Who among us isn't mystified by the allure of water? A babbling brook, an ocean wave, a cool pool, a hot shower — even the fountain in the local mall has a certain appeal. It can give pause to the bustle of everyday life; it can make you stop, stare, even spur you to toss a coin into its midst.
Water is cleansing; it's nourishing. It touches the soul.
And it's what brought a group of more than 200 women together outside of Boston six months ago for a conference called "Reclaiming Mikveh: Pouring Ancient Waters Into a Contemporary Vessel."
The three-day gathering was geared to celebrate the success of the 21/2-year-old Mayyim Hayyim "Living Waters" Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, Mass., and to provide a learning opportunity for clergy, educators, academicians, and professional and lay leaders. It was run by the Outreach Training Institute, a co-operative program of the Union of Reform Judaism/Northeast Council.
Unlike other Judaic practices that have re-emerged in certain circles, the mikveh stands alone, according to event speakers. For one, it's mainly the realm of women, as it's about them becoming halachically pure and impure every month; two, over time, the idea of mikveh was viewed as something unpleasant, even misogynistic; and three, it became, in 20th-century America, simply hard to access for non-Orthodox Jews. Mikvehs were linked to urban shuls and population centers; as Jews moved away, usage fell by the wayside.
And it is, after all, one of the few commandments that requires total immersion. It's not like keeping kosher at home and eating scallops when you go out. Visiting a mikveh means taking the plunge, literally and figuratively.
"It requires a confrontation with you and your naked body," explained Mayyim Hayyim founder and president Anita Diamant, 55. "People finally and for the first time have to accept being naked.
"Every religion uses water for religious purposes because it's really powerful; it's transforming. We're learning new ways to use it."
Diamant, a journalist and author of the best-seller, The Red Tent, is referring to the idea of a "liberal" mikveh, one created not just for biblical uses — ritual purification after the end of a woman's menstrual cycle, conversion, and the cleansing of new dishes and eating utensils — but for other reasons as well. Those reasons are as varied as there are individuals, but most seem to revolve around life-changing events. It's something akin to Judaism as therapy, and it seems to be working.
Mayyim Hayyim provided 1,350 immersions in 2006 (3,200 since May 2004). Of these, 209 were for conversions, including 81 children and infants; others using the facility numbered 125 brides and grooms; 115 men and women immersing to prepare for the High Holidays; 12 boys and girls becoming B'nai Mitzvot, plus 28 adult B'nai Mitzvah; 83 people celebrating life-cycle events; 68 men and women marking a life transition; 35 immersions by those seeking spiritual healing after illness, divorce or personal loss; and 518 immersions by men preparing for Shabbat and women observing niddah, the practice of refraining from sexual relations with their husbands from the time of menstruation until the monthly trip to the mikveh.
To be sure, Diamant acknowledged that "mikveh doesn't have to be for everyone, but it's back on the table now."
'Enlarging the Menu'
It's similar, she explained, to the revised or rewritten ketubah, and other religious yardsticks that have incorporated changes in women's rights and societal position. "Those ritual items are back on the table for Jews to choose. We're enlarging the menu."
And that means making the menu attractive. Like other mikvehs built around the country in recent years, Mayyim Hayyim is top of the line. It offers spa-like facilities, in this case, in a renovated Victorian home. Before immersion, guests are taken to a spotless preparation room, where they clean every inch of their body — and remove all jewelry and clothing — before entering the mikveh and reciting their prayers.
According to mikveh center director Kathy Bloomfield, each of the two, oval-shaped kosher mikvehs holds 2,800 gallons of water, filled to a depth of between four and five feet. The pools are cleansed using an ozone filtering system twice a day; in addition, a pool-maintenance company drains and acid-washes each pool every other month.
The water is warm, and so clear that all seven steps going into the pool are visible.
The old stereotype — revealed by women at a talk called 'Taking the 'ik' Out of Mikveh: The Challenges of Reinventing Mikveh for Contemporary Jews" — of the dark, dirty, old-fashioned mikveh has nothing to do with modern-day facilities.
