Accessibility and Inclusion, Jewish Community, Youth

by Elisha Gechter

My daughter, a party planner practically since she emerged from the womb, recently chose to celebrate her 7th birthday at Mayyim Hayyim. She got her party planning start in the months preceding her second birthday wherein she identified the book series, Lady Bug Girl, as the theme, which included the cutest Pinterest ladybug crackers, and a head-to-toe lady bug outfit. Between birthday party #2, and this summer’s birthday party #7, she requested and planned a rainbow themed upsherin, a polka dot party in a park, a Moana picnic party in the Public Gardens (including a swan boat ride), and she had a swim party with lunch and games.

Sometimes our party brainstorming conversations start months before her summer time birthday. This year, as first grade was coming to an end, Zoe asked if she could go to Mayyim Hayyim to mark that transition. I love that my kid has this place to participate in this Jewish ritual so fully, and I love how connected she feels to Mayyim Hayyim’s space. Our family first went together to welcome the arrival of her brother. Next, she and I went as she prepared to enter kindergarten at JCDS.

Coming to Mayyim Hayyim at the end of this school year, Zoe brought her fascination with all things engineering. She had a million questions for me when we were in the mikveh – how do they get the water in here, where does that bor-cap lead to? How do they keep the water clean and how does the plaster lining in the pool not break? Between the back and forth of questions and my attempted answers, she also did manage to have some moments of reflection and expressed gratitude for a wonderful year of learning.

After our dunk she told me she wanted to have her next birthday at Mayyim Hayyim. I thought it was an amazing idea. I wasn’t sure if Mayyim Hayyim had ever hosted one before (they hadn’t) or how they would incorporate Zoe’s requests; she wanted to have an engineering focus, to be able to assist in explaining the place to her friends, and to dunk with friends. They were so into it. As usual, Mayyim Hayyim embraced the challenge and found a way. And to me that’s the core of Judaism – enabling people to find a way forward. The Mishnah recited in Orthodox liturgy on Friday evenings states, “al Tomer Halacha eleh halicha,” which translates as “do not call it laws, rather a path forward.” And on Mayyim Hayyim’s plaque at their gate, founder Anita Diamant says: “I want a mikvah where the answer is yes: a home for celebration and for respite, a place for beginnings, a place of peace.”

So we showed up with five girls, a handful of parents, two grandparents, one great-cousin, and a mikveh-themed cake. The amazing Mikveh Guide and volunteer Leah Hart Tennen brilliantly and sensitively gave an age appropriate introduction to Mayyim Hayyim that engaged the girls. Zoe showed her friends photos of Mayyim Hayyim as well as other mikvahs around the world, and told of times she’d come to this mikveh to mark different transitions in her life.

Then came the scavenger hunt. For 20 minutes kids and adults meandered inside and outside the buildings looking for answers to different questions about how the mikvah was built. They located the two borot (collection pools) outside the building that collect the rain water. Inside they found the two pools those correspondingly feed into. They also found rubber duckies strategically hidden around the changing rooms and mikveh room and got to ask any questions they had.

Next, Zoe invited her friends who wanted to change into bathing suits to be with her at the water’s edge while she immersed to mark her seventh trip around the sun. Each girl took her up on the invite to be with her while she immersed and most also decided to immerse on their own! For safety reasons I stayed in the pool in my bathing suit to lend a hand to each girl and it was a very moving experience for me. To watch these kids, some of whom I’ve known since they were born, or with whom I’ve spent a good deal of time carpooling, have such a beautiful and positive first brush with the mikveh was wondrous. And, of course, to be with my daughter and watch how comfortable she is with herself and with Judaism filled me up completely.

We ended the morning with a round cake made by my mom, iced with swirling blue water emblazoned with the birthday girl’s name and a #7 candle.

My son was invited to partake of the cake, but we didn’t invite him into the water. He left asking if he could come back for his birthday. He’s turning three this fall and I think it will be the perfect time to start nurturing his relationship with this place that each of us in our family continue to grow more and more attached to

Make a year-end donation to Mayyim Hayyim so more kids like Zoe can find joy and wonder at the mikveh.

Elisha Gechter is the Senior Program Manager for Wexner Israel Programs at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. She is passionate about Jewish learning, is a lover of bluegrass music, and lives in Somerville, MA with her husband Sam, daughter Zoe, and son Erez.