationships to Judaism. Whatever their practices, whatever their interpretations, however similar or different they may be from my own, Mayyim Hayyim has clearly created both an enormous demand and thirst for Jewish ritual. It has shown me that I need not worry one bit about the continuity of Jewish life because Judaism is alive and well within its walls. Not only do we welcome over 300 new Jews annually, but every day I see an enthusiasm and unwavering commitment to infusing our everyday life with ritual, with a twinge of Godliness. (Even as I write this, I hear a fellow staff member humming Jewish tunes at her desk.)

This place has taken mikveh, a ritual largely abandoned by American Jews and breathed new life into it. It has reclaimed, redefined, renewed, and most importantly, resisted these myths of Jewish fragility, myths I had once held onto very strongly.

Before living here, before working at Mayyim Hayyim, I was in a constant state of existential worry (I am, after-all, a Jewish woman) that we as a people are on the verge of disappearing. But when I walk into Mayyim Hayyim every morning, I sigh with relief that the Jews are doing just fine.

Leah Robbins is a recent graduate of the University of Florida with bachelors in Jewish and Women’s studies. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her partner Madison.

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A Visit to Mayyim Hayyim, A Nondenominational Mikveh

By Nora Smolonsky

*This post originally appeared in Fresh Ideas from HBI, the blog of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

noraAs someone who is not a practicing Jew, I felt reservations before going to Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh in Newton, MA. To be honest, I was not entirely sure what a mikveh was. I was worried that I was not Jewish enough, knowledgeable enough, or even pure enough to feel comfortable in such a sacred space. But after a few minutes of being there, I was put at ease by our guide Leeza Negelev, the Associate Director of Education, who greeted us with a welcoming and unassuming attitude. As she taught us about Mayyim Hayyim, I was quickly engrossed by the details and religious context of the ceremony.

Since I was not yet aware of the history of mikvehs, the fact that Mayyim Hayyim is the first non-denominational community mikveh was totally lost on me. It was not until we had a discussion with our fellow interns from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute that I became aware that mikvehs are not always accommodating or accessible spaces. As our conversation and lesson about the mikveh and Mayyim Hayyim continued, I found myself in awe of the unique place I was in.

Mayyim Hayyim literally means “living waters.” The Torah states that men and women alike are obligated to immerse in a mikveh for various reasons, as they both have the potential to become ritually impure. Men were once obligated to go to a mikveh after genital emission, but this action eventually became non-obligatory, as it could be a daily occurrence for men and thus too inconvenient and challenging. But one of the primary uses of mikvehs today is for niddah, when women immerse after menstruation and physical separation from their spouses. Mayyim Hayyim is an intentionally progressive space made to accommodate and celebrate the needs of all Jews. With mikveh guides of all genders, the space is open to Jews of all genders.

As gender has traditionally defined aspects of who is able to participate in mikveh ceremonies, I was moved by the fact that Mayyim Hayyim not only accepts people of all gender identities, but they also have specific ceremonies to honor gender transition and the process of coming out. The guest book was full of experiences from people who had been turned away by other mikvehs because of their lifestyle or identity, but were honored and cherished at Mayyim Hayyim.

I was also inspired by the intentionality of the physical design. Mayyim Hayyim inhabits a 200 year old house, but the actual mikveh space was built 12 years ago (it is now of Bat Mitzvah age, as Negelev pointed out) and was designed with purpose. In the space outside of the mikveh, the ceiling that lets in natural light is meant to make the participant feel connected to the outside world and spirit. Above the door between the mikveh and the hallway is an open window that allows loved ones of the one immersing to be able to hear the ceremony and communicate with each other. Inside the actual mikveh, the ceiling arcs downward over the water, creating an intensely personal and private experience for the person partaking in the ritual.

HBIWhile going to Mayyim Hayyim made me want to learn more about ritual purification in Judaism, more than anything, it inspired a strong desire to participate in a mikveh ceremony as I am in a transitional stage in my life. Simply being inside of the space, even without participating, was incredibly calming and spiritual in a way I cannot describe. So, I made myself an appointment to participate in a transitional ceremony and immerse in the mikveh for the very first time.

