For years, as more observant Jews have decided to call Center City home, there’s been talk of constructing a mikvah downtown. But it had never seemed much more than talk — until now.
A group of individuals, along with Chabad Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, has selected a site, commissioned architectural plans and already raised $180,000.
Rebecca Cohen, a 40-year-old mother of two who lives in the Bella Vista section of the city, is one of the leaders of the group called Center City Community Mikvah, which is made up of individuals from across the religious spectrum, including a former president of a Reform synagogue.
She said she wants a mikvah close to home because she considers a mikvah a “sacred place for women to be in touch with their spirituality and their bodies.”
“Going to a mikvah is an easy way to have a space to think about a woman’s relationship with Judaism without her having to keep kosher, go to shul or read Hebrew,” said Cohen, although she herself has become more observant. “It’s a spa experience that is not about making money, it’s about giving women a space to be Jewish and then bring that feeling back into their home.”
The new mikvah, slated to be built at the Vilna Congregation at 5th and Pine streets, would be under Orthodox auspices but open to anyone in the community. It would not be used for conversions, though a mikvah is an integral part of the conversion process.
The mikvah, a ritual bath usually comprised of rainwater collected in a fixed, indoor structure, is discussed in the Torah and has been part of Jewish practice since ancient times. According to tradition, a mikvah is used by unmarried women right before their wedding day and married women at the end of their monthly menstrual cycle.
In certain communities, it is also used by men on their wedding days and in the days before Yom Kippur, as well as on other occasions.
For a time, the practice had largely been shunned by non-Orthodox Jewish women, many of whom considered the idea anti-feminist and anachronistic.
But in recent decades, the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have made an effort to reclaim and reinvent the practice for contemporary needs.
According to the Shulhan Aruch, the 16th century compendium of Jewish law that’s still considered authoritative today, a mikvah is so important that communities were instructed to build one before constructing a synagogue or purchasing a Torah scroll.
But that’s rarely been the practice, especially in the United States. When it comes to Center City and the infrastructure needed for an observant Jewish lifestyle, the mikvah is seen as one of the missing pieces.
There are kosher restaurants, several Orthodox synagogues and, since 2007, a functioning eruv, a symbolic boundary that allows observant Jews to do things like push strollers or carry backpacks on Saturday without violating the prohibition of doing work on Shabbat.
For now, Center City women who want to use a mikvah have to schlep to the Northeast, the Main Line or Cherry Hill, N.J.
The Center City project has gained momentum in part because of the support it has gotten from Mikvah USA. Over the past decade, the New York-based nonprofit organization has helped build 26 mikvahs across the country, including two in Cherry Hill. It also has helped refurbish the mikvah at the corner of Glendale and Loretto avenues in Northeast Philadelphia.
Mikvah USA has agreed to fund roughly a third of the cost of the Philadelphia project, which is expected to total between $350,000 and $400,000.
Mikvah USA is also providing practical guidance and even recommended the architect for the project, New Jersey-based Hbd Associates Inc.
“Our mission statement is to make attractive, welcoming mikvahs wherever people are,” said Baruch Cywiak, director of special services for Mikvah USA. “There are hundreds of Jewish families downtown. Some are making a rather arduous trip to get to kosher mikvahs. Others are simply not making use of a mikvah at all.”
The organization stipulates that the mikvahs it helps build be under Orthodox auspices and not be used for conversion purposes. Cywiak said the organization wants to steer clear of the controversies and complications inherent in such ceremonies.
So Philadelphians who need to immerse themselves in a ritual bath to complete the conversion process will still have to travel to do so.
Cywiak said that conversion is a monumental event in a person’s life, one for which travel shouldn’t be a great hardship. But for observant, married women, a mikvah is a place that must be visited once a month — and it should be close by.
So far, it doesn’t appear that any non-Orthodox rabbis have publicly gotten behind the current project.
Schmidt, who oversees a variety of Chabad activities in Center City and University City, thinks the need for a mikvah downtown is so great that he’s given over his shul to the project. He and others stressed that it will be for the community and not a Chabad mikvah.
“This is something that we have been dreaming about for many years,” said Schmidt.
“This mitzvah represents the beauty of Jewish marriage,” he continued. “It relates to the sanctity of a person.”
Cohen, one of the people trying to raise funds, grew up in a not particularly observant household in Michigan, but along with her husband, has taken on many of the commandments of Jewish law.
She considers her visits to the mikvah among the most powerful of Jewish experiences and is convinced more non-observant women locally might give it a try if they only had to walk to one. She also credits her immersion in the mikvah with helping her conceive her second child.
“I know tons of women, it would benefit their marriage,” said Cohen. “They don’t go to a synagogue and it would be an easy way for them to kind of connect to Judaism.”
MIKVAHS IN THE AREA
Joseph and Martha Melohn Bucks County Mikvah
215-891-5565 or 215-757-5748
Congregation Raim Ahuvim
Shir Ami, Newtown
Lower Merion Synagogue
(Orthodox, women only)
Lubavitch Center of the Northeast
Mikvah Association of Philadelphia
Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia
Mikvah Association of Philadelphia, Northeast
215-745-3334 or 215-722-7574
Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El