From Fargo to Saskatoon: Tiny Jewish communities team up to build mikvehs in their towns
For Sarah Kats, the 35-year-old spiritual leader of the Chabad Jewish Centre of Saskatoon, the drive to the closest mikveh in Edmonton, Alberta, takes six hours. She is one of about 250 Jews in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; population 331,000.
Her commute may soon become significantly shorter, though, as Saskatoon is one of seven remote Jewish communities – including Fargo, North Dakota; Salem, Oregon; Mobile, Alabama; Regina, Saskatchewan; Arcata, California; and Kelowna, British Columbia – participating in a $1.5 million campaign to build mikvehs in their cities.
Married women who observe Taharat Ha’Mishpacha, as the laws are collectively known in Hebrew, immerse in a ritual bath following each menstrual cycle. “Observing Taharat Ha’Mishpacha makes me feel spiritually replenished and gives me a sense of renewal,” said Kats. “I love it even though keeping it in Saskatoon has been quite challenging.”
Born in Cleveland, Sarah and her husband Rabbi Raphael Kats, 40, moved to Saskatoon in 2011 as shluchim, emissaries of the Chabad Lubavitch community. They welcome Jews of all denominations – including students and professors from the nearby University of Saskatchewan.
The couple views their communal roles as a privilege and have been circumnavigating Saskatoon’s lack of Jewish amenities for years. Their seven children attend Shluchim Online School (and did so even pre-pandemic), they order kosher food from Montreal and are thrilled that community members are committed to attending a monthly minyan. They’ve lived without kosher restaurants for almost a decade, and Sarah has even grown accustomed to driving alone on dark, icy roads, in -40°F, to the mikveh in Edmonton. Sometimes she travels by bus or plane and stays overnight at a local hotel, although COVID travel restrictions occasionally impact her plans.
Little Manitou Lake, the closest natural body of water, is less than two hours away by car. While Sarah has immersed in it in warmer weather, she has been hurt by jagged rocks, underscoring its precariousness.
While a local mikveh would certainly benefit Sarah, the ritual baths in each community will also be used by men, brides, converts and for immersing dishes.
“The reason for [constructing] the mikvehs is not only because it’s challenging for us; we’ve been doing this for nine years,” said Rabbi Kats. “Part of Jewish life for families is using the mikveh. We can teach them about Shabbat and we can teach them about kosher food and inspire people to eat kosher. But how are you going to inspire people to keep mikveh if the mikveh is associated with a 12-hour, round-trip drive, often in adverse weather conditions in the winter, or an expensive flight and hotel?”
Mushkie Cowen, 31, of Arcata, a remote coastal town in California, agrees. In 2012, she and her husband Eliyahu, 32, established the first Chabad for Humboldt County’s 2,000 Jews. Humboldt is a five-and-a-half hour drive from the closest mikveh in San Francisco. Cowen directs the Chabad Hebrew School and, among other programs, runs the Jewish Women’s Circle which offers discussions and activities for women of all ages.
“There definitely is great interest in Taharat Ha’Mishpacha, but I didn’t feel it was fair to teach about how amazing this mitzvah is and then say, ‘Oh and by the way, you have to drive almost six hours over dangerous mountain roads to get there,’” said Cowen. “I’m definitely looking forward to delving into this topic as we’re starting construction on our mikveh. The women here are ecstatic about having a mikveh of their own.”
Fruma and Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Perlstein, both 39, founded the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Salem, Oregon in 2007. They estimate that Salem and surrounding Mid-Willamette Valley cities are home to roughly 5,000 Jews. Like Cowen, Perlstein also runs the Jewish Women’s Circle, among other initiatives. In 2016, she accompanied Marlene Eichner, 72, to Portland’s mikveh – an hour away – the day before Marlene and her husband renewed their marriage vows at a Jewish ceremony officiated by Rabbi Perlstein. For Eichner, immersing in the mikveh was a transformative experience.
“I felt the sacredness of the place and the act. I was actually crying at the significance of the connection in the water with God,” Eichner said. “I’m thinking of my daughter, grandson, and his future children. They would be able to surround themselves with the complete Jewish package … The idea of being able to attain spiritual purity would no longer be naive magical thinking; it would become a living experience.”