Many Visits Later, Finally My First Immersion

by Rachel Bernstein

rbernsteinI had been preparing for my first immersion for eight years. I didn’t know exactly when it would be, but I could guess why it would be. The first eight times I had visited Mayyim Hayyim, I went in my capacity as Academic Adviser for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute summer internship. I brought undergraduate and graduate students to Mayyim Hayyim each summer for an educational program. The focus of the internship is on gender and Judaism, so our annual field trip to Mayyim Hayyim always created a great conversation.

During my first visit to Mayyim Hayyim with the interns, I was completely bowled over by the concept of mikveh and seeing the space itself. As we did a mock walk-through of how an immersion might take place, I envisioned how I would approach the ritual, and wondered when I might visit Mayyim Hayyim for my own immersion. As we outlined the traditional reasons for using the mikveh, I decided that before my wedding I would immerse as a bride.

Every year afterward I would daydream during our visits about my eventual immersion. The space felt spiritual to me—so serene—and the power of performing a ritual that had been performed by Jews for millennia really struck me. Every year I would get goosebumps thinking about this sacred heritage and my place within it at Mayyim Hayyim.

hbiFast forward to this year when I made my final trip to Mayyim Hayyim with the interns, as I marked my eighth and final summer working as the Academic Adviser at HBI. This summer’s trip was extra special because I was engaged and planning my wedding for this September. When we visited Mayyim Hayyim at the end of July, I was within a couple of months of getting married and immersing for the first time. As we talked about the uses and meaning of the mikveh and walked through the steps of immersion, I once again envisioned going through these steps and connecting with the ritual knowing that my appointment was set and it was really going to happen.

As I prepared to visit Mayyim Hayyim again, this time as an actual participant, I started to get nervous. I had built up a lot of expectations from my daydreams during previous visits. Would it mean everything I wanted it to mean? Built in to my vision of the perfect immersion was the hope that my mother would be there. I had called my parents almost every year right after visiting Mayyim Hayyim with the interns to say, “You have to see this place! You will have to come with me when I go before I get married.”

Planning the wedding and my visit to Mayyim Hayyim were not the only big plans evolving this past summer. My partner Margaret was also in the process of conversion to Judaism. The week before our wedding date, Margaret and I joined her Beit Din at Mayyim Hayyim for Margaret’s conversion. It was almost surreal to be in that space with no interns, when the place was pretty quiet in its everyday operations. It was incredibly powerful to see my partner use the mikveh for conversion.

My mom flew to Boston the next day so that she could help us with final wedding preparations—including joining me at Mayyim Hayyim. I tried to explain to my mom what would happen at the mikveh, and Margaret told her about her experiences with her conversion, but I don’t think we could really prepare her for what it would be like.

That quiet afternoon we went over to Mayyim Hayyim and were immediately enveloped by the welcoming atmosphere, beautiful space, and soft natural light. Our lovely Mikveh Guide gave us a copy of the Mayyim Hayyim’s immersion ceremony for brides and we poured over the sheet discussing what it meant and the ritual process. My mom was struck by the language of the kavanah (intention) before immersion:

“The water changes us neither by washing away something nor by letting something soak into us, but simply by softening us so that we can choose to remold ourselves into a different image.”

The kavanah also calls forth our mothers Rebecca, Rachel, and Yocheved. Having my mother read that intention invoking our mothers grounded this ritual for me in the strong lineage of women I am so proud to be a part of.

by Shawnee Custalow, A Lovely Photo

by Shawnee Custalow, A Lovely Photo

It was a very special day to share with my mom and to finally complete this ritual for myself. It lived up to every expectation, as I was sure to let the waters soften my nerves and bring me into the moment. It marked my transition from someone unmarried to someone ready for that next step, ready for my wedding, and ready to be the new person I was already becoming in the next phase of my life.

Learn more about Mayyim Hayyim’s resources for couples, including “Beyond the Huppah,” a workshop series for engaged and recently married couples that provides tools to solidify a strong partnership and explore different ways of creating a Jewish home. Stay tuned for the upcoming release of “Beyond the Huppah” curriculum, made available to your community soon!

Rachel Bernstein is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology at Brandeis University. Her love for the academic study of Judaism and Jewishness began as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and continued at Brandeis for a master’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and now her doctoral work. She is currently working on her dissertation that investigates the cultural and ethnic connections of Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s.


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