by Rabbi Ilana C. Garber

Ilana GarberI love everything about the mikveh – the warm waters, the transitions and transformations, the healing and hope. I had immersed in the mikveh long before I was married: marking yahrzeit for my father z”l, becoming a rabbi, and moving to a new town and new job. Then I immersed before my wedding eight years ago, and have been to the mikveh monthly ever since, except during my two pregnancies and subsequent months of breastfeeding.

First Immersion
Present and peaceful.
Healthy and whole.
I immerse – here in this moment. Here in this mikveh.
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al hativila.
Praised are You, Adonai, God of all creation, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and commands us concerning immersion.

I immersed in the mikveh to mark my 38th birthday this past May, but it was a bittersweet moment, as I was also beginning chemo for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. One more immersion a few weeks later marked my final menses (though I did not know that at the time) and the eve of the procedure to place the port, through which the rest of my chemo doses would be delivered. And then I hastily arranged an immersion on a Friday afternoon in late August, as I ended my final day of chemo, with my mother and husband witnessing, and my two adorable boys shouting, “yay, Ima!” every time I immersed. A mikveh visit I will never forget!

Second Immersion
Thank you, God, for helping me get through chemo, reach remission, and enter the world of #AfterCancer. You are “rofeh cholim” – the healer of those who are ill.
El na r’fa na la. And Moses cried, heal Miriam, heal Miriam, this I pray!

We anticipated that the potent chemo drugs would suspend my menstrual cycle, but it turns out that once I was declared to be “in remission” (or #AfterCancer, as I prefer to call it), I also tested post-menopausal! This came as a surprise, and as I continued to process it, a disappointment. While we are not planning to have more babies (a child with special needs, two failed rounds of IVF, and my cancer diagnosis were enough for us!), our marriage benefited from the rhythm of a monthly visit to the local mikveh. I was shattered, depleted, and so angry at cancer for taking away something that I love so much.

Third Immersion
The unexpected outcome, a silver lining perhaps, a side effect.
Ending my reproductive years… big deal….we were done.
Entering menopause….scary….things I didn’t know I needed to know.
Saying goodbye to my monthly mikveh visits…wondering how this will change our marriage. Sad that we’ve been married less than 8 years so far, and between 2 pregnancies and nursing, I haven’t used the mikveh so much! Feeling cheated of this holy experience. Praying that I will find other ways to enhance the holiness of our union, because my husband is my rock, my love, my true best friend.
Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li lishua.
My strength and the song of the Eternal will be my freedom.

I was not about to let go of my mikveh visits so fast. Grateful to my friends at Mayyim Hayyim, I came to Boston to immerse. I hoped to find comfort in the mikveh, as I was feeling so much fear and anxiety ever since the end of treatment (a common experience for cancer survivors). As much as I wanted to put cancer in my past, I was having trouble letting go.

Fourth Immersion
I am scared on a daily basis. This immersion is to remind me to take a deep breath when I’m worried. I’ve been through so much – I almost don’t know how to just be! So now, we keep walking in the land of the living. Carry on!

I love knowing that Adonai listens to my cry of supplication.
Because God does hear me, I will call on God in days of need.
The cords of death encompassed me; the grave held me in its grip.
I found myself in distress and despair.
I called on Adonai; I prayed that God would save me.
Gracious is Adonai, and kind. Our God is compassionate.
Adonai protects the simple; I was brought low and God saved me.
Be at ease once again, my soul, for Adonai has dealt kindly with you.
God has delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before Adonai in the land of the living.
I kept my faith even when greatly afflicted… (Psalm 116)

Two dear friends witnessed my immersion along with a Mayyim Hayyim mikveh guide and someone who is training to be a mikveh guide herself. I was thrilled to have a nice group of women, and I encouraged everyone to sing and be present with me. Just as my community shepherded me through my illness, I had created a small community to accompany me in this process of recognizing my healing potential. Since a part of my cancer journey was personally tied to that of my father, of blessed memory, I also needed to mark our separate stories.

Fifth Immersion
Noting that this week will be Abba’s z”l 13th yahrzeit, I immerse to remember, to feel, and to be a bit freer from the grips of memory and history. I am my own person, my story is mine. I carry him with me, but I get to write my own continuation.
Esa einai el heharim, may’ayin yavo ezri. Ezri may’im Adonai oseh shamayim va’aretz.
I will lift up my eyes toward the mountains. From where will my help come?  My help comes from God, who makes heaven and earth.

I crafted a ceremony with seven immersions, because seven is a significant number in the Jewish tradition and in particular, in connection with the mikveh. Each immersion had its own kavanah, intention, that I read out loud, paused to contemplate, and then sang or read about after immersing. Some included prayers or songs that have been meaningful to me for years. Two had liturgy that had just jumped out at me over the summer and had become incredibly meaningful. The words in the sixth immersion come from our daily liturgy, the “Modim Anachnu Lach” paragraph in the Amidah. We refer to God as good and merciful, whose compassion and kindness never cease. The last words, may-olam kivinu lach, we will always hope in you, gave me courage that I, too, should always hope, in God, and in myself.

Sixth Immersion
So grateful to my husband, my mother, my sisters, my boys, my colleagues, our shul, the community, my doctors and nurses, the virtual community….everyone! They didn’t stop believing in me and my ability to kick this….and they helped me to believe in me. God is good, because God did not withhold mercy or have a limit to kindness. Forever we hope in God. Forever I hope and trust in God.
Hatov ki lo chalu rachamecha, v’hamrachem ki lo tamu chasadecha.
May-olam kivinu lach.
Good One, Your mercy is infinite. Compassionate one, Your kindness never ends. Our hope is always with You.

It was powerful, sad, joyful, and beautiful all at the same time. My tears flowed into the mikveh, adding to the holy waters. My witnesses sang with me, said “amen” to my prayers, and supported me as I marked this huge transition in my life. Grateful, warm, happy, sad, calm, peaceful, and ready, I immersed one last time, recited Shehecheyanu, acknowledging God for having enabled me to reach this time in my life, and then I sang a tune about angels as I walked up the steps of the mikveh.

Seventh Immersion
Final Immersion….until I immerse to celebrate my boys as they become bar mitzvah, God willing!
Present and peaceful.
Healthy and whole.
I immerse – here in this moment. Here in this mikveh.
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam shehecheyanu v’kimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh.
Holy One of Blessing Your Presence fills creation. You have kept us alive, You have sustained us, You have brought us to this moment.

Ilana Garber is a Conservative rabbi who has served Beth El Temple in West Hartford, CT since 2005. She lives with her husband and her two young boys (one of whom has Fragile X Syndrome). A feminist, an educator, and most recently, a survivor of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, she blogs about special needs, parenting, Judaism, and healing at She also developed the “Guide My Steps”curriculum for Mayyim Hayyim’s Mikveh Guide Training.