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Life

Training Mikveh Ladies — and Other Lessons in Immersion

The staff at Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh loves to think up catchy program titles having to do with — what else — water. Their latest wordplay, “Gathering the Waters: Ancient Ritual, Open Access and New Meaning,” was a spectacular, bustling conference, held earlier this week and dedicated to all things mikveh.

Mayyim Hayyim — its recent conference brought together 250 people from 22 states and Israel — has been on an upward trajectory since its founding a decade ago. Among the reasons for the mikveh’s success is the passion and dedication of its founder and president, best-selling author Anita Diamant. (“The Red Tent”) Diamant, together with the organization’s executive director Aliza Kline, wanted a mikveh that passed muster with Jewish law, but was also beautiful and inclusive.

In the interest of full disclosure I have volunteered as well as freelanced for Mayyim Hayyim in the past. Three years ago I coordinated a small conference called “Mainstream,” designed for Jewish professionals aspiring to implement the Mayyim Hayyim model in their own communities. Looking back, “Mainstream” was to “Gathering the Water”s what a brook is to a river.

In 2010, the conference relocated from the renovated Victorian house in West Newton that is home to Mayyim Hayyim’s sparkling two mikva’ot to the much larger Temple Shalom a mile down the road. Over the course of two days, the congregation’s three floors buzzed with 25 workshops that included: “The Mikveh Lady Has Left the Building: Training and Sustaining Volunteer Guides”; “The Family Mikveh: Programming for Young Couples and Bat Mitzvah Girls and Their Moms”; and “OMG: Tools for Teaching Mikveh to Teens.”

I was first exposed to a mikveh as an 8th grader attending the very traditional Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford. The mikveh lesson came with a warning that felt quite dire to a 13-year-old girl. I was told that when I menstruated as a married woman I couldn’t so much as hold my husband’s hand or even directly pass him something as innocuous as a plate. The rabbis of the Talmud implemented the laws of family purity for my spiritual and physical well-being. It was the first time I thought my body could be impure.

Fast-forward two decades later to a rabbi’s office where I’m very clear that I will not immerse in a mikveh before my wedding. To have and to hold me is to embrace me — impurities and all. Mayyim Hayyim — a mikveh where a woman could peacefully float in “living waters” before her wedding — was still 15 years into the future.

But when it arrived it was there for a woman finishing a grueling course of chemotherapy. It was a mikveh to come out as a lesbian or homosexual. It was a mikveh to celebrate a milestone birthday, an upcoming marriage or the renewal of sexual love between partners. It was there for me, when I immersed for the first time to mark my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Mayyim Hayyim is a spa for the soul.

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