Nora Smolonsky is a Hadassah Brandeis Institute Gilda Slifka summer intern and a recent graduate of Concordia University.


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Reflections From “Beyond the Huppah”

by David Zenaty and Leeza Negelev

leeza and davidDavid and Leeza, two former participants of the program, who were recently married, discuss their experience at Beyond the Huppah: Creating the Jewish Marriage You Want, led by Judy Elkin, PCC. Mayyim Hayyim’s seminar for engaged and newly married couples. 


DAVID: Hey, Leeza. I thought it would be interesting to create a blog post about Beyond the Huppah in the form of a conversation. When we finished the program, I felt like we’d been led into a conversation about our lives together, about marriage, about starting a Jewish family – which was all pretty good. So, let’s keep the party going.  

Here’s my first question: Before you arrived on the first night of the program, what did you think you’d signed up for?

LEEZA: Well, full disclosure: As the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim, I was organizing the program. But Beyond the Huppah was the first time I’d been the organizer and full participant of any of our Mayyim Hayyim programs. So, what did I think I’d signed up for? I thought that we might have a chance to have big group conversations about the things we think make a relationship successful, and what makes things challenging. I had also hoped we’d meet other young adult couples in a similar place in life.

How about you?

DAVID: You know this, I’m a skeptical person. I wasn’t excited about joining a program where we would be – in my misguided preconception – forced to “fix” things about our relationship. I was definitely wrong about that, as it turned out.

But for you, which assumptions proved right?

LEEZA: I did meet some people I liked a lot, and we definitely were in a similar stage in life. The group was more diverse than I expected; people came from different types of family structures, religious backgrounds, and of course, not everyone was Jewish, so it all impacted the kinds of things that we discussed.

I picked up some actual tools for interrupting some of my challenging habits. Those have stuck, by some miracle. For example, The Four Horsemen; four emotional states that can really make conflict resolution impossible. I remember two of them best: contempt and stonewalling. Since thinking them through at Beyond the Huppah, I can pause when I feel myself going there and take a step back (sometimes).

DAVID: But, come on, you also wanted to fix our relationship.

LEEZA: Yes. I was pretty determined. But I quickly realized that wasn’t what this was about at all.

DAVID: It definitely wasn’t about fixing… I was totally wrong about that. I found that there was a good deal of emphasis on the fact that there are difficult things about being in a relationship, not just difficult people. Money, sex – these are things that are hard for everyone. I liked that framing.

So what was your favorite moment of the eight weeks?

LEEZA: I loved the conversation where we took 15 minutes to share every crazy and ubiquitous myth we ever heard or internalized about sex, sexuality, and gender. We laughed a lot. I think we all felt a lot closer after that class.

DAVID: My favorite moment was when you and Ben* volunteered to act out a dispute, trying different conflict approaches that we had been discussing. You and Ben were both incredible thespians, but poor communicators! It helped to watch two people struggle with an issue that, from the outside, looked so simple, and frankly, ridiculous.

So what will you take away from Beyond the Huppah?

LEEZA: My major takeaway was this: We are doing pretty damn good. We’ve figured a lot of stuff out, and we will keep working at this. That’s what it’s all about.

DAVID: Agreed. I found the program to be helpful in recognizing all the good things we’ve got going for us, and also that relationships are a work in progress. Also, we aren’t alone. Many other couples are struggling to make it work. And workin’ it.

Thanks, Leez. Good work on this experimental blog post.

LEEZA: Right back ‘atcha.

Only one spot left for Beyond the Huppah, which begins September 28th. To register or get more information click here.

Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She and her now husband live in Jamaica Plain, MA. David Zenaty is an administrator at Harvard Medical School and loves being a newlywed.

*Name changed for confidentiality.


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My Big Move

by Molly Bajgot

13724940_3656516411783_1490294070593834819_oI knew I wanted to go to the mikveh for the first time when I made the decision to move out of Boston to Arizona. It was an amorphous transition with not much time to acknowledge it; I knew I needed a physical marker to help ground this enormous change, but I wasn’t expecting the mikveh to be so powerful.

