By Grace Sokolow
When I was twelve years old, I played soccer year-round, listened obsessively to Bruno Mars, and thought that a three-page paper was a long assignment. The last thing I wanted to do on a Sunday afternoon was something Jewish. Weren’t Hebrew school and Bat Mitzvah tutoring enough?
But my Rabbi recommended a program called Beneath the Surface at Mayyim Hayyim, our local community mikveh. At the time, the word “mikveh” was foreign to me, but it seemed important to my mom. She said, “It’s only 3 sessions.” So I said, “Okay!”
When we arrived for the first session, we were warmly greeted by the program facilitators, Bev Klau and Leeza Negelev. They invited me to get some snacks and find a comfy spot on the floor or the stairs. I was happy to plop down anywhere, but they offered me pillows and a spot to rest my back. Already I began to feel the comfort and warmth of the space.
When I went to see what they had for snacks, a bountiful Trader Joes spread greeted me: hummus, guacamole, chocolate covered almonds, fancy popcorn: I was in heaven! It made me feel like they wanted me to feel nourished, not just “not hungry.” From then on, Mayyim Hayyim became a space where I felt taken care of and also a place where I could care for myself.
For three Sunday afternoons that fall, my dad and brother stayed at home watching football while my mom and I drove to Newton. It became sacred time we cherished together. We spent a lot of the actual programming time apart, but would always have so much to talk about on our way home: the art project I did, the discussion she had, the Jewish texts we looked at together, what ritual we would share with the group the following week.
Especially at twelve years old, it felt rare to be given time to step back and reflect on my world. Each session allowed us the time, space, and attention to talk about ourselves. The sharing began at the surface: what did I create that day? What did I think about this or that activity?
As time went on, the sharing grew deeper: what are my family’s secular and Jewish rituals? What is the story behind my name? What are my hopes for the future? I didn’t need to know these answers or say the right thing to be included in the conversation. I was simply given the space to talk, and to be heard.
The warmth, validation, and serenity that I found at Mayyim Hayyim is what drew me to return as a teen assistant, two years later. I loved helping create the same experience for new groups of teens. And with each iteration of the program, we as facilitators were able to better adapt to their needs. We switched up the art projects. We used more inclusive language around faith and gender. We started printing out schedules of each session to help with comfort and accessibility. I’m excited that today, Beneath the Surface is a program where teens and parents of all genders are welcome to participate.
Part of what kept me coming back to Mayyim Hayyim was the community of facilitators who mentored me and helped me find my place. Leeza, Bev, and Rabbi Amalia Mark all made me feel like I belonged with them as a facilitator, young as I was.
At Mayyim Hayyim, I was invited to be my full self. I was encouraged to share about my life, form a deeper bond with my mom, and mark a special moment in my Jewish journey.
I thought that I was busy at age twelve, but I had no idea what age twenty had in store for me. My current life at Middlebury College is very full – at times perhaps too much so – and so now, more than ever, I crave opportunities for reflection and connection. Mayyim Hayyim and Beneath the Surface taught me where to find those opportunities—and even how to create them for myself. I’m so thankful to Mayyim Hayyim for planting that seed in me before my Bat Mitzvah and nourishing it during my time as a teen assistant.
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Grace Sokolow is a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont. She’s studying geography and computer science, but more often finds herself out on the frisbee field, on stage at storytelling events, and enjoying long dinners with friends. She grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts as a member of Temple Sinai. Before her Bat Mitzvah, Rabbi Andy Vogel suggested that she and her mom attend Beneath the Surface’s then pre-bat mitzvah program. Grace was reluctant at first, but immediately felt cared for in Mayyim Hayyim’s warm atmosphere and came back to support the program as a teen assistant for several years.