Since 2004, Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center has welcomed nearly 8,000 people for close to 17,000 immersions.
The overwhelming majority of our visitors, who range in age from infancy through seniors and everything in between, would not know anything about a mikveh, much less want to visit one, were it not for our existence. Mikveh is laden with baggage from our collective past that, for many, conjures up images of intrusive gatekeepers, dirty environs, and general mystery about what’s involved.
Mayyim Hayyim now fields at least one to two calls each week from communities around the country and world looking to replicate our model. How did this happen? How have we shifted the dynamic and created a demand for something so great that the Jewish community had no idea it even needed it?
There are many answers, and three of them are related to Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s four propositions that hold the key to a renaissance of Jewish life: wisdom, community, and lives of sacred purpose.
In an age of globalization, Jewish institutions need to offer multiple avenues to explore chochma, the wisdom of our sacred texts put into the context of the world’s religions and in the language of contemporary culture.
Mayyim Hayyim’s founders, liberal Jews who were unimpressed by what they saw in Orthodox mikva’ot at the time, knew that if they wanted to open up the experience of the mikveh to the non-Orthodox community, they’d need to teach about it first. This education included “wisdom and not just knowledge.” Yet our success would have been short-lived if we imparted wisdom without knowledge. Each is of critical importance and neither can stand successfully without the other. Jewish “lite,” as Rabbi Schwarz calls it, does not resonate with the next generation of American Jews, nor does it resonate with older generations either, we have found. 21st century Jews are looking for deep meaning, first-hand knowledge, and access to information. Mayyim Hayyim set out not to dumb anything down, but rather to take the deepest content and make it accessible for the Jewish community of today. Our volume of 55 immersion ceremonies uses traditional and contemporary language to speak to present-day joys and challenges. Our education center offers 100+ programs annually for children and adults, teaching not only what a mikveh is, but that it belongs to them.
At a time when technology has made meaningful social intercourse much harder to come by, the Jewish community must offer places where people can find support in times of need, communal celebration in times of joy, and friendships to make life fulfilling.
Mayyim Hayyim’s model of community is not a traditional one. The mikveh, by definition, is a solitary and personal act. No minyan is needed; each person can own their experience in the way that is right for them. Yet the community we offer is extraordinarily powerful. Rabbi Schwarz writes, “there is enormous creative talent and energy among the membership if only it were invited.” This is the Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guide model. Our volunteers, once carefully vetted and accepted into our training program, are given the most crucial task in our organization: welcoming visitors at their most vulnerable and witnessing immersions as appropriate. Our volunteers are as diverse as the Jewish community, coming from all denominational backgrounds and those who are unaffiliated. They are Jews of color; Jews-by-birth and Jews-by-choice; they are gay, straight, and transgender; pierced, tattooed, married, single, divorced, and widowed. Their diversity means that each visitor is somehow reflected by the people who welcome them and our volunteers bring their full selves to the role. This provides a rich and fulfilling opportunity both for our volunteers and for our visitors.
Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedusha
In an age when we better understand the short-comings of capitalism and the culture of consumerism, the Jewish community must offer a glimpse of kedusha, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.
This is what Mayyim Hayyim offers. Our lives are too often overcome by the busy-ness of getting as much done in a day as we possibly can. Yet living a rich Jewish life is all about the kavanah (intentions) we bring to the actions of our days. Whether it is moments that are explicitly Jewish (preparing for holidays, conversion to Judaism, getting married, e.g.) or everyday occurrences (marking a milestone birthday, beginning chemotherapy, ending a relationship, having a baby), taking time to pause, take stock, and be mindful of our experience in the world provides meaning and purpose.
The piece that feels missing on this list is the following:
Openness and Inclusivity/Petichut
At Mayyim Hayyim we define this as: Access and availability for all Jews and those becoming Jewish. Mayyim Hayyim strives to be inclusive of all who wish to learn and/or immerse, regardless of sexual orientation, physical/developmental ability, or background.
Mayyim Hayyim is successful because we do not make assumptions. We do not assume that a person has been to a mikveh before, that they are in a heterosexual relationship, that they know Hebrew, or that they know what they want out of their experience. Our goal is to say ‘yes’ as frequently as we possibly can, offering access to the mikveh during the day and night, to be used however the visitor chooses, while offering any resources we can that respond to the anticipated anxieties they might have. Doing so allows us to flip assumptions about the mikveh on their head, serving as a place that invites in rather than pushes away.
Rabbi Schwarz eludes to some of this accessibility in his chapter on the Changing Face of Jewish Identity in America though does not talk about it explicitly. I would argue that this is a key value that any successful community will need to embrace.
My vision is that Mayyim Hayyim and the other mikva’ot like it (including in Washington, DC, New York City, Raleigh, NC, Atlanta, and elsewhere) can offer a model of welcome and vibrant ritual, that is accessible to all. Just as formal education programs look to camping to infuse experiential education into their work, I want people to look to community mikva’ot for the best in Judaism too.
Carrie Bornstein is Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center outside of Boston, MA and lives in Sharon with her husband, Jamie, and their three children. A cum laude graduate of Skidmore College, Carrie received her Master’s degree in Social Work from Boston University, participated in the first cohort of DeLeT (Day School Leadership through Teaching), and studied at Pardes in Jerusalem.