Working Moms Behind the Mikveh

by Lori Kramer, Office Manager

This last week has literally been my own version of a Perfect Storm. I juggle four kids (3 teens and a 7-year old who thinks she is a teenager), a very long commute, a cake and ice cream shop that my husband and I own, and my meaningful work at Mayyim Hayyim, most notably our work for the upcoming spring benefit, Soul/Life/Cycle.

I was down for the count with a migraine on Thursday (yay perimenopause!). Then, Friday, my youngest fell victim to an awful stomach bug. This weekend has been a glamorous show of my distributing puke buckets to all of my kids and working my tush off in our store because we offered a free scoop day. While I was out of the office, my teammates kept me informed and reached out when they needed my help in such a kind, compassionate way. You’d get a kick out of seeing how many Mayyim Hayyim employees need coaching over the phone in order to change the toner in our big printer. It gives me a real sense of job security!

I tell this story because it is so hard to be a working mom in 2017. We have so many conflicting responsibilities that stretch us so thin. Another Mayyim Hayyim working mom, our Executive Director, Carrie, embodies exactly what I want to teach my kids about making it all work. She is a mom of three, a gestational surrogate for a couple in London, and our fearless leader. Her supernatural ability to juggle the impossible is one of the many reasons I am so proud to honor her on May 15th at our spring benefit. She is compassionate, kind, and the kick-ass mom in charge at Mayyim Hayyim. Please join me and the rest our proud staff in honoring Carrie’s five years as Executive Director and her ten years of dedicated service to Mayyim Hayyim at Soul/Life/Cycle on May 15th. We look forward to seeing you there.

Lori Kramer comes to Mayyim Hayyim from an extensive background in non-profit administration. She previously worked at JCC of Greater Boston and JCC Camp Kingswood. She lives in Woonsocket, RI with her four kids and her husband. 

Posted in Carrie Bornstein, gestational surrogate, Inspiration | Leave a comment

The Gift of Guiding

by Rene Katersky, Mikveh Guide

As I approach another significant birthday, one ending in “0” (aren’t they all significant at this age?), I have been thinking a lot about the self-imposed benefits of turning another year older.

I am mindful of my desire to say “no” more often…no to things I no longer feel passionate about, to the extraneous, to social events with near strangers, no to what no longer feeds me – and “yes” to what does… that which is personally meaningful, joyous, and fulfilling. Yes to cherished friends, to that which touches my soul, yes to Mayyim Hayyim… to volunteer work which provides enormous blessing.

After more than 7 years as a Mikveh Guide, the honor remains with me. Like other guides, I have my share of memorable moments, and I enjoy reliving them when I get to look through the reflections book kept by the front desk, in which guides can share thoughts about their guiding experiences. What a treasure of description, one which allows you to really understand the impact of what happens at our mikveh. It is never perfectly clear to me who has had the most amazing experiences, our guests, or me!

It was a tremendous honor to guide an older woman through her conversion immersion, witnessed by two friends, with me unexpectedly in the water with her, holding her hand as she made her way down the 7 steps, steadying her as she went to the center of the pool, reassuring her as she completed 3 immersions and became a Jew.

The joy of two young dads and their newborn, along with friends and family embracing them as they began their Jewish family life, is a picture I will not soon forget; another beautiful Mayyim Hayyim moment to savor. How fortunate for me to get to capture them all on film with our Mayyim Hayyim camera, another duty of Mikveh Guides.

I remember chatting with a dad in our waiting area who was so moved by the immersions of his family members that he suddenly, on the spot, asked if we would have time for him to immerse, in solidarity. Of course we did, and we always can. It is what happens here, a lot. One has time to sit quietly in our beautiful space, contemplate what it might mean, and be inspired.

I am always a bit disappointed when I see that my guiding shift doesn’t include scheduled immersions or guests. Yes, I could check the prep rooms for supplies, stuff some envelopes, and complete the all-familiar “holy” laundry, all happily done and necessary, but nothing quite compares to warmly welcoming guests, being present for significant life moments, touring first-time visitors who know nothing of mikveh, or sharing the excitement of welcoming someone into the Jewish people.

