I love the mikveh. I love this mitzvah so much, in fact, that over the last thirteen years I have immersed in many mikvaot around the world. And despite having encountered many mikveh misdemeanors, I continue to return to the “living waters” time and time again. As I reflect on these “misdemeanors,” I don’t include immersing in an ice-cold mikveh because the attendant forgot to turn on the heater nor the times that the mikveh preparation room was dirty, un-swept from the person who used it before me.
Rather, I want to reflect on the times in which I came to the mikveh to immerse and the sanctity of my immersion experience was complicated by interactions with well-intentioned, but un-boundaried mikveh attendants. I share these anecdotes with the holy intention of expressing why we need to build and re-envision more mikvaot like Mayyim Hayyim where mikveh guides are selected and trained to execute the delicate balance of being deeply present and yet completely non-intrusive.
I want to share with you three personal experiences at different mikvaot to illustrate my point.
On one occasion, a number of year ago, just as I was about to hand over my towel and enter the water, the attendant told me that there were some Jews being held hostage halfway across the world. She requested that I pray for the hostages’ release during my immersion. While I felt truly horrified to hear of this news, I was also struck with a sense of internal conflict. I was not accustomed to praying for such “outcomes.” I wasn’t sure that God could intervene to safely extricate those individuals. What would it mean if I prayed to God with all my heart, and the hostages still didn’t’ make it out into safety? I didn’t feel I could say “no” to the mikveh lady’s heartfelt request, so I simply agreed and entered the mikveh with a troubled heart. The mitzvah I had intended to fulfill was suddenly subsumed by my worry for these hostages and my internal struggle over how to help them through my immersion.
On another occasion, after completing the requisite check of my body, the attendant spoke about her recent car accident, the birth of her last child, and her frustration with the ensuing healing process that had gotten in the way of her resuming an intimate life with her husband. As a rabbi, I immediately felt the instinct to take care of her. Again, I forgot about my own soul’s intent and I was consumed with thoughts of how to support this woman.
Most recently, after a devastating miscarriage, I returned to the mikveh. Utterly bereft, but determined to move on with my life in hope, love, and grace, I immersed and, once again, I began anew. When I emerged from the preparation room, eyes still red from tears, the attendant greeted me with a kind embrace. She said, “Take this psalm card with you. Maybe it will help you have a healthy child.” After multiple pregnancy losses, such magical thinking no longer has a place in my theology. Fortunately, I was strong enough to be unshaken (mostly) by the encounter, but couldn’t help thinking about another woman coming to immerse after a miscarriage, fighting back the instinctive guilt that she had done something wrong to cause the baby’s demise or the thought that if only she had been righteous enough, she would not have deserved such a fate. Once again, a boundary was crossed—even out of love.
Despite these mikveh misdemeanors, the mikveh’s power to help me move through the liminal moments in my life has only grown. So it is with abundant joy and gratitude that I announce the ground-breaking of Libi Eir Awakened Heart: The Wendy Brown Community Mikveh at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina this June. I hope and pray that though there may be inevitable missteps, our mission to facilitate immersions with dignity, respect, modesty, and appropriate boundaries will be honored to the fullest extent.
Rabbi Jenny Solomon, D. Min. is founder and director of Libi Eir Awakened Heart mikveh in Raleigh, North Carolina. Libi Eir has just selected the first cohort of mikveh guides and Jenny looks forward to training them through Mayyim Hayyim’s innovative model. Jenny also serves Beth Meyer Synagogue and the wider Triangle area through her pastoral and educational work with adult women and leadership in prayer.