Jewish Ritual as a Guide to Community Healing

by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

This past week has been, to put it mildly, a tumultuous and heavy one.

As a (white) Jewish woman, I’ve been worried and scared for my friends and family of all races and religions, as an antisemitic man and a homophobic man were named to the presidential transition team. I’ve stood in silence and sadness as a Muslim friend who wears a hijab did not show up to a group exercise class at our gym the day after the election. The list could go on.

Mayyim Hayyim is a pluralistic place and pluralism is hardest during times of political tension.

But, as I was reminded several times this weekend, there is also a time for moral leadership. In 1790, George Washington wrote, in response to the Touro Synagogue’s question about whether Jews would be welcome in the new United States of America, that the newly-formed government “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Mayyim Hayyim does not tolerate bigotry, but rather tries to actively work against it.

This past Friday night, at Kabbalat Shabbat services, I was asked to stand for the Mourner’s Kaddish, even if it wasn’t my custom to do so, in acknowledgement of the pain and fear we as a community and the communities around us are experiencing.

It was a powerful reminder of why ritual matters—always, but especially at a time like this.

Therefore, regardless of politics, regardless of who is given the power to say hateful words or create hateful policies, Mayyim Hayyim will remain a place for all Jews, a place where we don’t just welcome, but actively celebrate the diversity of race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability, a place where all are welcome in our doors to celebrate and heal, for whatever reason they need.


rachel-eisenRachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. She’s so proud to come in to work every day to ensure such an incredible place will exist today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

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A Place for Hope and Serenity at this Fraught Time

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

484548476Unsettled, energized, anxious, fatigued –we are all experiencing a panoply of emotions at this time of decision-making in our country. This has been a time of political transition unlike any most of us have known in our lifetimes, unprecedented in its fraught nature.

Transitions are not new to us at Mayyim Hayyim; they are our currency. But the transitions we see, support, and engage with are individual – becoming Jewish, marking miscarriage, brides and grooms, a return to intimacy as a couple. While mikveh was once solely in the realm of religious transformation, now it is a way to bring a Jewish element to secular life way-points: a birthday, healing, a new job, mourning a loss.

Tomorrow will launch one of our nation’s most profound transitions – the peaceful (please God) transition of power. It is national, but will affect each of us personally.

In recognition of the personal challenge this time of transition has been for many of us, Mayyim Hayyim invites you to come and immerse – for hope, for renewal, for healing, for serenity. Soothe yourself in the warm water under the streaming sun, dappled by gold and red foliage. Emerge calm and rejuvenated, lighter, the burden of these tense weeks and months left behind in the water.

To make an appointment for an immersion – or just a tranquil place for a cup of tea – visit us here.

lisa-blog-photoLisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect, and modesty, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

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Reflections on “Water Wonders” For Families with Children Grades K-2

by Susan Morrel, Jewish Educator for Mayyim Hayyim’s “Water Wonders” 

I am often astounded by the questions early elementary school children ask. They are so full of wonder and curiosity, seeing the world through a lens of awe, fascination, and joy. Not surprisingly, they love to learn about the natural world, particularly water, a mysterious and awe-inspiring source of life.

9780822587651fcI remember reading a book to a group of second graders during Passover last year. The story was about a man named Nachshon. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, Nachshon and all of his fellow Israelites found themselves standing at the shore of the Sea of Reeds. The sea was in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them, danger around every corner. The Israelites were afraid. They didn’t know what to do. Then Nachshon decided to take the first step. He put his foot into the water, even though he was afraid to swim. One foot after another, Nachshon bravely entered the water. Suddenly, the sea opened up and the people were able to walk through on dry land to the other side, to freedom. It is a story of faith and courage, of change and transition.

After the story, the students wiggled and squirmed, eagerly awaiting a chance to express themselves and ask their many questions. I remember some of their words so vividly: “Was the water cold?” “Did their clothes get wet?” “Did Nachshon know the sea was going to open?” “What is faith?”

Their wonder and curiosity struck me: “I wonder what it felt like to walk in the path through the water.” “I wonder if there were still waves in the walls of water.” “I wonder if this is a true story.”

Their personal reflections: “I’m afraid to swim too.” “I passed my swimming test last week.” “I’m going to camp this summer and there is a lake there.” “I walked way out into the water on a sandbar with my brother.” “I love the water.” img_5968-2

Water plays an important role in Jewish tradition. It is found in Judaism’s most profound teachings, as a symbol of change and of spiritual transformation. Just as the Israelites transitioned through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds, leaving behind slavery and captivity, moving toward a new life of freedom, our children also enter in and out of many transitions. They begin their secular and religious education; they learn how to read and swim; they go on a plane for the first time; they finish their first Jewish summer camp experience; they move to a new school; they lose their beloved pet, they recover from a traumatic experience, and so much more.

