Ellie Goldenberg and Emily Blum are getting ready to immerse for the first time in the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath.
One might assume that Ellie and Emily are soon-to-be brides; in traditional communities, women immerse in the mikveh for the first time before they are wed. But they’re not — Ellie is an 11-year-old fifth-grader at a Washington, D.C., Jewish day school and Emily is a 16-year-old junior at a public high school in the city’s Maryland suburbs.
Both were inspired to douse in the mikveh after they participated in “Bodies of Water: Honoring Our Jewish Bodies,” a new workshop at the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in Washington that uses the mikveh as a tool to help girls and young women develop a positive and healthy body image.
“Mikveh has been an important part of managing my own body image for the past 13 years, and I kept thinking how it would have been better to have had this when I was younger,” said Naomi Malka, the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah, the only progressive mikveh — that is, open to any Jewish person for any reason — in Washington.
Malka is the creator of “Bodies of Water,” a three-hour workshop that combines nutrition education, yoga and an introduction to the mikveh. The Adas Israel Community Mikvah, which was founded in 1989, was originally used mainly for conversions. But today it is being used for creative and traditional purposes as well. Married women who observe Jewish purity laws immerse after their menstrual periods end to ritually cleanse themselves.
“I fully acknowledge how controversial it can sound to tell preteen and teenage girls that the mikveh welcomes them. In some communities and to some sensibilities this is tantamount to condoning premarital sex,” Malka said. An Orthodox rabbi consulted for this article confirmed that from a traditional halachic perspective, girls and young women should not be using the mikveh. As he sees it, staying away from the mikveh serves as a deterrent to sexual relations.
But Malka sees value in familiarizing teenagers with ritual immerson, whether they go on to use the mikveh for traditional or creative purposes. “I believe that in order for mikveh to take hold as a common practice — like kashrut or Shabbat — in progressive Jewish communities, it has to be introduced at a younger age and has to offer girls a healthy understanding of our bodies and sexuality within a Jewish ethic,” Malka said.
“Otherwise,” she continued, “[mikveh] will remain unexplored and we will raise another generation of Jews who are disconnected from this mitzvah.”
In the inaugural year of the program, more than 150 women and girls attended the workshops, which were offered from early February through the beginning of May. The program is primarily aimed at preteens, teenagers and women in their early twenties, but mothers and grandmothers are encouraged to attend as well.