Larry had a problem.
It was the winter of 2004 and he’d dreamed of becoming a Jew for years. Following many months of formal study he was ready to go before the beit din, the group of rabbis who would hear his journey and proclaim him ready for the final conversion ritual. He did meet with these rabbis; they were touched by his sincerity and dedication to the Jewish people.
Larry’s problem was that he was paralyzed from the waist down.
Jewish law requires that all converts – whether old or young, men or women, able-bodied or not – immerse in the mikveh to become Jewish. Paraplegic or not, Larry was not off the hook if he wanted to be considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
When I first learned that our legal system does not allow such leniency for people like Larry, I admit I felt somewhat betrayed. How could we require him to do the impossible? Hadn’t he been through enough? This is the same system that allows for so much flexibility in other areas, after all. Interestingly, many communities would still accept him as a Jew without an immersion, yet he took it upon himself to make sure his identity would be as widely accepted as possible.
As I thought more, though, it occurred to me… maybe we can learn something from this legal reality. If we were to say that all the Larrys of the world were exempt from immersing, it would in a way be saying that they don’t matter. We can push them off to the side, saying, “We don’t know how to deal with you, so we won’t.” If, however, people such as Larry are required to immerse like the rest of us, then it’s not Larry’s problem alone. It’s our problem. The onus is on the community to make it possible.
So in January of 2004, Larry completed his beit din meeting. At that time, Mayyim Hayyim, the pluralistic mikveh where I serve as the director, was still under construction. He waited until after we opened in May to become a Jew, with his wife by his side. During these months, he worked with our staff and volunteers to figure out how it could be possible for him to immerse. Accessibility was an early priority, one of our Seven Guiding Principles, and Larry offered helpful consultation about how this vision would become reality.
How would he enter the building? Could the rug be removed from one preparation room so his wheelchair could roll in? How could he safely and comfortably get down the seven steps into the mikveh? How would he immerse once in the water?
Larry helped pick out the aquatic lift that Mayyim Hayyim purchased – a portable unit that lives in a closet when not in use. He also helped envision how a fellow participant from his Introduction to Judaism class could assist him in the water while maintaining his privacy.
In doing so, Larry and Mayyim Hayyim partnered together, making it possible for him and all the others with physical disabilities to follow, to use the mikveh with dignity. Since then we’ve welcomed more new Jews, a woman on crutches for her monthly immersions, a terminally ill cancer patient immersing at the end of life, an obese woman looking for a fresh start at Rosh Hashanah – none of whom would have been able to immerse without an accessible mikveh.
After all, if someone like Larry wants to immerse in the mikveh, shouldn’t we give it our all to make it possible?
Carrie Bermant Bornstein is Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, MA. She joined the organization in 2006 when she became a volunteer Mikveh Guide and also served as its Mikveh Center Director and Assistant Director. A graduate of Skidmore College, Carrie received her Master’s degree in Social Work from Boston University with a focus on Macro Practice. A participant in the first cohort of DeLeT (Day School Leadership through Teaching) at Brandeis University, Carrie also studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Carrie lives in Sharon, MA with her husband, Jamie, and their three young children, Eliana, Dovi, and Jonah. She writes regularly at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog and you can also follow her on twitter @carolinering.