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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De-fogging

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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The Mikveh is a Gift of its Own

by Laura Conrad Mandel

Lilaurafe isn’t about stuff, it’s about experiences.

Between baby showers and wedding showers, adoptions and graduations, I find myself constantly in need of gifts for friends and family who tend to have just about all the stuff they need, and for whom I know that something off a registry doesn’t typically feel meaningful enough. Recently, when I had the touching opportunity to celebrate with a close friend as her baby daughter’s adoption was finalized, I thought long and hard about the right way to mark this occasion. My usual go-to of making a gift (or scouring Etsy for something personal and handmade) just wasn’t hitting the mark.

 

I was then inspired by a celebration the month before at Mayyim Hayyim. I joined my dear, “oldest friend” for an immersion the week before her wedding, a very special life moment. This sentimental and unique experience reminded me that life is really about the things we experience with others. A trip to the mikveh is a beautiful, culturally, and spiritually significant Jewish way to mark any important occasion – meaningful to both the person immersing and to those who are close enough to be involved in such a personal and profound moment.

To me, gifts shouldn’t just be something you spend a lot of money on. Gifts are opportunities to enhance life for your friends and family, experiences that remind us of what matters in this world and why we exist.

Inspired by this bridal immersion, I immediately went to the Mayyim Hayyimn website and purchased an immersion gift certificate for a friend who had adopted a baby, and then a week later, I got two more for close friends who are getting married in the coming months. My next gifts are already in mind after having seen the impact this experience has had on these friends.

So while I know that a friend getting married would love a Le Creuset Dutch oven, I also know that she’ll never forget the pre-wedding experience of an immersion that made her pause to think and appreciate the beauty that lies beneath the big moments ahead.

(And it never hurts that this is a gift that truly keeps on giving, as the cost goes back into running the organization to enhance the whole community.)

Laura is a public art appreciator, obsessive maker, and social entrepreneur who developed a love of Jewish culture across years of Jewish day school and trips to Israel. Following her passion, Laura is Executive Director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, a new organization in Boston that is committed to bringing the best of Jewish culture and arts to the Boston area. Mandel graduated Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Art and English, and her non-profit management experience includes working at Hillel, Hadassah, and the New Center for Arts and Culture.

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Liberal Mikva’ot in Israel: Good for the Jews?

By Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director

DSC_0046tsPeople often ask us, “Is there anything like Mayyim Hayyim in Israel?” We certainly let them know about Mikveh Sh’maya, run by Rabbi Haviva Ner-David at Kibbutz Hannaton, and the innovative work happening at the Eden Center in Jerusalem, led by Naomi Marmon-Grumet. Outside of that, however, the mikveh scene is somewhat of a moving target for those who are not Orthodox – whether for conversion, weddings, or any other reason. Are they allowed in… are they not allowed in… must they use a witness… whose rabbi is valid, or not… it seems like every few weeks another bill is in the works either permitting or excluding use of the mikveh that we take for granted here at Mayyim Hayyim.

The latest round in these back-and-forth developments is a controversial funding plan by the Knesset Finance Committee to build four mikva’ot in Israel specifically for non-Orthodox use.

Some say, “What a win!” Now the liberal community can use the space on their own terms without being subject to someone else’s definition of the “right” way to use it.

Others say that this plan is a step backwards. It’s not helpful to further divide Jews in Israel and since mikva’ot are built and run with public funding from everyone’s tax dollars, they should be open to everyone.

So I want to know: what do you think?

