You Should Know… Steph Black

Photo by Samantha Cooper

Steph Black fell down what she calls “the “Jewish justice rabbit hole” when she started attending American University. And she has no intention of climbing out. As a senior, the Boston native, now 22, started interning at the Adas Israel Congregation’s mikvah, or ritual bath. She became a mikvah guide, someone who helps a mikvah user through the ritual. Before this she hadn’t heard of a mikvah. Now she encourages others to learn about and use the mikvah.

How did you become a mikvah guide?

My Hillel on campus started a Jewish feminist fellowship called Lilith. And our senior Jewish educator on campus is Molly Feldman, who is a mikvah guide here and she bought all of us to the mikvah for an educational program. I was like, “What is this?”

Molly put me in contact with Naomi [Malka, the Adas Israel mikvah coordinator] to see if I would be interested in doing something. And I was like, ‘Sure.’

What’s it been like?

Oh my gosh, it’s been transformational. Mikvah went from something I hadn’t heard of to one of the most important parts of my Jewish identity. I feel like I’ve become such a different person, a better person for having done all this work. It’s only been a few months, but this is definitely part of my life forever.

Have you used the mikvah yourself?

Yes, a couple of times. I don’t even think I have the words to describe how moving it has been. And I think it’s a testament to the culture that Naomi has created and this mikvah here.

[For my first time] I really just wanted an excuse to immerse. So I was like, I’m going to do this ritual for general life transitions.’ It was the start of a new semester. I had just started a new job on campus and was super excited about it. I just remember feeling really at peace and really calm. I felt like I was taking in symbolically the water of the mikvah, which sounds super flowery and poetic, but I don’t know.

There’s something that stays with you even when you get out of the mikvah. Just like a sense of calm and control.

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience during the Kavanaugh hearing?

I got arrested [inside the Supreme Court] on the first day of the Kavanaugh’s hearings [Sept. 4, 2018]. I wish I had immersed after that because I feel like that’s a pretty big transition. The first time you get arrested for civil disobedience is kind of a big deal. And I wish I had honored that.

What’s the most awkward part about working in mikvah?
You would think it would be the nudity but it’s not.

The awkward part was explaining to my mother that I went on this mikvah retreat, because she hadn’t heard of mikvah. So explaining to people who don’t know what mikvah is is super challenging. It’s very weird to say, “I’m watching someone naked in a bathtub. But they’re not cleaning themselves and it’s not like faith healing and it’s not like a sex cult thing,” which is what I think my mother thought it was. n

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