The Mirror in the Mikveh
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.
“The stated goal is for the older women to come as role models and supporters for the younger ones, who are dealing with major changes to their bodies,” Malka explained. But there is an unstated aim, as well: for the older women to unpack and deal with the baggage they carry about mikveh.
It’s the older women, not the younger ones, who come with preconceived — and misconceived — notions, often about concepts of purity and impurity. There is also the mistaken belief that a woman will be scrutinized by a mikveh attendant before being allowed to immerse.
“Mikveh is not just about blood and sex. It’s about health, decision-making, transitions and ritual,” Malka said. The idea is to introduce girls and women to the ancient Jewish ritual of immersion in “living waters” (either a natural body of water or captured rainwater, if indoors). Mikveh is meant to help them understand and experience the body’s inherent holiness, and they learn how to be truly inside their own skin, rather than scrutinize their appearances from the outside — a pernicious norm in our society.
Participants do mindful eating exercises led by Lisa Himmelfarb, a licensed clinical social worker and registered dietician specializing in body image and eating disorders, such as taking as long as five minutes to consume a single grape, using all of one’s senses. They also try out Jewish-values-inspired yoga poses taught by Lauren Rubenstein, who begins her session by reading “A Prayer for the Body” by Rabbi Naomi Levy. “When I am critical of my appearance, remind me, God, that I am created in Your holy image. If I become jealous of someone else’s appearance, teach me to treasure my unique form,” it reads.
When it comes time to go to the mikveh, the participants don’t immerse on the first visit; they are meant to learn about the practice first and then decide later whether or not they will try it on their own. Malka leads groups, divided by age, into the mikveh room. There, they light candles and observe an actress (wearing a bathing suit) play the role of a 15-year-old girl trying to feel a sense of wholeness with her body. She sings some of the traditional immersion blessings, recites a prayer of healing and then immerses. “The message we are imparting is, ‘your body is holy and you are complete when you are here,’” Malka said.
The group then files out and gathers to read creative liturgy compiled by the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton, Mass., the first center to offer mikveh education in an inclusive, pluralistic way. These are blessings for different life-cycle events, and “light bulbs go off they come up with their own ideas about when they could see themselves using the mikveh,” said to Malka. Girls have suggested immersing to mark key milestones like earning a driver’s license, graduating from high school or leaving for or returning from a first trip to Israel.
Emily plans to immerse for the first time in June, to mark the end of an intense school year. Ellie intends to make mikveh part of her becoming a bat mitzvah. “That would be a good time to start, when I become a woman,” she said. “The biggest challenge at my age is that everybody is different, and everyone is trying to be like a nonexistent normal. Mikveh teaches us to be ourselves.”
Ellie’s mother, Esther Goldenberg, is so supportive that she is considering using the mikveh herself. The family is very health-conscious, eating a vegan diet and exercising regularly (Ellie is a red belt in karate). But it had never occurred to them that mikveh could be part of a healthy lifestyle. “I really care about my and my daughter’s health and Judaism, and the two are connected in our world. Mikveh can further these goals,” Goldenberg said.
The program is grounded in traditional Jewish texts and spiritual concepts, which were reviewed with its leaders in meetings and training sessions with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Adas Israel’s director of lifelong learning, and Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University.
Gartner, who sees a lot of eating disorders and other stress-related health issues among college students, is contemplating introducing the mikveh practice to Georgetown students. “I try to work on helping them understand that what matters more than how they look and present is for them just to be present [in their own bodies], and mikveh can be a tool for this.”
“Bodies of Water” has the financial support of the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington, a grant-making organization dedicated to creating social change for women and girls, as well as additional support from the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington at Adas Israel, which offers programs and workshops to help deepen people’s spiritual experiences.
Sara Gorfinkel, the former’s director, applauded her organization’s board for understanding how “Bodies of Water” relates to TOWF’s mission, and how mikveh can be a vehicle for creating social change for women and girls. “We are really excited about this model, because it’s really accessible and can be replicated,” Gorfinkel said.
For Emily, the history of the practice inspires her. “These waters have been here for all of time,” she said. “The most special part of mikveh for me is getting in touch with myself as part of Jewish history. And at some point in the future, another girl, going through the same issues I am now, will immerse herself in these same waters.”
Renee Ghert-Zand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Forward.