A number of people have written articulately on this topic, and I encourage you to take a look. Here are a few posts I recommend:

“Separate but Equal: The Best Mikveh Option for Non-Orthodox Israelis?” by Leah Bieler

“Why Israel Funding Non-Orthodox Mikvehs is a Step Forward – and Backward” by Elana Sztokman

And what do I think? Honestly, I see both sides, though I lean more towards the positive on this one. What I do know for sure, is that MK Gafni who laughs at the idea of liberal Jews wanting to use the mikveh in Israel, saying it’s not a true desire on their part, simply doesn’t see what we see. He doesn’t see the 928 people who immersed at Mayyim Hayyim in the past year, 90 percent of them who are not Orthodox. And he certainly does not see all the liberal Israelis coming through our door each year, either. They come to learn, and are blown away. They come to immerse – some of them specifically traveling here to convert their child because they know they’ll be turned away from the existing mikva’ot in Israel, and they leave with tears in their eyes because of the potential they see here that is so foreign to them at home.

Whichever way we lean in our belief about separate Reform and Conservative mikva’ot in Israel, we can feel confident knowing that the need is real, the need is growing, and it’s not going away.


Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.

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My Trek to the Mikveh

by Janine Herrera

Headshot (5 of 1)To understand why my immersion at Mayyim Hayyim was so transformative, one would first need to understand the journey I’ve been on. I made the decision to convert because the synagogue and community I belong to was inclusive, open, and committed to accepting everyone. They unabashedly embraced me as part of their community. Little did I know how difficult the road to observing Taharat HaMishpachah (monthly immersion) would be. I was aware that few women within the Reform movement choose to observe it, but I hadn’t realized how challenging the choice to observe this ritual would be.

I began trying to learn as much as possible outside of the books I had read, but no one really discusses the topic, not within my community, and certainly not between friends. Understandably so, it’s a very private matter. Mayyim Hayyim proved to be so resourceful in connecting me with as many educational resources that one could possibly need. Then came the matter of my actual immersion. The more I inquired at local mikvehs in my area, the more I began to realize just how unique my situation was.

I am a Jew by choice. I didn’t grow up with mythical tales, or thinking that mikveh was taboo, or only reserved for some. I naively thought that as a woman wanting to grow in observance of Taharat Hamishpachah, nothing could possibly stand in my way. I was simply a Jewish woman wanting to preserve and observe what thousands of women before me had done, by adhering to this ritual as a way to inject holiness into marriage and family life. What could be so hard about that?

Finding a mikveh that would allow me to immerse, let alone recognize my Jewish identity, proved far more difficult than I had imagined it would be, so much so that the closest place that would allow me to immerse monthly was 248 miles away. I decided that if I was going to travel to immerse monthly, then I wanted my first immersion for my observance to be at Mayyim Hayyim. This was when I really became appreciative of the space that Mayyim Hayyim truly provides, a place that is inclusive and accepts you “as is.” It is a space for anyone Jewish, regardless of affiliation, to benefit from the healing, renewing ritual of immersion.

My immersion was just as overwhelming as the day I converted. I felt reunited, I felt whole. It was liberating and profound. Despite the struggle I face to be accepted as a Jewish woman of color, despite the struggle to be recognized as deserving of observing this mitzvah due to my religious affiliation, there I was….in the mikveh… before Hashem, before God. There was nothing but Hashem and me, Batya (the Jewish name I took at my conversion, which means Daughter of God). All else melted away.

As I remain committed to this mitzvah, each immersion brings a renewal of spirit, of purpose and of commitment. After almost 6 years of many things becoming routine and some things taken for granted, we have found a new level with which to relate to one another. The days of separation allow me time to connect with myself, with my spirituality, and to center myself. My husband and I have found that we are now more mindful in our interactions with each other and truly savor our time together. We use the time apart sincerely and earnestly to truly connect with the things we appreciate about each other. We have unlocked another aspect of security and commitment within our love and our devotion to God and a Jewish home.

I realize that I may be speaking on a topic not often discussed in an open way. But I hope that by relating my journey and thoughts so intimately, it reaches even perhaps one person who has ever wondered, doubted, or held any reservation towards seeking out immersion for whatever their specific need or reason may be.

 

Janine lives in Miami, FL with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is pursuing her second baccalaureate degree and works part-time as the Clinic Manager of a Multi-disciplinary health clinic. She enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and photography.

 

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