Rabbi Daniel Schweber, 29, of Congregation Beth Israel in Andover, Mass., one of the few men present at the conference, likened usage of the mikveh to "the final frontier." Women had rejected it, he said; maybe now, they can reclaim it.
"In the last 30 years, a lot has happened," acknowledged the Conservative rabbi. "There are new entries into Judaism; there are ways to enhance it. It seems baby-boomers are coming back to it. Like everything, are they trying to find the '60s spirituality they lost?"
Judy Chudnofsky, 61, may not be able to respond to that, but she can explain how she became involved with the project. A longtime activist in the Boston Jewish community, Chudnofsky said that when she first heard of the mikveh idea brewing, she supported it fiscally; she's also a board member.
Then, in 2001, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I remember coming home from treatments, I would stand under the shower to restore myself. I remember how healing water can be," she said.
Chudnofsky recovered, and signed on to be a volunteer mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim — one of the women who help guests maneuver their way through the experience. "The breast cancer made me a good listener. It makes you stop," said this mother and grandmother.
"Everyone has a different reason in coming. They call to make an appointment, and I listen and answer any questions. I try and make it as personal and meaningful as I can. As many people as I can touch, that's my purpose."
Don't Abuse Rituals
But is it necessary to go to great lengths to change existing ritual? And does a mikveh have to be so many things to so many people, or can it just be … a mikveh?
According to Rachel Adler, professor of gender issues at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion and at the school of religion at the University of Southern California, this is a very important point.
"We have to respect existing ritual, the ethics of them — ritual ought to have some claim to Jewish authenticity," she explained. "It must root itself in Jewish metaphor, Jewish symbols and words of Torah. Ritual must point to some authentically Jewish goal."
Contrary to that, she noted how easy it is to trivialize tradition, like the idea of a Bark Mitzvah for 13-year-old dogs or a "Chanukah bush." The reframing, she insisted, "has to have a logic to it. What I object to are arbitrary reframings."
But if people act in good faith, she believed, new customs can arise.
Gender can be refiltrated, but, warned Adler, don't abuse rituals — or, for that matter, vulnerable people.
Certainly, lives have changed because of the existence of Mayyim Hayyim, retold in stories throughout the conference.
In fact, one presentation was devoted to "The Mikveh Monologues," a dramatic reading by professional actors based on real-life experiences at the mikveh, including immersions for those reaching birthday milestones, for women reaching menopause and for gay men coming out.
For some, these are people who might never have considered ever going to a mikveh.
Take 57-year-old Ruth Ginsburg of Belmont, Mass., who grew up Reform but now identifies with the Jewish Renewal movement. She meets regularly with a Rosh Chodesh group on Sunday nights to discuss women's issues, something that gives her "an opportunity to get another moment of Jewish spirituality before going into Monday."
Ginsburg has no children and has never been married; traditionally speaking, she has no reason to go to a mikveh.
And she mentioned issues with her weight — a real sticking point when it comes to the rawness of the ritual.
Still, she knows one of the mikveh guides, and that is a comfort. Perhaps, one day, she'll try it.
People are looking for something cathartic, according to Stacy Garnick, 41, of Chelmsford, Mass., who was "intrigued by the conference."
The education director at Congregation Shalom, in Chelmsford, said that when she tells students that she went to the mivkeh before her wedding day, they express astonishment. "These seventh-graders say, 'Oh, my God, you were naked?' "
Garnick noted that the synagogue is considering a field trip to Mayyim Hayyim.
"The Reform movement is becoming more ritual-centered. Like pieces of it all, they're putting it together," she said.
"There is more of Judaism to be had today, more choices," she added, and that's a good thing.
"People are so spent at the end of the day; they're running in place in a lot of ways. I think people need to fill a void — it's a reflection of society as a whole. They're open to new things."
Like the mikveh?
Garnick continued, amicably: "Educated people tend to be always looking for something to fill the little fissures in their lives."
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Federation Endowments Corporation.