Aliza Kline, Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director, shares her thoughts on our recent Gathering the Waters International Mikveh Conference.

Last week 275 people from all over the place – 22 states and Israel – descended on Boston for an intensive, engaging and challenging three-day Gathering The Waters International Mikveh Conference.

It’s taken me a week to recover. I am still on a high from the intensity of the discussions, the diversity of opinions, experiences, observance styles and the sheer joy of being with “my people” for three days straight. It’s not every day that I am surrounded by hundreds of people who share my fascination with mikveh and Jewish ritual.

Several personal stories are still repeating in my head – but there is one that stands out.   After the formal closing of the conference, 30 people from Louisiana, Oregon, Georgia, Arizona, California, North Carolina, Florida, Maine, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Israel from Conservative, Reform, Renewal, and Orthodox congregations (see what I mean by diverse) participated in a five-hour consultation on how to build or enhance a community mikveh and education center. Several Mayyim Hayyim founders and staff made recommendations for engaging stakeholders, setting clear organizational principles and designing a welcoming space and a kosher mikveh.  The final session of the day was about storytelling – led by author and Mayyim Hayyim founder, Anita Diamant.  How do you tell an effective story that will engage your community, donors, colleagues? After discussing the importance of knowing your audience, making the story personal, creating an arc, and other guidelines, participants worked on their stories.

Uri Topolosky, an Orthodox rabbi from New Orleans told the final story.  Uri is currently involved in building a new community mikveh; Katrina destroyed the last one.  He stood and said he knew immediately the story to tell, and that all he had to write down was one word, “Susan” (pseudonym).

Susan was a 57 year-old woman who was caring for an aging parent. Susan was well known in the community, an active lay leader—widely respected. They met this past summer for the first time.  While discussing the challenges in caring for an older parent, Susan complained of sudden pressure in her head and fell faint.  Uri rushed her to the hospital where she fell unconscious—she died that evening of a brain aneurism. The doctors were relieved to have a rabbi there, and asked him to call her family. Uri had never met any of Susan’s family, but dialed the last number called on Susan’s cell phone and spoke with her husband.

You can imagine that all of us listening were stunned, silent. Uri explained that the next morning he left for a month in Israel. He missed the funeral, the shiva—the opportunity to mourn with Susan’s family.  The memory of this day had been recurring in nightmares and during Shabbat services.

Uri then mentioned that during a conference session a panelist mentioned that she immerses after a hospice client dies as a way to acknowledge the loss.  Uri was struck by the opportunity, while in Boston, to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim.  He left the conference for an hour to immerse, calling his wife on the way to the mikveh. He needed a ritual to let him make peace and begin to heal from Susan’s death.  He wasn’t sure how the immersion would impact him past the immediate, intensity of the immersion, but he does know that the vision for their new mikveh in New Orleans needs to change—to expand. It cannot be simply to replace what existed before the hurricane. It needs a broader, welcoming and inviting vision.

He finished his story at 5:45 pm, we paused, we applauded.  We thanked him. We cried. We went home inspired, challenged, exhausted and hopeful.

This was only one story – from one participant out of 275. Just imagine how many transformative stories are out there. Imagine the impact of telling our stories—dramatically changing the way we talk about mikveh.

Tell us your story. Comment here or contact us to write a guest post.