My first mikveh experience took place in early Elul. Shabbat was approaching at my first week-long Jewish Renewal retreat at Elat Chayyim, and I decided to join the group which was going to do “spiritual mikveh” in the swimming pool. Rabbi Phyllis Berman explained, beforehand, the ways in which our mikveh would be atypical: we were using a swimming pool (not a source of “living waters,” though it is occasionally augmented by rain), we would go in together rather than one at a time, some women would choose to wear swimsuits while others chose to remove all impediments between themselves and the water. I had never considered immersing in a mikveh, but my week had already opened me to so many new spiritual experiences — heartfelt weekday prayer; women laying tefillin; chant and meditation — that I was open to trying one more.
When I got to the pool I felt nervous, uncertain, though I noticed that the old-timers — those who had done this many times before — were beaming and full of joy. We sang a niggun, entered into pairs and spent a while telling our partners what we wanted to wash away, recited the bracha en masse and all entered the pool together. Then we took turns watching each other immerse. I immersed four times, one for each of the four worlds. Then we formed a circle, danced in the water, said a shehecheyanu for those who were immersing for the first time. When we exited the pool we were still singing. I felt sparkly, cleansed, blessed.
Since then I have been blessed to enter into many mikva’ot. Some have been swimming pools and hot tubs, sanctified by our song and our intentions; some have been traditional sources of living water, ponds and lakes and streams. Sometimes I have immersed before Shabbat, as is done by men in some Hasidic communities, to purify myself before I encounter (or, some say, embody) the Shabbat bride. Sometimes I have immersed before Yom Kippur, an embodied experience of teshuvah.
Last summer, on retreat with my rabbinic school chevre, I led a group through the woods to a stream near the Pearlstone retreat center, where we left our clothes on the bank and stepped over a fallen tree to immerse in a pool with the minnows before Shabbat. The water was sweet and cool and we didn’t want to get out! But we knew the men would be along presently, so we reluctantly left the water and dressed and sang our way back through the woods to don our white garb in preparation for the holy end to our workweek.
Before I was ordained as a rabbi, I planned a solitary mikveh immersion at Mayyim Hayyim — though a winter storm thwarted my intentions of driving east, and instead I wound up immersing the following day at a friend’s house where there was an indoor pool. Through the glass windows of the room which houses the pool, I could see fir trees and snow falling as I closed my eyes and let myself slip under and then emerge again.
No two mikveh experiences have been exactly the same. And to date none of them has taken place “at a mikveh.” But all of them have been transformative. All of them have felt meaningful, valuable, powerful. Always I emerge feeling a little bit different from when I went in: restored to a state of awakeness, of awareness, of connection with the Holy Blessed One and with the waters of heaven’s primordial womb.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained in January of 2011 by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is author of four poetry chapbooks as well as 70 faces, a collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011). Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and son.