After Seth Rosenberg’s twin sons read from the Torah for the first time on a Thursday morning prior to their b’nai mitzvah, they walked from the sanctuary at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington to the synagogue’s mikvah.
There, the 13-year-old boys and their father each immersed himself in the ritual bath. “It was a good way to amplify the sanctity of the occasion,” said Rosenberg.
Immersing in what is known as living water — a mikvah is filled from collected rain — has its roots in centuries of Jewish tradition.
When Adam was banished from Eden, he sat in a river that flowed from the garden as part of his repentance. At Sinai, Jews were commanded to immerse themselves to be ready to meet with God. In yet other references, Miriam’s well served as a mikvah, and when Aaron was inducted into the priesthood, he immersed himself in the mikvah.
Use of the mikvah is required when someone coverts to Judaism. It is also used for purification when women finish their menstrual cycle. Men, too, use the ritual bath, generally on their wedding day and before Yom Kippur.
However, in the past few years, use of the mikvah has expanded to include a wide variety of life cycle events. And efforts are being made to demystify the purification ritual of immersing oneself in what resembles a small swimming pool to as many Jewish people as possible.
“The main message of the mikvah,” according to Naomi Malka, coordinator of Adas Israel Community Mikvah, is that “each person’s body is holy because it is our agent of doing good and doing mitzvot. Regardless of whether our body is old or young, thick or thin, dark or light, gay or straight, married or sleeps alone, the mikvah is a place where a Jewish person experiences the holiness of their physical body.”
When the mikvah at Adas Israel opened in 1989, its primary use was for conversions. Of the roughly 200 immersions per year, 75 to 80 percent involved conversions, Malka said.
Today, the Community Mikvah has 450 annual users, of which only 200 are for conversions, Malka said. Now people from throughout the area come during life transitions.
“In the last five years, we have increased our visibility,” with the goal of at least introducing all Jews to the purification ritual, said Malka. She said she would like to see the mikvah “become a core Jewish practice,” as much a part of Judaism as is observing Shabbat or eating kosher.
That is why the preschoolers at Adas Israel learn how rainwater is collected to fill the mikvah when they have their weather lesson. It also is why high school students are invited to immerse themselves before going off to college, she said.
Until this year, Adas Israel had been financially responsible for the ritual bath, yet Malka estimated that only five percent of users were Adas Israel members.
Adas now partners with 30 of the 50 area non-Orthodox synagogues in an effort to welcome more people to the congregation’s mikvah.
Area synagogues pay an annual fee — the amount depends on the size of the congregation — and all members can avail themselves at no cost. However, a donation is requested from users. That suggested amount ranges from $36 for a one-time use up to an annual $154 membership.
The people who come are as varied as their reasons for immersing. Young and old, observant to those just learning about their religion are visiting the mikvah when they start a new relationship or end one.
They purify themselves before shipping off for military duty or returning from their service.
A thick folder of special occasion prayers located in the waiting room is designed to guide people in their quest for healing or when they realize that healing is no longer possible. There are prayers when coming out as a gay person. Prayers for happy times, including graduation, the birth of a child or grandchild or the start of a new job. There are special readings following a miscarriage.
After obtaining their Jewish divorce, some women immediately come to the mikvah. “They do this ritual. It is a ritual of comfort. It is very, very powerful,” Malka said.
Malka knows an inner-city school teacher who uses the mikvah at the end of each school year and still other women who immerse themselves following an abortion.
Malka is proud of how far use of the mikvah has come, but admits to a setback after the arrest of former Kesher Israel Congregation Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of surreptitiously videotaping women when they were in the changing rooms of the National Capital Mikvah. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month to 6 ½ years in federal prison.
“Obviously it hurt us,” Malka said. Freundel’s arrest and subsequent publicity “set my work back significantly. There is a whole generation of kids who have heard of mikvah through that.”
About 15 women who were victimized by Freundel came to Adas Israel’s mikvah. “They were confused. They were scared,” and some were questioning their use of mikvah,” said Malka, who prepared a special reading for them that includes the words, “Grant me the gift of safety —safety of body and safety of spirit” and “May I know that I am safe and secure.”
Malka wants all women to have a positive mikvah experience. Through a grant from the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington, she led a class called Bodies of Water to young women 10 years and older. The class was designed to help young girls to like their bodies. They were introduced to the mikvah and observed a woman in a bathing suit demonstrate the ritual.
She plans to conduct another program, called Rivers, which will teach women of varying levels of Jewish education about the mikvah.
Use of the mikvah at the Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia also has grown to include more life cycle events. Young mothers are using it as part of their spiritual growth, said Raizel Deitsch, the adult education director. Others are using it “as a means of renewal, a time of reflecting.”
Women who have never tried the mikvah and already are menopausal have come in “for a one-time experience,” she said.
At the Chabad in Potomac, use of the mikvah has grown from about 30 visits each month two decades ago to more than 100 a month. Karen Cohen, mikvah chairperson, attributed the increase to a combination in the growth of the Jewish population in the area as well as a general increase in the number of people choosing to immerse themselves.
“I am definitely not” aware of people coming for other than traditional reasons, she said.
Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue has been encouraging a wider use of its mikvah. Like Adas Israel, the prep rooms include numerous specially prepared prayer cards for a multitude of occasions.
Anyone can look through them “to see if something speaks to them,” said Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman. While no one is asked why they are immersing themselves, “I would say the dominant use is still for ritual purposes,” she said.
During Ohev Sholom’s mikvah opening celebration in January, Dasi Fruchter, a student at the Yeshivat Maharat, explained, “Water is very important. Water grounds us in everything we are in Tanach,” the Jewish Bible. Submerging oneself in a mikvah “is like death. We lose our breath for a moment. The idea is to let the experience take you and then you come out anew.” n