Adas Israel reopens mikvah with stories

From left: Ryan McKinley, Sarah Vogler and Ben Wacks talk after the rededication of the mikvah Photo by Samantha Cooper

It was an emotional night for members of Adas Israel Congregation attending the rededication of the synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath.

Five members of the 250 people in attendance on Jan. 30, talked about how the mikvah had altered their lives.
Julia Pitkin-Schantz told about how she entered the mikvah after her father and son were killed in a car accident.

“I would go to minyan every morning. I went to services night,” she said. “It was as if somebody had thrown this thick gray wool blanket on me. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear.”

As her son’s birthday approached, she began thinking about going back to the mikvah. The immersion ritual includes reciting blessings and going under water three times.

“And so, I came and got myself ready,” she said. “And as I said the prayers and went down the first time, I thought about all I had lost. And when I came up the third time, it was like the gray blanket had come off. I felt like a new person, and I felt ready to go and live the rest of my life.”

Traditionally, women a mikvah after menstruation and childbirth. Men often use it before holidays, among other occasions. Converts to Judaism also immerse themselves in a mikvah to symbolize a spiritual rebirth as Jews.

“A mikvah is a vital chamber in the beating heart of our Judaism,” said Naomi Malka, coordinator of the Adas Israel mikvah.

She said she wants the mikvah to take its place alongside Shabbat observance, tzedakah giving and Torah study. “In our generation and in earlier ones, mikvah was kind of mysterious, taboo and definitely not something to discuss publicly,” she said. “We’re changing that for the next generation.”

The mikvah at Adas Israel had been closed for three months to undergo renovations to make it more accessible to people with disabilities.

Mikvaot are also used to immerse new dishes and utensils. That’s what Steph Black was doing with two other women last fall as they listened to psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford testify before Congress about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She had accused Kavanaugh of sexually attacking her when they were both in high school.

“There we were, three women hunched over the humid waters of the mikvah among piles of pristine china silently listening to an exhausted, resilient woman share her pain,” Black said. “I offered to continue the prayer I recited to Christine Blasey Ford.”

Lilian Oben, a local actor, told the story of Moshe Avi, a Marine stationed in Afghanistan. Avi is a transgender man of color, who converted to Judaism in Adas Israel’s mikvah.

“When you put a rock with rough edges in a moving body of water, over time the waters will smooth it,” Oben said, speaking as Avi.

“I first came to the mikvah as a convert. I came to affirm my soul, as a Jewish soul. I came to affirm my body as the right body. Immersing myself in the mikvah as a transgender man, allowed me to transcend the physicality of my body. It allowed me to be who I am.” The audience were also treated to songs from the synagogue youth choir and
the cantors.

The dedication encouraged Ryan McKinley, who is in the process of converting to Judaism, to use the mikvah.

“[The event] was very awesome, very wonderful. [And it] absolutely reinvigorated my desire to go to the mikvah.”

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