Once I made the appointment (pretty last minute, I’ll admit) I was immediately hit with the enormity of what I was about to do. I was about to make a huge change; I was committing to the next concrete step in my life. And once I went to the mikveh, that would be ritually sealed.

When I arrived, Mikveh and Education Director, Lisa Berman really saw my shakiness. She showed me around and ushered me into the private prep room to get ready. Up until this point, everything had been a rush, a blur. I was crying a lot, grieving the change and the amount of frustration that had gone into planning it and committing to it. I was getting it all out, as I was blessed with an opportunity that pushed me to do so. Referring to my tears, Lisa comforted me saying,“We accept all forms of water here.”

In the mikveh itself, Lisa told me that I should stay in the water until the spiritual work I needed to complete was done, and that I’d know when it was time. I chose to have someone witness my immersion, and then give me space alone to reflect. I was surprised about the conversation I had with myself. Amidst the chaos, this was one moment that brought me peace, telling me that the choice I was making was an obvious one, and to have confidence, to never look back. I don’t think I would have ever made it to Arizona confidently, or left with such zest, without the experience of immersion at Mayyim Hayyim. This experience has truly inspired me to look for more opportunities to carve out time and space to mark transitions in my life in a ritually meaningful way.

Molly is a former Boston and Moishe Kavod House resident who grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She just left for Nogales, Arizona where she’s home-basing and traveling to explore the West coast, exploring Jewish community along the way. She’s a singer and organizer and excited about her first visit and many more to Mayyim Hayyim.

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by David Berman

12841329_1680803375520544_1236095860975836503_o (2)I’ve immersed at Mayyim Hayyim three times: once before my Bar Mitzvah, once before I left for a semester in Israel when I was a sophomore in high school, and once last September before a gap year program in Israel.

Going to Mayyim Hayyim when I was 13 was my mother’s idea. She works at Mayyim Hayyim. It was kind of a family tradition too, since my sister had gone before her Bat Mitzvah. She also encouraged me to do it, so I went with my dad. I felt comfortable there because I’d spent quite a bit of time in the building when I was growing up (my mom has worked there a long time.) It was a nice experience to have with my dad, and it felt as if it brought us closer that day. I think I was too young to really call it a spiritual experience, but it helped me feel more clear-headed going into my Bar Mitzvah.

Immersing before I left for my gap year in Israel was also something that my mom asked me to consider. I went in the hour before we got in the car to drive to JFK for my flight overseas. Taking a gap year was a big step for me – something very different than my friends were doing, and going to live and study in Israel made it feel like a spiritual experience, too. I wanted to start with something to prepare me for that transition.
For me, I wouldn’t immerse for something secular (like a big basketball game), or something that is not a “big deal” to me– I’d only do it for something that represents a personal choice to do something different or move on from something. I wouldn’t take a Jewish/cultural/religious ceremony (like mikveh) and turn it into a ritual for an entirely secular event that has nothing to do with spirituality or deepening a connection to myself. Secular events like big games are important in the moment, but ultimately they don’t matter – they don’t define who I am.

Immersing last September gave me a chance to go into the program with a clear head. Mikveh kind of de-fogs your mind from all the other preparations you’ve been focusing on. The immersion ceremonies I used (“The Beginning of the Journey” and “In Gratitude”) guided me in the right direction in terms of wanting to clear my mind and help me relax. I was happy that I had left plenty of time to be at Mayyim Hayyim. I didn’t have to rush, and I could go at my own pace.

Being in the mikveh was a very introspective experience for me. There’s something about being under the water for a relatively long period of time, not moving around – it makes you feel balanced and centered. The experience helped me look back and look forward at the same time. It was really beautiful. It helped me take a deep breath and see things from a larger perspective. You know, as in, larger than, “Did I pack enough toothpaste for a year in Israel?”

David Berman completed his gap year Hevruta in Jerusalem and will start his freshman year at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University next week. He is a graduate of Newton South High School where he participated in many big games and meets with the enthusiastic support of his parents, Jeff and Lisa Berman.

For more information, call 617-244-1836 x205 or click here.

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