A spiritual work of art emerges from shattered heirlooms

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman points to reeds growing out of the water in the new mural at the mikvah at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue.
Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman points to reeds growing out of the water in the new mural at the mikvah at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Pieces of an old seder plate. Chipped Shabbat dishes. Cracked platters from bubbe. Household heirlooms steeped in family memories.

From these shattered pieces a colorful mosaic mural was formed that now graces the entryway of the woman’s side of the mikvah at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington. The mural was dedicated Sunday afternoon.

When Rabbi Barry Freundel, formerly of Kesher Israel, surreptitiously videotaped dozens of women as they prepared to use the Jewish ritual bath at the National Capital Mikvah in Georgetown, he damaged the reputation of a ritual that many women already didn’t feel entirely with. (Freundel pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism in March and was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in jail. He is currently appealing that sentence.)

Using the mikvah “has not been the type of experience we enjoy, and it should be beautiful,” said Rena Fruchter, who spearheaded the art project. Therefore, she suggested a “community building with art” project that would enable women “to own” the mikvah experience, she said.


“We have a broken system. We don’t throw it out. We take the pieces. We put them together and make something beautiful together,” Fruchter said.

The effort was a communal one. Boxes were left at the synagogue front hall for anyone to contribute materials that could be used in the mural.

“We collected a lot, more than we ever ended up using,” said Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, who is known as “Maharat Ruth” at Ohev Sholom.

The new mural features women dancing, new moons, water, reeds and the words from Isaiah 12:3, in both English and Hebrew, “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of redemption.”

The mural-building workshops were joyful as well.  Participants enjoyed margaritas and mojitos on Saturday evenings as they created the mural. On Sunday mornings, mothers and daughters contributed their talents.

“Women came and hung out. They got to know each other,” said Friedman. The women took the mikvah space defined it and demystified it, she said.

Fruchter, who also helped create a mosaic mural at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, brainstormed with a group of women to come up with the mural’s design. “We came up with different images. We came up with the new moon, which is a woman’s holiday, and pomegranates,” she said.

“It’s not necessarily about fertility, but [that theme] is there,” she added.

She then collaborated with Arturo Ho, a Silver Spring artist who also helped design the mural at Berman Academy. The pair decided to include a “[Vincent] Van Gogh kind of swirl in the background,” Fruchter said.

The participants broke the gathered glass, using a mallet to shatter it into pieces and special tools to cut it. They also sorted the pieces by colors.

Next came gluing the pieces where they belonged. Lastly, they grouted and polished it, she said.

About 60 people participated throughout the process.

One participant, Washingtonian Ariele Mortkowitz, brought both her mother and oldest daughter, who is six, to some of the events.

For some of the participants, the project gave them “something they could own, something they could feel part of.” For others, it helped them work on their apprehensions and questions, allowing them to take “something shattered [and] make something whole,” she said.

Before moving near Ohev Sholom, Mortkowitz had used the National Capital Mikvah, which is located next to Kesher Israel. “The Kesher mikvah is near and dear to me. I still have friends there,” she said.

Mortkowitz hopes to get involved in other events which would be attended by women at Kesher Israel and Silver Spring-area synagogues together.

“There is a need and desire for everyone to help lift everyone up,” she said.

“Freundel was a big blow around mikvahs in general, and this could make it a better experience,” she said.

Kesher Israel president Elanit Jakabovics said she would be interested in possible joint projects, adding that Freundel’s voyeurism affected many people, “not just users at the National Capital Mikvah, but also [people in] Washington, D.C., and around the world.”

She praised the creation of the mural at Ohev Sholom’s mikvah. “I strongly support anything that helps the healing,” she said. “You know the pain is never going to go away.”

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  1. This is such a beautiful work of art. I love that it was created from items that had so much meaning. It was interesting to learn that this piece was created as a way for women to take ownership of their spirituality and their worship. Thank you for sharing this.


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