A Mikveh of Our Own

Mikveh. Many Reform Jews think of the ritual bath as archaic, dirty, and anti-women. Why, then, did our congregation choose to construct one of only three Reform mikvehs in North America? And why would we recommend that other Reform temples follow suit?

Rooted in Jewish tradition, the mikveh has been an essential part of Jewish life for more than 2,000 years. It is considered so important to the Jewish community that its construction regularly took precedence even over the building of either a house of study or a house of worship.

Mikveh has the power to purify, restore, and replenish our spiritual lives. It can symbolize changes in our status, sacralize new beginnings, transform us, and help us to see ourselves in new ways. Above all, immersing oneself in the mikveh allows for a very personal, private meditative experience, a place to commune alone with God. That's why it is used by observant women around their monthly cycle, by Jewish men and women before Shabbat and festivals, by brides (and sometimes grooms) before their wedding day, and by converts of both sexes.

Over the years, I have taken scores of women and men to a mikveh as a step toward conversion, and I know what a powerful part of that process mikveh can be. When they first enter, they may be a little anxious, uncertain. But when they emerge from the waters, they speak of being refreshed and renewed, of entering a new chapter in their lives, of crossing over a threshold, of feeling for the first time that they are truly members of the Jewish people.

In addition to these traditional uses of the mikveh, at Shir Ami we use it in ways never imagined by our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Our clean, modern, and inclusive mikveh helps provide spiritual comfort to congregants who have endured the pain of miscarriage, the violation of rape, the shame of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. And our mikveh offers a glorious, sacred way to celebrate new chapters in our lives, after surgery or the launching of a new enterprise or a significant birthday.

Our mikveh is used equally by both sexes, enabling both women and men to deal with their spiritual, sexual, and intellectual selves in a self-respecting and self-affirming fashion. We scrupulously protect each user's modesty and privacy; and, when it is important to ensure that there has been a total immersion, a friend, family member, or rabbi of the same gender is there as a witness.

This reappropriating of mikveh and reinterpreting it in new and imaginative ways is, I believe, a perfect expression of Reform Judaism. Like the mikveh, true Reform begins with waters drawn from ancient wells -- timeless traditions, rituals, and teachings -- and then infuses them with "living waters" of change and adaptation. A "kissing" of old and new -- like the "kissing" of rain and tapwater in the mikveh -- is what our movement is about. Understanding our tradition, endowing it with affection and respect, then giving it our own special stamp -- this is the essence of Reform. And beyond the philosophy of the mikveh, there is the personal.

The day before we opened our mikveh to the community, I arrived all alone, turned the lights down low, walked down the steps, and entered the warm, enveloping waters. I closed my eyes, held my breath and drifted down under the water, floating free, arms and legs loose, relaxed and at ease as at no other time or place. Silently, I prayed, expressing gratitude to God for health and happiness and all the blessings that are mine. I prayed for all the good people in my congregation. I prayed for friends and family. I prayed for Susan and the boys. I prayed to feel God's presence ever more closely. As I emerged from the mikveh's cleaning waters, I felt refreshed and renewed.

This is the beauty and the spiritual possibility of mikveh. It is my hope that all of us will be open to "immersing ourselves" in the living waters of our faith.

Rabbi Elliot M. Strom is religious leader of Shir Ami, Bucks County Congregation, Newtown, PA.