Written by Aliza Kline, Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim
Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Hanukkah! The other night we lit our first candles and our girls, Ela (7.5), Gila (5) and Nomi (2.5), along with new Israeli friends, sang their little hearts out in traditional Hebrew songs and then proceeded to fill up on latkes, homemade applesauce and huge dulce de leche filled sufganiyot (donuts).
A few days earlier I gave my first-ever 90-minute presentation on Mayyim Hayyim in Hebrew for a women’s group at Beit Daniel, a Reform congregation in Tel Aviv. It was a challenging and loving group –women in their 50s and 60s who all related painful or meaningless experiences immersing as brides (required by the Israeli Rabbinate before marriage), or shared the elaborate ruses they used to avoid immersing 20-30 years ago.
Our discussion was lively – we talked about why we would even consider exploring mikveh as a ritual overflowing with meaning and potential – let alone inclusiveness. They asked hard questions and pushed back. But at the end of the evening, we spoke about reinventing the role of “balanit” (mikveh attendant) into “madrachim” or Volunteer Mikveh Guides. This they understood – the extraordinary power that each person has to facilitate ritual for others, graciously, sensitively and thoughtfully. I wanted them to imagine themselves in the role. I got hugs, smiles and a confused shrug or two. A success.
There is incredible interest in Mayyim Hayyim’s model of an inclusive and welcoming – and most amazingly pluralist – ritual space. There are virtually no models for this in Israel, which heightens the growing demand.
I am involved in a very exciting and challenging project working closely with a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis as well as Modern Orthodox feminist leaders planning a new, welcoming mikveh and education center in the heart of Jerusalem, — recently, members of this group toured the site and studied plans. Many of Mayyim Hayyim’s design elements are being incorporated, including a round immersion pool and a separate reflection space adjacent to each bathroom. The biggest concern is that this place will be too small for the number of people who will come. That’s my favorite kind of worry. “Halevei!” (If only…)
But that’s not all. I am consulting with Rabbi Haviva Ner David, who directs a mikveh and education center modeled on Mayyim Hayyim, at Kibbutz Hannaton in the North, and I have just begun talking with people at Kibbutz Ketura in the South who plan to open a new mikveh within the year.
There’s still more! I recently made a presentation to the New Israel Fund’s Mikveh Round Table, women leaders concerned with the current state of mikveh in Israel. This group is focused on the training, compensation, and rights of the mikveh attendants as well as the rights of the individuals seeking to immerse. These are strong, passionate leaders, who struggle with strategies for making change: Should they work within the system and make incremental improvements? Should they work around it and create alternatives? Should they yell and scream or should they work quietly behind the scenes?
At a time when it is easy to be depressed by the situation in Israel (the list of concerns is long) I am finding great inspiration and hope in these projects and conversations. My place at the table reflects the fact that Mayyim Hayyim is the leading international expert in rethinking and transforming mikveh.
Aliza Kline, Founding Executive Director, has led Mayyim Hayyim from its initial stages, overseeing fund raising, publicity, design, construction, staffing, recruiting volunteers, and board development. In May, 2009, Aliza was awarded an AVI CHAI Fellowship(best described as the “Jewish MacArthur Genius Grant”) in recognition of her accomplishments, creativity and commitment to the Jewish people