An Atheist in the Mikveh

By Janet R.

Being an atheist has worked well for me.  I’ve explored religions, never found much meaning in them, and have happily existed as a culturally Jewish non-believer. I’ve never quite understood what ‘spiritual’ means, except maybe it’s what I felt at the end of a couple of yoga classes, or while listening to some classical music.  At times I’ve envied those who believe, those who can turn to a religion for meaning and comfort.

My mother’s death in September was one of those times. If only I could sit Shiva (seven-day period of mourning), or go to a service, or consult with a rabbi, or a minister for that matter.  Instead, I found myself grappling to find ways to acknowledge my grief, to understand it, and to move through it.   I thought maybe some structure would help, maybe a time limit.  I’d give myself two months to flounder and feel and to not know what to do: after two months I wanted my life to go back to some sense of normalcy.

As it happened, a friend had given me a gift certificate for an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim several years before, on the occasion of my divorce.  Of course I thanked her, while thinking to myself, ‘she really doesn’t know me that well,’ and promptly tossed it out. When my mother died, the same friend inquired whether I still had the gift certificate—maybe this would be a good time to use it?   After confessing to ‘misplacing’ it, I accepted another one. And then I thought, ‘what the heck, I’ll try anything.  I’m lost and confused and it can’t make it worse, right?’

No one could be more surprised than me to report the following:  I decided to immerse two months (and a day) after my mother’s death and one day before my birthday.  At first I obsessed a bit; did I really belong at that place?  Wasn’t it a bit disingenuous?  I thought about writing a ritual for the occasion but stumbled (what did I know about rituals, after all?), lost interest, and decided I’d just go and do it—whatever it was. At least I could tell my friend she’d been helpful.

It was a cold and crisp November day, with sunlight pouring in all around.  My guide was thoughtful, accommodating, and made me feel like a non-believing atheist cynic was her typical and most welcome client.  My new husband and I looked through the ritual material and picked a line from this one, an intention from another.  We skipped over the blessings and the Hebrew.

I decided I wanted my husband rather than the guide with me as I immersed.  I asked her how much time we had in the mikveh; when was the next person coming? She answered, “You have as much time as you need. We women are always worried about everyone else;-this is your time, take whatever time you want.”  As it happens, I’m a psychotherapist by profession, trained to understand people’s behavior.   How did this nurse practitioner/mikveh guide figure me out that quickly?

My husband read to me as I descended the stairs and immersed.  In ways I find hard to describe, something very powerful happened. Something resonated within me that I haven’t found in organized religious practices.  We were able to create a ritual in which I could honor my grief and come out the other side.  I told a few friends about my experience and they were pleased that I’d figured out a way to create a ritual that was meaningful to me. I told my sister—who actually knows about Judaism.  She quickly quipped “but that’s not what a mikveh is for!!”

But maybe it is.  Maybe it is also a place for those of us who wish at times that we could, but just can’t believe.  Maybe it can be a place where atheists like me can create a ritual, separate from religion, to move through the difficult passages and transformations of our complex lives.


  • Mayyim Hayyim currently has limited availability for immersions while we undergo construction to repair damage incurred to the building following the extreme cold on February 4. 

    To support our repairs and bolster your local community mikveh, donate to our campaign to Make Waves for the Future and join us to celebrate outgoing CEO Carrie Bornstein. Learn more and donate here.