The Mikveh Has Left the Building

In a few weeks, tens of thousands of Jewish kids in North America will pack their bags, say goodbye to their families, and enter the alternate universe of Summer Camp.

Campers absorb a great deal of their Jewish education in that universe, a place where many Jewish values take root.  I believe that summer camps are the ideal settings in which to pioneer a new generation of Jews who understand mikveh and ritual immersion as a simple, positive and important practice. You may have some questions… who is going to introduce this? How will it work? Where will it take place? Why is this important? Read on.

As a Jewish educator with a passion for mikveh, one of my goals is to make mikveh as common a word in our Jewish vocabulary as Shabbat. In our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, mikveh might have been thought of (if anyone thought of it at all!) as something secretive or archaic. But once familiar with it themselves, camp counselors and staff can lead the way in modeling this practice, like Shabbat, as an organic part of a full and authentic Jewish life, regardless of denomination, gender or age.

In addition to being a beautiful ritual, mikveh is an institution and a halachic construct. Mikvehs are tremendously significant to Jewish communities everywhere. Mikvehs have budgets, boards of directors, phone numbers, locks, and plumbing. There are also mikvehs found in nature: the ocean, some lakes, rivers and springs  where the water comes from a natural spring (as opposed to rainwater) When we immerse outdoors, in a natural body of water, (i.e., when the mikveh has left the building,) we have an opportunity to connect this ritual with nature in a profound way.  The Hebrew word for the act of immersion, whether in the building or nature, is Tevila.

Tevila is another tool for camp directors and staff to help their campers connect to Judaism. A Tevila ceremony at the lake or river of a Jewish summer camp can serve as a powerful moment in the emotional arc of a summer: as a crossing of the threshold from the outside world; or upon leaving camp for the last time; or as a bunk’s way of getting ready for Shabbat. It can involve some of the traditional elements of Mikveh, such as preparing physically by getting super CLEAN (a rarity at some camps!), articulating the transition to be marked, immersing with kavana, and including “Shehechiyanu,”  yet still be a bathing suit ON activity. Tevila at camp conveys the message that Judaism honors transitions with ritual, and that an embodied Judaism can sustain us through the transitions of adolescence and beyond.

Tevila is a way of affirming the integrity and holiness of our bodies. Media culture pummels all of us with the message that our bodies are not okay, that we are in need of constant improvement. Tevila helps wash away the media influence and helps us connect to nature and to Judaism, not to what’s in a magazine or on TV. We are invited to choose our own body image, and to reflect our inner holiness by refocusing ourselves as links in an ancient chain of Jewish tradition. Away from TV, internet and movies, immersed in Judaism and nature, camp is the ideal setting for this to occur.

This is important to me as a Jewish educator but why is this important to campers? Whether it’s about food or relationships, kids who develop a sense of their own kedusha/holiness make empowered, positive, and healthy decisions. Learning to do Tevila (or any other ritual) with kavana is a very effective way to experience clarity and mindfulness.  But the most powerful thing about immersion, I believe, is that unlike other Jewish rituals that require an object (Kiddush cup, Sefer Torah, Seder plate, etc) here the body itself is the ritual object. Water is the medium, but the human body is both performing the action and undergoing its effect. Reframing the body in this capacity imbues it with holiness and leads to a greater awareness of the body as a holy vessel. Ultimately, it leads to greater self-esteem, confidence, and a higher level of awareness and decision making about our own bodies.

I believe that Tevila and mikveh can be as familiar a Jewish experience as Shabbat dinner. Just as a preschooler can list the basic ingredients of Shabbat (candles, juice, challah, blessings), I believe that one day in the near future, mikveh will be as simply defined (water, blessing, transition), as easily accessible to all Jewish people, and as diversely practiced as Shabbat. Learning about it at camp develops an early attachment, widens the understanding of mikveh in the next generation, and begins a lifetime of immersing at transitional moments.

Naomi Malka is the director of the Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington, DC, and the founder of Tevila b’Teva, an organization that trains staff and counselors at Jewish summer camps and environmental programs to lead outdoor immersions with their campers. She is a member of Mayyim Hayyim’s 2008 National Cohort of Mikveh Guides. She earned a Masters in Jewish Music from JTS in 2000 and a BA in Sociology from UCLA in 1991.


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