by Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director
Originally posted on the Times of Israel Blog
It’s been one year since Rabbi Barry Freundel was discovered to be spying on women as they prepared to immerse in the mikveh in Washington, DC. Since that time news reporters, rabbis, and individuals all over the world have placed significant attention on mikva’ot: policies and procedures, leadership, and the experience of people immersing in them. With scandals like these, I’m always interested in the lasting effects, if any, beyond the initial outrage.
My goal here is not to provide a comprehensive roundup of what has or hasn’t happened since last October, but rather to revisit some of the passion around the issue, and explore what, if anything, might have changed since that time. I took the opportunity to re-read the post I first published on the Times of Israel blog, as well as the article about Mayyim Hayyim in the New York Times, to get some perspective.
The cynical side of me says that by-and-large, not a whole lot has actually changed. And of course, I remember that for those of us who want to see change in the world, no matter what the arena, the process feels slow, the steps incremental. And yet, each of them moves us in the right direction.
Perhaps the most inspiring outcome I’ve seen is in Washington, DC itself, at the newly-opened mikveh at the Ohev Sholom synagogue. A group of women got together to create a mosaic mural, taken from shards of glass they broke as part of the artistic process. They put the pieces back together again in a beautiful, Van Gogh-like arrangement, and hung it in the mikveh space itself. This collaboration allowed a healing process; instead of throwing out the brokenness, they reclaimed the shards as something they could own and reshape together.
A rabbi from another community contacted me saying that though she remains confident in how she protects privacy while accompanying converts to the mikveh, she has altered how she explains what will happen during the immersion, since the scandal. [Now the conversation is] “always before, always with clothes on, usually in my office days or weeks before the mikveh,” believing in the importance of talking openly about the element of authority and power.
At Mayyim Hayyim, one phrase in particular has stood out from our Seven Principles of Common Purpose, in the section on tz’niyut, modesty: “We recognize that at the time of immersion, an individual is extraordinarily vulnerable.” No matter what. Even if they visit the mikveh all the time. For every visitor, during every visit, we keep at the front of our minds that we just don’t know what is going on for that person beneath the surface. So we tread lightly. We take her or his lead. Our thoughtful and sensitive Mikveh Guides of all genders are trained to help visitors feel safe and comfortable.
So what’s needed moving forward? Reflecting back since a year ago, are we where we want to be? One person who is a survivor of sexual assault got in touch to say that we need much more open dialogue in the days ahead in order to help people in need of healing to get closure.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about what’s worked, what hasn’t, and where you think we need to go in the future.
When this news first broke people asked me whether I was concerned that people would stop coming to the mikveh because of what happened. I don’t know about anyplace else, but I can say that one year later, Mayyim Hayyim’s numbers have markedly increased and, in fact, they’ve never been higher. So to all of our guests, thank you for entrusting your vulnerability to us, and for helping us all grow together toward the future.
Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director.