Water is a source of life that promotes growth, both physically and spiritually. Water moves us from literal to metaphysical, from knowledge to wisdom, from ordinary to extraordinary. Stories of water and Judaism not only build Jewish knowledge, but also inspire a profound sense of wonder that provokes children to explore their Jewish identity.

With that in mind, I invite you to join me, Mayyim Hayyim, PJ Library, and families with children in grades K-2 in Waltham and Sharon for two fun, interactive programs that explore the connection between water and Judaism. Each location offers parents and children two different programs that will bring Jewish stories of water to life through hands-on projects in art and science, all while connecting with other families in the area. You won’t want to miss it! Learn more and register here.

img_1827Susan Morrel has over 25 years of experience in the field of Jewish Education, currently working as a Jewish Education Consultant in Greater Boston, previously serving as the Director of Education at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA.  Susan is a Jewish educator at heart, whose passion is developing curriculum that addresses both social-emotional needs and strengthens the Jewish identities of children and teens. Susan’s greatest experience in Jewish education comes from raising her four children, Alicia, Stephanie, David, and Shaina.

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60 Teenagers Fill Mayyim Hayyim

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

ironi-3Last 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?

ironi-2I 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? 

ironi-5On 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.


leezaphotoLeeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She lives in Jamaica Plain with her imaginary cat and real husband.

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Moments in a Moroccan Mikveh

by Elyse Shuster

elyseI recently returned from a trip to southern Spain and Morocco. Part of the appeal of this region was its rich Jewish history, and I was definitely not disappointed!

While much of the Jewish history in Spain is the story of a “golden age” cut short by the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Morocco’s Jewish history is somewhat more complex. Morocco was a home for Jews following the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70CE. These mellahporteJewish communities mixed with the Amazigh, but were later dominated by the Sephardic Jews who escaped Spain for Morocco in the late 15th century. The Jews of Morocco mostly lived in mellahs – Jewish quarters, the first of which was established in Fez in 1438. Over the years, Morocco became home to the largest Jewish population in the Muslim world, and its current leader King Mohammed VI, vowed to restore the country’s synagogues.

In every city that we visited, our guides were quick to point out the old Jewish quarters, and took pride in their Jewish history – especially their role in taking in the Jews who were forced to flee Spain. In Fez, our guide brought us through winding alleys in the mellah to the Ibn Danan Synagogue – one of the oldest synagogues in North Africa. It is no longer in use, and a family lives in the floors and rooms surrounding the sanctuary. What was once the upper women’s balcony is now home to toddler toys and trucks!

rab-05Over the past 20 years the synagogue has been restored by the World Monuments Fund and other Jewish Heritage organizations. The synagogue was built in the 17th century and contains the only complete set of Moroccon synagogue fittings in existence, including the reader’s platform, wooden carved arks, wooden benches, oil lamps, etc. The floor is a beautiful green and white tile.

As we walked around the sanctuary, I noticed a cutout in the beautiful floor, and was told by our guide that below us was a mikveh! He was surprised that I knew what a mikveh was, and perhaps more surprised that I asked to see it.

esWe were able to see the vessel (right) that was used to heat the water, as well as the mikveh itself, and the cut-out in the floor, through which they would pour the water.

It was amazing to see a mikveh of this period, and so exciting to realize that it had been preserved. Of course, it also made me extremely thankful, as always, that we have such a beautiful mikveh here at Mayyim Hayyim!

Elyse lives in Belmont with her husband Todd and her beloved 14 1/2 year old yellow labrador Duncan. Her 3 daughters are all grown up and each has spent time learning and/or immersing at Mayyim Hayyim. She has been a guide, an educator, and a learner at Mayyim Hayyim for many years. She thanks Rabbi Jonathan Kraus for introducing her to Mayyim Hayyim in 2004.

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Many Visits Later, Finally My First Immersion

by Rachel Bernstein

rbernsteinI had been preparing for my first immersion for eight years. I didn’t know exactly when it would be, but I could guess why it would be. The first eight times I had visited Mayyim Hayyim, I went in my capacity as Academic Adviser for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute summer internship. I brought undergraduate and graduate students to Mayyim Hayyim each summer for an educational program. The focus of the internship is on gender and Judaism, so our annual field trip to Mayyim Hayyim always created a great conversation.

During my first visit to Mayyim Hayyim with the interns, I was completely bowled over by the concept of mikveh and seeing the space itself. As we did a mock walk-through of how an immersion might take place, I envisioned how I would approach the ritual, and wondered when I might visit Mayyim Hayyim for my own immersion. As we outlined the traditional reasons for using the mikveh, I decided that before my wedding I would immerse as a bride.

