by Pamela Cole
My first visit to Mayyim Hayyim was a beautiful May evening in 2014. I was on a ‘field trip’ with my Pathways to Judaism class and we were being introduced to what would mark the final step of our conversion process. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of Mayyim Hayyim, though. In fact, the first time I heard about it was in a series of conversations with a counselor in December 2013 that led to my decision to convert to Judaism. He had mentioned in passing that a trip to a mikveh might be what I need to complete a phase of my life, adding that Mayyim Hayyim was nearby and a lovely place.
While I could hear the wisdom in his suggestion, I had a problem—I wasn’t Jewish. I left my first session with him very encouraged by the resources he suggested for my life transition. I spent the evening going to the websites he suggested, exploring Mussar, (a movement within Judaism that focuses on self-reflection and ethical conduct), Me’ah and a local synagogue…all Jewish resources. Gradually, my elation began to sink into despair. Once again, I was going to be a non-Jew in a Jewish world, prefacing every introduction with, “I’m not Jewish but…” I just didn’t think I could face that again, especially in light of how isolated I was already feeling as a single, childless woman in her mid-sixties. As I fell asleep that night, feeling empty and heartbroken at what might have been but could not be, I prayed.
The next morning, I woke with a startling thought, “I could convert to Judaism! I don’t have to be on the outside anymore.” Strangely, at sixty-five years old, in a life with lots of involvement with Jews, past and present, this was the first time it had ever occurred to me that I could convert. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was allowed so I immediately went online and began Googling. I thought back to a phenomenon I’d experienced so many times: When one retires at night weeping, joy will come in the morning (Psalm 30:5).
You see, I had spent much of my early life in a Jewish world. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Natick, with predominantly Jewish friends and classmates. I went to Northeastern University at a time when the student body had a significant Jewish population. I pledged a Jewish sorority and my best friend and roommates were Jewish. Interestingly, my brother who grew up in the same neighborhood, having the same friends and schoolmates, pledged a Jewish fraternity at the same university. It seems we were both acculturated Jewishly. But growing up, I never knew anyone who converted just because they wanted to be Jewish. I didn’t think that was possible.
Filled with hope by the realization that I could become a Jew, I started reaching out to one of the names I had been given, Rav Claudia Kreiman, at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline. She responded immediately, inviting me to the Kabbalat Shabbat service that night. That night my heart was full as I experienced the service for the first time. I felt like I had come home.
Rav Claudia suggested that I attend the Pathways to Judaism course, offered by the Jewish Discovery Institute so I could prepare for conversion. I thought I was just going to get an education from Rabbi Victor Reinstein, instead I entered a community of people sharing a similar journey. We finished that series of classes in the fall of 2014 and more than half of the group are now continuing the journey in a class called Feeling Jewish by Doing Jewish, at Mayyim Hayyim. I treasure the friends from this new community who continue to share their experience with me as we move forward into a life that is more fully Jewish.
From the first moment at Mayyim Hayyim last spring, I knew I was entering into sacred space. The beauty of the garden, the comfortable, welcoming interior that is decorated with the works of local artists, and the mikveh itself all were beyond what I had imagined. Intellectually, I knew what the process of going to the mikveh entailed, but I was not prepared for how immediately I would sense the sacred continuity of thousands of years of shared experience. The ritual space of Mayyim Hayyim invokes images of sacred grottos throughout time. The care with which the community supports someone on the threshold of transition is manifest in all aspects of the mikveh environment and process.
When I returned to Mayyim Hayyim for my conversion, it was in the dead of winter, and the day was threatened by yet another snowstorm. I was very anxious, both about the weather and result of the beit din – the rabbis who would ultimately decide whether or not my conversion would be finalized. I must confess that I was afraid I would be told at the last minute that I couldn’t be “welcomed into the tribe” as Reb Moshe Waldoks would say. From the first greeting I received, through all the supportive conversations with staff, I felt safe, cared for, valued, and welcomed. As for the ritual itself, I don’t have words to express the depth of my experience. The words may come in time, but for now all I can say is that I felt the new beginning with intensely sacred joy.
I will be back. There are so many other reasons for me to return.
Pamela Cole is a business consultant, trainer and coach who has worked globally for the past forty years, engaging people in conversations about performance, motivation, and workplace well-being. When not working with clients, Pamela can be found in her studio, creating with metal, polymer clay, metal clay and glass. She lives in Framingham with her four cats.