The thesis in Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s introduction to Jewish Megatrends implies that generations of Jews who came of age in the 1980s and beyond lack a central, defining reason to affiliate with the Jewish community or even to carry a primary identity as a Jew. Previous generations were profoundly affected by seminal events in world history that either directly impacted their families, or they were touched by the aftershocks. The decimation of Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe in the Shoah, the establishment of the State of Israel, the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948 and 1967—these tectonic shifts in the status of Jews in the world inscribed themselves on the hearts of everyone who lived through them. The trauma of the Holocaust was so deep that the post-war generation embodied it directly and the triumphs of creating the State of Israel were so miraculous that Jews ascribed it to the Divine.
As American society evolved in a more liberal and globalist direction, and with Israel’s military setback in 1973, two intifadas, the Lebanon Wars, and the continued occupation and military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, most non-Israeli Jews have an easier time distancing themselves from an affiliation with the embodiment of 20th century Jewish life—the State of Israel–and a harder time identifying themselves tribally in the US. The younger generations are not primarily identified as Jews because they haven’t had physical, embodied experiences that affected them very deeply and they are unfamiliar with Jewish wisdom or traditions that could lead them to stronger levels of affiliation.
Physical experiences get us closer to our roots. Physical experiences access a deeper wisdom than intellectual or abstract rituals do. There was once a Hebrew school group of middle schoolers touring the mikvah. One of their parent chaperones offered them the story that after her conversion, ten years earlier, she felt that the day of her conversion was one of the happiest of her life. She said that going through the year of study with her rabbi, meeting with the Bet Din, hearing them say “Mazal Tov!” and the end of their conversation, and receiving a certificate of conversion was one of the most meaningful things she had ever done. But, she went on, the fact that she got to enter the mikvah at the end of that process was how she knew—with a profound and deep knowing—that she was, indeed, a Jew. It was the physical ritual at the end of so much abstract study and conversation that truly affirmed the change in her soul. I have always remembered her story and I tell it often, because it well illustrates how embodied experiences enhance our identity.
I think of the mikvah as a forge in which Jewish identity is created and strengthened. It is here that non-Jews become Jews, here that adopted children are welcomed into our community and here that the last steps leading to the chupah (wedding) are taken. Here, Jews immerse once a week or once a month (or just once) for a moment of integration of body, mind and soul. By immersing in a mikvah, we feel Jewish in our skin, in our flesh and in our bones in a way that Torah study, observance of Shabbat and holidays, giving tzedaka, and engaging in other mitzvot cannot begin to fathom. It is embodied and, as such, it asks us to leave behind the safe fortresses of our all-powerful minds and to enter the realm of our uncertain, wobbly, and sometimes failing bodies. It requires us to be unadorned–also difficult. It entails a loss of control and a state of vulnerability which many of us resist.
The mikvah has traditionally been a women’s space and as such has been sexualized and misunderstood. As recent scandals have shown, the urge to peep in on a mikvah in process is persistent. So, it is not surprising that many Jews are uncomfortable with the ritual. Indeed, many rabbis are uncomfortable with it. They require their conversion candidates to do this most Jewish of rituals in order to finally become a Jew, without ever having done it themselves. Neither they nor their family members ever went into a mikvah, so how can they discuss it with their conversion candidates with any authenticity? Most of them simply give their candidates the address of the mikvah along with their appointment time and a reminder to bring their own towel and a check for the suggestion donation.
This is changing, however. In the last ten years of my work, I have seen an increasing number of rabbis who are not only preparing their conversion candidates for the potential of a powerful spiritual experience via the mikvah, but who also have started to include mikvah in their toolkit of pastoral care. Additionally, I have met several young people who are heading to rabbinical school with the goal of making mikvah a central part of their rabbinate. Our mikvah intern from American University recently reported that mikvah is “trendy.”
Rabbi Sid states that people are searching for authentic and powerful experiences and that Jewish wisdom (chochma) and Judaism’s sacred framing (kedusha) provides the context in which to create such experiences. Plenty of other Jewish professionals are working hard on informal programming, synagogue membership drives, organizational development, educational institutions, etc. But building, staffing and connecting progressive mikvahs in every Jewish community is my goal. I have already seen how powerful this can be. As I have grown the Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington DC, I have also consulted for the Portland, OR Jewish community in their creation of a trans-denominational mikvah, joined the Rising Tide Network of progressive mikvahs, and been invited onto a USCJ Advisory Board that will design research into the conversion process and determine how to fund these endeavors.
I have no doubt that as we deepen the wisdom in our heritage and create new wells of meaning and beauty we will reap great and unimaginable benefits.
Naomi Malka is the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington D.C. and the founder of Tevila b’Teva: Immersion in Nature, a program that facilitates outdoor immersions at Jewish summer camps. Naomi is the creator of a groundbreaking program called “Bodies of Water,” which introduces kids ages 10+ to mikvah as a tool for positive body image and healthy decision making from a Jewish perspective.