by Aviva Herr-Welber, Mayyim Hayyim Rabbinic Intern
This past Wednesday, we were blessed to welcome two groups of Israelis from Haifa on a visit to Mayyim Hayyim: a group of adult Haifa civil society leaders and a group of tenth-grade students. The visits had been planned long ago as part of the larger itinerary for these groups’ explorations of our Boston Jewish community. No one could have anticipated that we would find ourselves welcoming them in a moment of intense violence, suffering, and grief. It is impossible to know what to say or do in a moment like this. No words are sufficient. But in the mikveh, our ancient tradition offers us a precious gift: a ritual container for reconnection to ourselves amidst trauma, a compassionate embrace that can hold our tears and deepest prayers when the pain feels too much to bear.
While it isn’t normally our practice to offer immersions as a part of group education programs, given the difficulty of this moment we were able to pivot from our plan and offer the opportunity for some program participants to immerse as a part of their visit. Four high school students chose to immerse after the group took a tour and learned together about mikveh—knowledge that was brand new for them, since sadly in Israel the majority of mikva’ot are state-run and not accessible for a broad range of community uses.
As the teens prepared to immerse for their first time ever in order to pray for peace and seek some grounding, they began to sift through the many and varied immersion ceremonies that Mayyim Hayyim offers to our guests. After a few minutes one of them turned to me and asked, “Do you have a blessing for this moment?” I stood there suddenly silent, feeling this question touch the core of my own grief. How do we bless this moment? How do we wrestle our way into holiness amidst this kind of deep fear and uncertainty? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that for generations, Jews have been pouring out our heartbreak and longing in the waters of the mikveh even when the right words won’t come. I guided the teens to some simple blessings and prayers in our ceremony cards, but I told them that more important than anything written there were the prayers of their own hearts.
So often we talk about immersions in the mikveh as the beginning or ending of something: the beginning of a Jewish life, the end of cancer treatment, the beginning of a fertility journey. But the truth is that even when we feel we’re marking a beginning or ending, we’re always in the messy middle of our lives, integrating what’s come before and facing the unknown of what comes next. I was keenly aware of this reality as the teens each emerged from the mikveh and I overheard them sharing with their friends about the feeling of spiritual renewal they experienced. I was so grateful that the immersion had brought them comfort and a space to hold their grief, and yet it was hard to know that after this moment heartbreak would continue. Sacred moments most often find us in the midst of the storm, uncertain and broken. It’s when we need them the most.
May all who are suffering and mourning now find comfort and an end to violence. May water be plentiful and healing for all who need it in this time. And may all find gentle and loving places that allow us to express our grief, especially when we don’t have all the right words.
Aviva Herr-Welber is thrilled to be Mayyim Hayyim’s Rabbinic intern this year, working with our education team to lead and create educational content about mikveh for our Boston Jewish community and beyond. She is a Rabbinical student at Hebrew College, and most recently worked as a community organizer with the Essex County Community Organization where she trained community leaders to work together for racial justice across race, class and faith. She would love to meet you and hear about your experiences at Mayyim Hayyim, or to nerd out together about baking, cross country skiing or block printing.