When Tehilah Eisenstadt was growing up in Plainview, L.I., she eagerly anticipated going to the mikvah, which she imagined as a “secret treehouse club for women.” But when her pre-marriage Jewish law class began covering rules connected to the mikvah, her feelings about the ritual changed dramatically.
“I came home crying after every class, because the language around this is so misogynistic,” said Eisenstadt, referring to such terms as niddah, which refers to the period of time during a woman’s menstrual period and seven days after, but which also means “outcast” or “desolate.”
Today, Eisenstadt, who is 40 and the director of education and family engagement at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, is a mikvah guide at ImmerseNYC, a nonprofit that has trained volunteers to help people have positive immersion experiences in the mikvah. Now she thoroughly enjoys her monthly immersion and the time she spends helping other women experience the ritual. And through ImmerseNYC, she has found the secret treehouse club she imagined.
While mikvahs used to be utilitarian pools that Orthodox women had no choice but to use, over the past few decades they’ve been transformed into appealing, often beautifully decorated spaces that aim to help a woman feel pampered during the monthly ritual. And with the reframing of the mikvah there have come new ideas concerning which women should be using it, and movement to encourage the non-Orthodox to try using mikvahs is also growing.
Two major organizations, ImmerseNYC and Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, Mass., that aim to introduce non-observant women and nontraditional uses to mikvahs, are both making changes to their structures with the goal of expanding their reach. Plus, a Brooklyn Chabad group is building a new mikvah it hopes will appeal to the non-observant.
Since Rabbi Sara Luria founded it in 2013 to help the mikvah become an “ingrained part of Jewish life” for the non-observant, ImmerseNYC has grown from hosting a team of about 20 mikvah guides and 50 immersions during the first year to hosting more than 75 active guides and roughly 450 immersions this past year.
“This is a birth experience into the next part of your unfolding life.”
Rabbi Luria is currently in talks with “a large Jewish organization” about the organization taking over the mikvah program.
“We have done a lot to help people reframe it [mikvah] in their minds, but we really want support of a larger organization to buoy our work,” she said.
While traditional mikvahs are used only by Jews who wish to comply with Jewish law, the main purpose of community mikvahs is to make the mikvah experience accessible to non-observant Jews and to allow all types of Jews to use them for nontraditional purposes, such as for healing from trauma, illness or loss. The new mikvah is also used to mark times of transition: Transgender Jews are beginning to use mikvahs to mark their transitions; prospective parents use it when trying to conceive and to recover from a miscarriage; LGBTQ Jews use it to mark coming out; parents use it to mark the birth of a child; and students use it mark a graduation. Rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at Hebrew Union College are sent to ImmerseNYC to experience the mikvah while in school.
“It’s in our bodies to recognize the experience of going all the way down in the water and coming up and breathing again is a transformation,” said ImmerseNYC founder Rabbi Sara Luria. “This is a birth experience into the next part of your unfolding life.”
Both Rabbi Luria and Eisenstadt fell in love with the mikvah experience when using it for the first time the night before their weddings. “If it weren’t for Mayyim Hayyim, I would not have the experience of slowing down and recognizing what I was doing: Instead of the flowers and the napkins and the seating arrangements, I was focusing on stuff like ‘I’m going to be a woman and I’m going to be a bride. I’m going to be a partner to this person and I’m not a child anymore.’ The mikvah pool experience, it was lovely, but it was really that private space for transition that allowed me to focus on the wedding in a different way.”
Eisenstadt agreed. “Just to have time in the middle of managing the wedding — you’re the party planner, you’re the one getting married, so there was a lot of hectic-ness — Just turning down the world and just turning up [the realization that]: oh yeah, this beautiful thing is about to happen. I’m going to get married to somebody I love.
“It was amazing,” she said.
Mayyim Hayyim, which opened in 2004, is the first community mikvah and the largest, hosting 1,629 immersions last year.
Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director, said she gets between 15 and 20 inquiries per year from other communities interested in starting a community mikvah. While the number of inquiries hasn’t risen in recent years, the level of seriousness of the inquiries has. While before groups were coming to her before they’ve raised any money, or taken any formal steps, now the callers are more likely to have secured approval from their synagogue’s board, or secured a grant to begin the work.
To help budding community mikvahs —ones that welcome the non-observant and those looking to change the traditional immersion ritual — as well as 24 existing community mikvahs that Mayyim Hayyim has identified across the country, the organization has launched a national network called Rising Tide. In the first year, five of the larger member communities — Mayyim Hayyim, ImmerseNYC, Libi Eir Awakened Heart Community Mikveh in Raleigh, N.C., MACOM: Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah in Atlanta, and Adas Israel Mikveh in Washington, D.C. — have been making plans for a broader national structure that will help mikvah staff share ideas and resources. This might include conferences, webinars and an online discussion group.
It’s not just liberal organizations that are trying to bring the mikvah experience to non-observant women. Chabad of Ditmas Park is building a mikvah with luxurious rooms and some spa amenities that it hopes will bring in non-observant women.
“We’re trying to raise the bar,” said Chabad of Ditmas Park executive director Rabbi Yehuda Levin. “What the kosher food industry has done to kosher in the past 20 years, is what we want to do to the mikvah,” referring to the influx of gourmet kosher restaurants —think Le Marais, Levana or Abigael’s — over the past two decades. “Twenty years ago kosher was prepared for those who needed kosher; they switched the mindset from serving people who need kosher to people who want kosher.”
“What the kosher food industry has done to kosher in the past 20 years, is what we want to do to the mikvah.”
He added, “That’s really the goal of this, to bring “this to all women, not just ultra-Orthodox women. … It doesn’t matter if you’re religious, try it once.”
While the project, called the Ocean Parkway Mikvah, is not the first well-appointed mikvah to be built in the city, it is the first, as far as Rebbetzin Chana Levin can tell, to offer spa services. Manicures and pedicures for sure; facials and massages are under consideration. Manicures and pedicures are of particular use because women are required to remove their nail polish before entering the mikvah.
“Women often get manicures and pedicures [without polish] before mikvah and then go back the next day and get the polish put on,” Rebbetzin Levin said. “Now, if we can offer it onsite, they’ll come a little bit earlier to get their toenails and fingernails cleaned and then after they’re all done they get polish and they go home all fresh.
“Along with feeling uplifted spiritually, you’re really physically going to be pampered,” she said. “All of this is part of trying to make a mikvah that women will want to be part of, will want to go to, will look forward to go to and [one where] the staff won’t judge them in any way.”
“Our main goal is to introduce this ritual, even to the person who has never done it before, but to do it on a level of quality and sensitivity … so you should want to do it.”
This last point refers to the frustration Rebbetzin Levin has felt of “many, many years of bringing women to local mikvahs” only to have them refuse to go back because they weren’t treated with sensitivity. One women who went to the mikvah every month stopped going for a while after a mikvah attendant admonished her for planning to drive to the mikvah on Shabbat. “The woman was so hurt she didn’t go,” Rebbetzin Levin said.
Once the construction is complete, the Ocean Parkway Mikvah will be housed in a 13,000-square-foot Chabad community center that will also include a synagogue, a preschool, a library/adult education classroom and a teen lounge.
The Levins have raised $1.1 million from private donors and have another $1.9 million to go. (More information at opmikvah.com or 718-854-0006.)
The building is about half built, including the difficult procedure of creating the mikvah pool out of a single concrete pour so there won’t be any cracks. Once the rest of the money is raised, construction can be completed in nine months Rabbi Levin said.
“Our main goal,” said Rabbi Levin, “is to introduce this ritual, even to the person who has never done it before, but to do it on a level of quality and sensitivity … so you should want to do it.”