by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director
“Supervising and supporting Volunteer Mikveh Guides.” This is what is says in my job description. Sounds pretty straightforward. And, we have 85 active Mikveh Guides: 85 unique individuals who were trained 4 months to 14 years ago (with ongoing continuing education and weekly suggestions and tips to reinforce their guiding expertise). As part of Mayyim Hayyim’s efforts toward continuous improvement, I get a report card each month that lets me know the satisfaction of our immersion guests with their experiences here. Share in my pride as you read a small sample of the feedback about our remarkable volunteer Guides:
- My Mikveh Guides are always incredibly sweet, patient, kind, and thoughtful. My favorite thing about them is that they are patient. That makes such a huge difference for me in my experience.
- I love that I can say my own tefilot (prayers) and make the experience what I want it to be without worrying that the Guide will judge or disapprove.
- The Mikveh Guide was absolutely wonderful – she ensured I felt comfortable and prepared, answered my questions, and also welcomed the 15+ friends & family members who came with me, which I know made their experience special, too.
- She was absolutely wonderful! She shared in the beauty of the experience with me, which made it all the more special. She was sensitive, thoughtful, and really honored this experience for me.
- The Guide was incredibly respectful, supportive, and comforting. The first words they greeted me with on the phone were, “How can I be helpful?” That was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.
- I consider myself an Orthodox, observant person and have been doing this ritual, sometimes begrudgingly, for 20 years. Aside from the beautiful mikveh, the shomeret (Mikveh Guide) makes the experience a quiet, positive, and private ritual instead of an intrusive one.
- I was nervous, and the Guide gave me all the information I needed to feel comfortable. At the end, the Guide let me know I could stay in the mikveh for a few minutes alone. I was so glad. I will never forget how amazing I felt.
A great deal of effort goes into selecting, training, and supporting our Guides. Our training curriculum, “Guide My Steps,” beautifully written and compiled by Rabbi Ilana Garber, serves as the backbone of the learning, and includes 18 hours of classroom instruction led by nearly 20 area educators, clergy, social workers/therapists, LGBTQ sensitivity trainers, and active Guides.
It is not enough to learn how to be a friendly tour guide and let someone know if they went all the way under the water. Our Guides learn the history of mikveh and Mayyim Hayyim, foundational texts, and the halacha (Jewish law) underpinning required immersions for monthly use and conversions – and about welcoming a couple who both choose to immerse monthly. They hear from rabbis of different denominations about the variety of customs around immersion for conversion – and how to set a family at ease who will be submerging their baby. They watch demonstrations of witnessing to understand what is conveyed by a sheet held up for privacy far above a Guide’s eyes, below a Guide’s eyes, and at “just the right level.” They discuss the purpose of preparation for immersion, and how it might feel to someone who has body issues. They experience role-play activities about mother-daughter relationships around bridal immersions. And finally, they shadow experienced Guides several times, imagining themselves in that role in the days to come.
Over the years we have come to appreciate the value of these seven evenings of training that each new Cohort spends together (accompanied by lots of reading at home) – learning, debating, and discussing the role of the Mikveh Guide. Much of what we are conveying is the culture of Mayyim Hayyim, and how we expect it to be played out when Guides interact with guests. The reality is that once they have gone through the training, Guides operate mostly solo. Yes, staff are always available if there’s a question or problem, but the on-the-job experience is one that a Guide learns mostly by doing, one-on-one with guests. Imbuing Guides with how we want them to make decisions, answer questions, be welcoming – how we want them to represent Mayyim Hayyim’s culture of “yes” – is transmitted in that initial, critical training program through questions, answers, and nuanced conversations.
It’s been 14 years since I sat with the training manual in my lap as a novice Guide. I never imagined I would one day be reading monthly accolades about our Guides – my Guides – from our guests. They have touched so many people in their work here. I couldn’t be prouder.
Lisa Berman is the Mikveh and Education Director at Mayyim Hayyim.