I hear there is going to be another training for guides in the coming months. Applications cheerfully accepted and encouraged, and I am available for shadowing!

There is a lot of blessing to go around.

Click here to learn more about becoming part of our newest cohort of Mikveh Guides.

Rene trained with Cohort 5 as a Mikveh Guide and educator and also enjoys her role as an ambassador with Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, continuing to share the joys of our tradition with those new to Judaism. She lives in Scituate, MA with husband Ed, and has 2 grown children and a granddaughter. She has loved living in a beach community for 37 years and enjoys cycling and sharing joyous moments with cherished friends and family.

Posted in Conversion, Healing, Immersion, Inspiration, Mikveh Guides, Mikveh Training, Religion | Leave a comment

Always be Prepared

by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving

If there’s one thing my mother taught me (okay, there are many things my mother taught me, but it’s a saying, right?), it is to always be prepared.

Even if you don’t think you have to go to the bathroom, try. Don’t wait for the warning light to come to fill up the gas tank. Wear layers; pack extra underwear and socks. And in case of snow, bring home all your notebooks so you can still go to work without getting in a car.

You guessed it – I’m writing this in a big snowstorm. And it strikes me that we often view preparation as daunting.

“We should make sure we charge up the portable cell phone chargers,” I told my fiancé the minute I walked in the door the night before the storm—forget “Hi! How was your day?” It’s all that was on my mind – making sure the storm wouldn’t leave us miserable and wishing we could leave the house.

Drip the taps at night so the pipes won’t freeze. Salt the stoop; put the windshield wipers up. Charge all the devices. Stock up on snacks.

It’s overwhelming and more than a little stressful. It makes me wish there was another way to get ready for a big event like this.

And then I smile, think about my job, and I feel slightly silly. Just hours before I started thinking about my storm to-do list, I gave a tour of Mayyim Hayyim to a couple who was visiting in anticipation of an upcoming immersion. I showed them around our building, through our education center, art gallery, celebration space, and then showed them the mikveh pools and preparation rooms.

I love taking people through the preparation rooms, because it’s my own favorite part of immersing. I love pointing out our 7 Kavanot (Intentions) for getting ready—and of course in recent tours I’ve been able to show visitors our new, pictorial version of these kavanot and illustrate our commitment to inclusion.

I realize that I love this part of the mikveh ritual even more than immersing itself, because when I go through the steps of getting ready for immersing, it might be the only time in my life that preparation isn’t about what’s next on the list, or what I’m leading up to. I’m not thinking about what I need to do after I finish getting ready, or what will happen if I don’t get through an item on my to-do list. I’m only thinking about the moment—and it’s beautiful and all mine.

Mayyim Hayyim is in the business of a lot of things: celebrating, including, healing, converting, educating, transitioning, fulfilling. And we’re also in the business of pausing and preparing. It’s a place to feel like all the to-do lists of life can take a back seat to the to-do list of just focusing on myself.

So bring on the to-dos, the lists, and bring on life, but when I need a break, I’ll head to the mikveh.

We invite you to put down your to-do list and take your next break at Mayyim Hayyim. Schedule your immersion today.

Rachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. She usually loves to-do lists, but isn’t a fan of snowstorms.

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On Mourning and Healing

by Nadav David

Just over a year ago, my grandfather, Abraham Gittelson z”l, passed at the age of 87. Three days beforehand, I sat next to his bed at the Rehabilitation Center in North Miami Beach, reading the morning’s sport page to him and discussing the upcoming Shabbat’s parasha (weekly Torah portion). I fed him his meals, often a cup of apple sauce and watery potatoes, and he spoke to me in as soft a tone as I had ever heard him. Even in his last days, Sabba (grandfather) continued to share his knowledge and wisdom with me as we learned together. His life ended peacefully, but the emptiness and heartache I felt without him in my life only grew.

