by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Several weeks ago I visited a mosque in Roxbury. On April 2nd seventeen mosques across eastern Massachusetts opened their doors to anyone who wanted to learn about Islam and meet its local adherents. I went to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center because a) I was invited, b) I wanted to learn more about Islam, and c) I wanted to get to know my neighbors.
By the end of the afternoon, I had definitely learned a lot about Islam, and met several of the imams and lay people at the mosque. What really took me by surprise was the fact that this “open house” really reminded me of an education program at Mayyim Hayyim.
While Open Mosque Day may have been prompted by our current political climate, it didn’t set out to “prove” anything. It was a joyful community event, extremely well-organized, and engaging of all the senses. It had the energy of a celebration and the familiar feeling of a place where people are just “hanging out.”
The volunteers and leaders at the Islamic Society welcomed us with open arms. We were given the opportunity to explore and learn about the entire building. One of the imams pointed upstairs to a school and to the left, a carpeted prayer space. In the community café, delicious tea and treats were served. Women learned how to cover their hair the traditional way, and children had their names written out in Arabic.
This profoundly open atmosphere, the opportunity to ask questions again and again, the chance to explore a holy space (the prayer area), and even to observe and learn about Muslim prayer—all of this left me feeling much more connected to this community, rather than, as I initially expected, a voyeur or intruder of any kind.
I couldn’t help but think about my own experience welcoming visitors and Education Program participants to Mayyim Hayyim. Jews and non-Jews alike enter our building, nervous that they will be trespassing within a sacred and intimate space, while others show up believing that this ritual is foreign and unrelatable.
“Will we be seeing someone immerse?” some ask with alarm.
“Should I have brought my bathing suit?” others ask, worried they will be coerced into something they didn’t sign up for.
Mikveh is still not a very well-known ritual outside of the Orthodox Jewish community. For this reason and many others, it is shrouded in mystery, and, like many things that we know too little about, our lack of information leads to misconceptions. Mikveh remains something that, within the Jewish world, we treat as taboo, secret, and often times, oppressive. And yet, at Mayyim Hayyim, we know this is simply not the case.
During the afternoon prayer at the mosque, a Muslim teacher named Barbara explained, step by step, what was happening. Her tone was both inviting and direct, and her descriptions were accessible – she translated all terms. It reminded me of the way I try to teach about mikveh. We learn the biblical underpinnings of this ritual and then, as I walk visitors through the steps of immersion, the process is demystified. People can now imagine themselves in the water; they understand why people do this. The misconceptions evaporate. The opportunity to inhabit the space fully, breaks something down inside of us; I’ve seen many learners moved to tears as they come to understand something that once felt so inaccessible to them.
As kids, we had a million questions. I would guess that at first this was exciting for the adults around us. Eventually, many of us were told (sometimes in plain terms and other times through people’s reactions) that questions are intrusive and even worse, they expose our stupidity and ignorance. Is it any wonder we end up with so much misinformation about people inside and outside of our own community?
What I loved about the opportunity to observe the afternoon prayers at the mosque and what I love about the teaching I do about the mikveh, is that both spaces are decidedly sacred and intimate. The mikveh is not a place where we are supposed to ask questions, welcome visitors, explore, or “learn” anything. And perhaps precisely for that reason, the opportunity to learn there can be transformative. Although on Open Mosque Day, I didn’t participate in Muslim prayer, I could imagine myself right there, and I felt welcome to be there, and welcome to understand it.
Neither the mosque nor Mayyim Hayyim open its doors to prove anyone wrong or defend ourselves from ignorance. In the words of one of the imams that afternoon: “In Islam, we believe that God created us all different (unique) so that we could know each other.” To paraphrase Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot (intentions) for Mikveh Preparation: “B’tzelem Elohim. We are made in the image of God.” What better reasons for learning about each other could there be?
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.