A Public Service Announcement for the Mikveh World

Written by Carrie Bornstein, Acting Executive Director

I’ve visited my fair share of mikvehs over the years, particularly as I’ve gotten more and more into the mikveh biz.  Coming to Mayyim Hayyim, I’ve become accustomed to a warm welcome, meaningful preparation, and a dignified experience.

But some of the things that make Mayyim Hayyim special are really not rocket science.  What feels so crazy is that despite this, I cannot guarantee you’ll have this kind of experience anywhere.

Once I visited another “community” mikveh.  The woman who greeted me meant well – really, she did.  She was sweet, worked hard, and wanted me to have a good experience.  But I couldn’t believe – blunder after blunder – I had probably my most uncomfortable mikveh experience ever.

While I’d like all mikvehs to follow the lead of the ten communities who have already purchased our training curriculum (it’s chock-full of the highest-quality learning), I’d like to share a bit of a public service announcement in the meantime.

At the risk of giving away the shop in the form of a brief blog post, I ask you… I beg you… please, pretty please, oh Mikveh attendants wherever you are, follow these basic lessons from our Guide My Steps training:

1.   The Responsibility of Preparation Belongs to the Person Immersing.

A perhaps little known, but wildly important fact.  The only halachic (Jewish legal) responsibility of the witness is to let the immersee know that her entire body, and all hair, has gone underwater.

The end.  

We learn this in the Shulchan Aruch (a 16th century codification of Jewish law), Chapter 198:40.  If a person would like help checking to make sure she’s removed all barriers between her body and the water, particularly on her back where it may be hard to see, then by all means, help.  But let her decide – she’s the one responsible for her preparation.

Which brings me to my second point:

2.   Ask Permission Before Touching.

Our volunteers ask, “Would you like me to check your back for any loose hairs?”  If something needs to be removed, please do so only with express permission.  Remember, the person in front of you is naked, likely nervous, and not necessarily comfortable with unexpected pulling, plucking, or brushing.  It doesn’t cost anything to ask first.

3.   Hold up the Darn Sheet

Or towel.  Or whatever will protect as much privacy and modesty as possible.  The only time you need to see what’s happening is when you hear a big breath of air and a body splash under the water.  (See responsibility of witness, #1, above.)  Even if you can’t otherwise see any nakedness, perception is important.  Best to err on the side of privacy here.

And last, but certainly not least:

4.   Hold your Soup

We train our volunteers to imagine they are holding a very full bowl of hot soup.  Their job is to hold that soup carefully, and not spill it all over the person in front of them.  Our “soup” is complex: stress from the outside world, baggage about another person’s observance that is different from our own, even excitement about an upcoming simcha (celebration).  But a visitor to the mikveh doesn’t care about any of that.  She is there for her experience, to mark his transition.  We need to keep our soup to ourselves.

Obvious?  I hope so.  But on the off-chance that this helps even one person change her practices, dayenu – it will have been enough.

Thankfully the world is about to become ten Mikveh Guides stronger.  We’ve almost completed training our seventh cohort of volunteers.   The process is intense: applications, interviews, shadowing experienced Mikveh Guides, 18 hours of training, readings, and journal entries.

It is – as you can see – a serious undertaking.

But the stakes are just too high not to do it the right way.  Because if these kinds of missteps make me feel uncomfortable, how is anyone else supposed to feel?

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Acting Executive Director.  Follow her on twitter @carolinering.


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