Having been fortunate enough to lose very few close family members or friends in my life, and as a child of two families of Cohanim (the Jewish priestly lineage, who are not supposed to come in contact with dead bodies), the rituals and physical spaces related to death in Judaism often felt foreign and distant. On every school trip I went on, I stayed back as the group toured a cemetery or visited a famous grave. So when my grandfather passed, and my family participated in the mourning and death-related rituals and practices, I felt a stark disconnect between my physical and emotional or spiritual self. As I expressed this discomfort to my campus rabbi and close friend, Rabbi Eli Herb, he encouraged me to try out the practice of going to the mikveh for the first time. It was a practice I had learned about in classes and read about in books, but it had always seemed mysterious and inaccessible.

I felt nervous and unsure about what to expect as I made my way from Boston to Newton. I had read over the blessings and Kavanot (intentions) earlier in the week, and had spoken with my family about preparing for the experience, but I had spent little time envisioning the actual immersion. As soon as I arrived, the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety subsided. I was welcomed with open arms by Rabbi Eli and my Mikveh Guide, and would soon begin the ritual. I immediately felt a connection to the space itself, beautifully and intentionally designed (because of Mayyim Hayyim’s commitment to Hiddur Mitzvah), beautifying the ritual, which allowed me to focus on the physical and emotional experience in a way that felt both comfortable and challenging.

The words in the blessings, and the texts of the Mayyim Hayyim ceremony for healing were deeply powerful for me. The idea of pursuing a sense of wholeness through immersing my entire body in water–“In the promise of Your love, I am soothed. In Your wholeness, I too can become whole again”–illuminated for me a connection I could create with my grandfather’s memory and spirit, now that his physical presence had ceased. From the moment I began preparing to immerse myself, to walking down the steps of the mikveh into the water, to leaving the space, the experience felt like an important transition: “As I have been in a time of mourning, now may I move into a time of healing.”

I cherished the moments of solitude and quiet, while feeling more connected and physically in tune than I had felt since his death. The mikveh provided me the opportunity to look beyond the sadness and grief I had been overwhelmed with, and to start to feel connected to my grandfather’s memory through an ancient and deeply meaningful tradition.

Nadav is a graduating senior at Northeastern University. He was born in Jerusalem, with Mizrahi and Ashkenazi roots, and grew up in Northern California. He is deeply involved with campus activism, as a project leader of a student activist coalition on racial and immigrant justice, and is an active member of the wonderful community at the Moishe Kavod House. Following graduation, he plans to stay in Boston to pursue a career that centers justice and equity in building stronger communities.

Posted in Grief, Healing, Immersion, Inspiration, Religion | 2 Comments

A New Twist for a Traditional Holiday

by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director

It’s time to pack away this year’s Purim costume, try valiantly to clean up the glitter, put away the glue gun, and start thinking about Passover. Four weeks from tonight we’ll be sitting around our tables munching on parsley and waiting for our turn to come around in the Haggadah (Jewish text for the Passover seder).

I think there are two kinds of Passover people. There are those who need every single one of the hundreds of parts of the holiday to be exactly the same each year. Same Haggadot, same dried-out brisket, same tablecloth with faded wine stains, same hiding place for the afikomen. It makes them feel secure to know that this Jewish anchor of spring will be just the way they remember it. And really, isn’t this actually the definition of tradition? Something you can count on to be unchanging, as if you could open a dictionary in your mind and know just what will be there for a particular celebration or observance. What would a birthday be without cake, candles, wishes, singing, and presents? A seder’s sameness from year to year is part of its appeal, its resonance. We’re told to tell the story — the same story — of the Exodus and try to connect to its universal meaning to us.

But there are those who relish a different lens through which to engage with Passover each year, discovering something new and meaning-filled in a Haggadah we’ve never read before, gathering a different group of guests around our table, each with their own new contributions. Trying a completely different haroset devoid of walnuts or apples, or lounging on the floor around a tapestry-draped coffee table for the storytelling. Those of us with children have experienced the passing phases of seders as they went from 30 minute speedy fests before the kids had late night melt-downs, to negotiations with sulky teens about whether they had to come to Aunt Rachel’s this year at all.