Every year afterward I would daydream during our visits about my eventual immersion. The space felt spiritual to me—so serene—and the power of performing a ritual that had been performed by Jews for millennia really struck me. Every year I would get goosebumps thinking about this sacred heritage and my place within it at Mayyim Hayyim.

hbiFast forward to this year when I made my final trip to Mayyim Hayyim with the interns, as I marked my eighth and final summer working as the Academic Adviser at HBI. This summer’s trip was extra special because I was engaged and planning my wedding for this September. When we visited Mayyim Hayyim at the end of July, I was within a couple of months of getting married and immersing for the first time. As we talked about the uses and meaning of the mikveh and walked through the steps of immersion, I once again envisioned going through these steps and connecting with the ritual knowing that my appointment was set and it was really going to happen.

As I prepared to visit Mayyim Hayyim again, this time as an actual participant, I started to get nervous. I had built up a lot of expectations from my daydreams during previous visits. Would it mean everything I wanted it to mean? Built in to my vision of the perfect immersion was the hope that my mother would be there. I had called my parents almost every year right after visiting Mayyim Hayyim with the interns to say, “You have to see this place! You will have to come with me when I go before I get married.”

Planning the wedding and my visit to Mayyim Hayyim were not the only big plans evolving this past summer. My partner Margaret was also in the process of conversion to Judaism. The week before our wedding date, Margaret and I joined her Beit Din at Mayyim Hayyim for Margaret’s conversion. It was almost surreal to be in that space with no interns, when the place was pretty quiet in its everyday operations. It was incredibly powerful to see my partner use the mikveh for conversion.

My mom flew to Boston the next day so that she could help us with final wedding preparations—including joining me at Mayyim Hayyim. I tried to explain to my mom what would happen at the mikveh, and Margaret told her about her experiences with her conversion, but I don’t think we could really prepare her for what it would be like.

That quiet afternoon we went over to Mayyim Hayyim and were immediately enveloped by the welcoming atmosphere, beautiful space, and soft natural light. Our lovely Mikveh Guide gave us a copy of the Mayyim Hayyim’s immersion ceremony for brides and we poured over the sheet discussing what it meant and the ritual process. My mom was struck by the language of the kavanah (intention) before immersion:

“The water changes us neither by washing away something nor by letting something soak into us, but simply by softening us so that we can choose to remold ourselves into a different image.”

The kavanah also calls forth our mothers Rebecca, Rachel, and Yocheved. Having my mother read that intention invoking our mothers grounded this ritual for me in the strong lineage of women I am so proud to be a part of.

by Shawnee Custalow, A Lovely Photo

by Shawnee Custalow, A Lovely Photo

It was a very special day to share with my mom and to finally complete this ritual for myself. It lived up to every expectation, as I was sure to let the waters soften my nerves and bring me into the moment. It marked my transition from someone unmarried to someone ready for that next step, ready for my wedding, and ready to be the new person I was already becoming in the next phase of my life.

Learn more about Mayyim Hayyim’s resources for couples, including “Beyond the Huppah,” a workshop series for engaged and recently married couples that provides tools to solidify a strong partnership and explore different ways of creating a Jewish home. Stay tuned for the upcoming release of “Beyond the Huppah” curriculum, made available to your community soon!

Rachel Bernstein is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology at Brandeis University. Her love for the academic study of Judaism and Jewishness began as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and continued at Brandeis for a master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and now her doctoral work. She is currently working on her dissertation that investigates the cultural and ethnic connections of Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s.

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One Small Act

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

The wind swirls today. Is it here to strip us of our unwanted bits, to smooth our testy edges, to burnish the gems in our souls? It bends the trees, branches, and bowed heads. Can it bend us to our own wills, to release our pains, to emerge open and kinder, to bend but not break in the buffeting that comes with transitions?

We open the doors to the mikveh, warm and sun-filled. It embraces those who seek its silky depths of renewal.

Our guests reflect:

“Renewed and strengthened.”
“Cleansed and content.”
“Refreshed and ready.”

Remarkably: “I emerged the person I always wanted to be.”

With deep insight: “It’s amazing how one small act can make you feel so different inside.”

So true, and yet we hear many people say they are waiting to come to the mikveh for a dramatic moment, a life cycle event, healing from a loss, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. We all know that one small act truly can make a difference, but it’s something we need to believe. How intimidating life would be if we thought that only Herculean efforts could change our worlds, our lives, our relationships.

Mayyim Hayyim was created to provide a space for spiritual reflection, including those who would never have thought of themselves as mikveh-goers. Jews have been using mikveh as a ritual of renewal around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for nearly 2,000 years. However, in many communities, it is still the newcomer on the ritual menu. But it is growing. This time of year is a great entry point into the ritual of mikveh. You don’t have to wait for a big life event because it comes around every year all on its own. It is embodied, but it’s not just about our bodies. And you can do it right here, in a beautiful, warm, welcoming, inclusive, neighborhood space called Mayyim Hayyim.

Come. Emerge the person you always wanted to be. Remember how one small act can make you feel so different inside.

Preview Mayyim Hayyim’s Immersion Ceremony for Yom Kippur, “Turning to Forgiveness.”

Click here to schedule your immersion today.

lisa-blog-photoLisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect, and modesty, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.

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