By Gail Elson, Mayyim Hayyim Cohort 1 Mikveh Guide
About nine years ago, I saw a notice announcing an information meeting for women interested in volunteering at a community mikveh then under construction in Newton. I had retired and was looking for a hands-on volunteer opportunity within the Jewish community (I don’t do fundraising and have no patience for committee meetings). With curiosity and a heavy dose of skepticism, I decided to attend the meeting, and to my surprise, so did more than 50 other interested women.
Anita Diamant and Rabbi Barbara Penzner outlined their vision for this new institution with great enthusiasm, so with Rabbi Penzner’s encouragement, I applied for a position as a Mikveh Guide. Soon after, the interviews took place with five applicants interviewed together. I was so impressed with the professional and personal backgrounds of the others in my interview group that I was sure I’d never make the cut. We were asked searching questions about our personal strengths and our motivation for assuming this role.
To my surprise, I was chosen to be a member of the initial cohort of 39 mikveh trainees. We were all women, though later groups included men as well. Since the mikveh was still under construction in the fall of 2003, our training sessions took place at the Women’s Resource Center at Brandeis. We also visited the Sharon mikveh, which was supervised by our superb teacher, Cookie Rosenbaum.
At last, May 14, 2004 arrived and we were open for business-with some trepidation, as we had no idea if anyone would show up. But they came to immerse in great numbers, and we put our new skills to use.
I have so valued participating in this holy place. I find, as I’ve said many times before, that being a Mikveh Guide elicits the best in me. Though in other settings I can be critical and sharp-tongued, I am my calmest, most sensitive self at Mayyim Hayyim. I do my best to ensure our clients’ privacy and to cater to their needs.
We have all had to be flexible as procedures have changed over time. We’ve had to be respectful of rabbis. And we’ve had to be mindful of the special needs of some visitors, such as those who have chemical sensitivities and require additional room preparations before they visit. And there was the tricky timing problem I encountered one evening when a woman’s niddah immersion was scheduled immediately after her husband’s first wife arrived as a second-time bride!
I especially love to witness bridal immersions. Some brides come to the mikveh alone, while others arrive with family and friends who fete them with flowers, songs and candles. Sometimes both brides of a same sex couple immerse.
I’m often at the mikveh in the evening when the building is quiet and when most of the niddah immersions happen. I pull down the window shades and wait for the one to five women who have appointments that evening. I’ve met many of them before and enjoy welcoming both familiar and new faces. I’m intrigued that many of those who immerse monthly are not Orthodox, but have still undertaken the rite of mikveh to enhance their marital life.
Like many other Mikveh Guides, I feel a pride of ownership in this place. After all, we are the ones who keep it functioning. I like to see that the stripes on the sofa pillows in the reception room are lined up neatly, that the preparation rooms are adequately supplied with Q-tips and cleansing pads, that there are sufficient numbers of wrapped candles for brides and honey sticks for converts, and that the woman who regularly requests a second towel finds one waiting for her in the prep room when she arrives…and on and on.
Mayyim Hayyim is a cherished part of my life. I’m probably the oldest Mikveh Guide and would like to continue in this role as long as my arthritic knees allow me to spread those pesky pool covers without falling into the pool. So far, no problem.
Gail Elson is a retired speech and language therapist. She also taught English as a Second Language. Her hobbies include walking, reading, and rowing. Gail has been a Mikveh Guide since she joined the First Cohort of guides eight years ago.