I’ve been to dozens of seders, all dramatically different one from the other. There were my first seders with my then-boyfriend-soon-to-be-husband’s extended family where he and his brothers moved stealthily from the painful bridge chairs to the comfy couch and promptly went to sleep, leaving me at the table with a group of very hardcore male seder participants and a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face. There was the first seder I hosted in our own home when our youngest read “The Four Questions” for the first time and our oldest sang Pitchu Li, leaving not a dry eye around the table. There was the year we were the only guests at a seder who weren’t secular Israelis; we knew the traditions, they knew the Hebrew. There was the year that came to be known as “The ADHD Seder,” when our leaders took us on a wild ride of crazy activities and disconnected, fascinating discussions. Last year we swelled with pride as our daughter led the seder she had compiled herself — an interactive, creative, musical, spirit-filled experience.

Whether you are comforted by the sameness of tradition or jazzed by new interpretations, it isn’t always easy to dive deep into the explicit intention of the seder — to feel as if we were really there at the Exodus, to struggle with the concepts of freedom and independence, to understand the anxiety about the unknown as we emerged from slavery in Mitzrayim (the Hebrew name for Egypt, meaning “narrow place”). What does it mean to go from the narrow place? What are the narrow places in our lives?

To help you connect to these themes of the holiday, Mayyim Hayyim offers you a new Passover tradition: a tranquil, warm, private place to contemplate your journey — our mikveh. Yes, preparing for Passover is, for many, a very long to-do list. This year, try adding one more thing to the list: a visit to Mayyim Hayyim. Let go of the minutae of cleaning and cooking, and work on the bigger picture of striving for an expanded perspective. Leave your spiritual chametz behind.

It’s easy — just click here to make an appointment. We can’t wait to help you include a new Passover tradition this year — one that will make all the other ones even better.

Lisa Berman is Mayyim Hayyim’s Mikveh and Education Director.

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Too Close to Home

by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education

I like to consider myself someone who has an appreciation of the absurd, but there has always been something about the absurdity of Megillat Esther that I have found unnerving. This Purim, for the first time, I find it comforting.

Purim is a tale of a power-hungry villain who works for an easily swayed, ego-maniacal king. It’s full of irony, major plot twists, and hidden heroes. It’s fun because there are costumes, carnivals, and drinking. On the other hand, if you take the story at all seriously, it’s terrifying. The Jews are targeted for destruction, and the people in power are bananas (remember how Queen Vashti is deposed because she wouldn’t show herself off to the King’s drunken friends? Or that one Jew not bowing down to Haman inspires Haman to kill off the entire Jewish population?). But the Purim story is supposed to be a farce, a parable to showcase the hidden hand of God and the victory of the Jewish people over a chaotic and unpredictable monarchy. 

So here comes that quintessentially Jewish question: What makes this Purim different from all the others?

Do you see where I’m going yet? I suspect it is because this year the absurdity is real for me. The haphazard rule of a belligerent king and his hateful sidekick sounds sort of familiar. I see this once ancient-sounding farce seemingly playing out on a national stage and on my forever-refreshing newsfeed. I think the only thing that would make it more real is if each new executive order was dispersed throughout the land and announced to the sound of royal trumpets.

I see chaos in ICE raids, a travel ban targeting Muslims, vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and bomb threats to JCCs all over the country. It has been a painful reminder of the ongoing work required to defend human dignity in a democracy that has always seemed to me shaky, at best. It is also a reminder to me that the sometimes-pervasive feeling that I’m powerless, needs to be interrupted.

Megillat Esther

This Saturday night when I hear Mordechai plead with Esther to interrupt the plan for her people’s genocide… and she says sorry, no can do… I am shocked to say: I get it, and perhaps for the first time. Mordechai demands that she speak with the King and Esther responds honestly: he’s dangerous, unpredictable, and quick to kill for an unwelcome visit. How many times has the fear of getting in trouble or upsetting others stopped me from speaking up? Not only does Esther fear retribution, she also just doesn’t understand that her life, too, is implicated. She has hidden her true identity to live in a palace that feels far away from the fate of her own people.

