by Lisa Berman, Mikveh & Education Director
Picture a small, sunlit-filled atrium filled with 22 wiggly eleven-year-old boys and girls. They’ve just been darting in and out of mikveh preparation rooms, opening closets, peeking in cabinets and behind shower curtains, flinging themselves on the tiled floor to dip their fingers in the warm mikveh water. They noticed the watery names of our rooms, read the corresponding Hebrew, found the baby bath tub, and the grab bars and shower seat in the wheelchair accessible room. They take stock, bewildered, of the myriad toiletry items for guests’ use to get ready to immerse.
As the educator, I round them up and we squeeze into a circle in the atrium. “What did you see?” They recount their explorations and, as always, a student asks, “What’s all that stuff for in the rooms? Why do you have to get clean before you go in the pool?” Kids call out that it’s to keep the water clean (nice, but not the real reason). As I tease out the concept that a full body mikveh immersion requires that you remove everything that would come between your body and the water, one young man raises his hand. “You get really clean before, because nothing should come between you and the experience.”
What does come between “you and the experience”?
For a first time mikveh-goer, the barriers are often around anxiety, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown. “What do I do? What do I say? Who’s going to see me? What happens if I do it wrong?”
For regular users, the barriers are more subtle but no less likely to trip up the experience. “I don’t want to engage with the way my naked body looks right now.” “I’m conflicted about what this ritual means to me and my sex life.” “I don’t know this Mikveh Guide and I’m worried I’ll feel uncomfortable with him/her.”
And for all, “What if my expectations are not met? What if I don’t get what I was seeking from this experience?”
The responsibility for removing these barriers lies with several players: the mikveh and its staff/volunteers, the guest/immersee, and the clergy who accompany soon-to-be-Jews to the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim has created a website where any prospective guest can go to read a step-by-step description of what happens at the mikveh, watch videos of individuals who have immersed (with modesty), review the blessings or listen to an audio version of them, read some of our ceremonies for immersion, and much more. No one should have to go to a mikveh without knowing what to expect.
We work every day with our cadre of 82 active Mikveh Guides to ensure that they are providing our guests the support they choose, even if the guests are not able to articulate exactly what they need in the moment. “It’s not about us,” our Guides internalize. Our training focuses repeatedly on the idea that a Guide’s primary responsibility is to mirror what a guest is (usually silently) communicating about their needs.
In June, Mayyim Hayyim will launch a short film that will tell the story of one person on the day of his conversion, to demonstrate what should be the best possible welcome on behalf of the Jewish community to people who are choosing Judaism. And we’ll also launch a Picture Guide version of our Seven Kavanot for Preparation for our guests who find the written word a barrier.
We’d like to hear from you: what comes between you and the experience, and how have you and the institutions you encounter sought to break down those barriers?
Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim, ensuring that all immersions are facilitated with dignity, respect and modesty, and supervising the Paula Brody & Family Education Center.