In many ways, I, too, am in that palace. As a white, American-born Jew, I’m not afraid to leave my house for fear of being deported, and the government has not identified Jews as a dangerous population that should be barred from entering the country. And yet the vandalized cemeteries and bomb threats come to me like Mordechai’s harsh response to Esther: “Do not imagine that you… will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.” It is a reminder to me that in this absurd time, my life and survival are bound up with the lives of others.

After hearing these words, Esther, (whose name comes from the Hebrew root, meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’), realizes she must act, figures out her strategy, and reveals herself to the King as a Jew, demanding a different outcome. When I hear the megillah this weekend, I will think about Esther’s decision to stick her neck out. Whether it is the opportunity to disrupt hateful words, or a hateful act, whether it is for my own people for whom I demand justice or for the many others who are being targeted, I will try to remember that it’s not a time for me to stay quiet, despite the risk.

This Friday, as a way of preparing to revel in the chaos and absurdity, I plan to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim. Mayyim Hayyim is one of the few places in this world that seem to know nothing of the world outside. Even when my heart feels like a heavy, sinking rock, the waters remind me I can float. I’m looking forward to drowning out the noise, underwater for only a brief moment, before returning to the chaos of Purim, followed by the world which I cannot ignore.

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

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The Monthly Mitzvah

by Anonymous

As a Jewish woman living a traditional halachic life (governed by Jewish law), I am often faced with questions from myself and others regarding my religious choices. One question that will likely always come up is that of the place of women in halachic Judaism. In modern-day Orthodoxy, the synagogue has become the focus of religious practice. The synagogue is a place where women are placed behind a mechitzah (separation) as men lead daily prayer services. The basic expectation is that members of the synagogue practice the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and Taharat HaMishpachah (keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and ritual family purity). While kashrut and Shabbat are practiced equally among men and women in the community, I find it empowering that the onus of ensuring the correct practice of Taharat HaMishpachah lies solely with women.

When I began learning the laws of Taharat HaMishpachah before my wedding, I felt overwhelmed and vulnerable, as many brides do. One line from the Talmud left me feeling shaken more than any of the other teachings I received on this subject. In Tractate Niddah, page 66a, Rabbi Zeira is quoted saying that, “the daughters of Israel were stringent upon themselves” with regards to Taharat HaMishpachah. Why would they do this? Why would the Jewish women of that time be stringent with laws that caused them to lose the flexibility of their time with their husbands? There are many plausible answers: that they gained more control over their bodies in a time when it was lacking, that the tradition had always been to be stringent, or perhaps that they didn’t know any better.

I researched and considered many answers to my question, but today I no longer care what motivated these dedicated women to make that choice. Instead I find myself inspired by their commitment. In a world where Jewish women are rarely deferred to as experts in halacha, Taharat HaMishpachah is a tool they use to exercise their halachic knowledge and responsibility. It is a mitzvah given to women, the responsibility of which is placed on women, the power of which is imbued onto women, and the sanctity of which is guarded by women. 

Jewish women have been practicing this tradition for thousands of years. Tapping into the spiritual strength of the generations of women who came before me, immersing in the mikveh connects me to a lineage of individuals fiercely dedicated to Jewish life and law. The mikveh provides a unique opportunity for me, together with all Jewish women, to collectively empower ourselves through halachic responsibility to a core tenant of Jewish observance.

(*Mayyim Hayyim recognizes that people with varied relationships to gender and sexuality observe the laws of niddah and are welcome to immerse in our mikveh.)

One of Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Principles is tzniut (modesty), dictating that we respect the privacy, modesty, and confidentiality of those who come to immerse. In alignment with this value, today’s guest writer has asked to remain anonymous.

Posted in Immersion, Inspiration, Marriage, Niddah, Religion | Leave a comment