When Rabbi Sara Luria talks about mikveh, you’ll want to listen.
You might find God, she says. You might sing. You might pray. You might suddenly be overcome by an acceptance and celebration of your naked body, even if you’ve spent your entire life thus far critiquing its fleshier parts. You might feel “held” by these ritual pools, supported as you experience a transition between before and after (at least once you grow accustomed to the discomfiting sense of water running up your nose).
Of course, a cynical New Yorker may also want to sprint in the opposite direction of any ritual pools after hearing this conversation. As a reporter, though, I’ve interviewed dozens of women who immersed in a non-traditional manner in Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh facility in Newton, Mass., which has been reframing and reclaiming the ancient practice for the last decade, and these women tend to sound a lot like Rabbi Luria. They speak of mikveh’s “embrace like no other,” and “of intimacy with the water,” after they mark both painful and profound milestones with an immersion, including such various experiences as the acknowledgement of infertility or the beginning of an empty nest or the end of a series of chemotherapy treatments. The difference is that Rabbi Luria, who interned at Mayyim Hayyim in the summer of 2011, is sharing and spreading her joy of mikveh with New York City.
“This is exactly the work I want to be doing in this world,” says Rabbi Luria, 32, who founded ImmerseNYC two years ago. Last month marked the first full year of operation with 140 immersions facilitated by 28 mikveh guides trained by ImmerseNYC. For now, the programs operate out of local facilities, and Rabbi Luria suggested that there aren’t immediate plans to build a New York mikveh modeled after Mayyim Hayyim. The cost would be prohibitive, perhaps several million dollars, unless an area synagogue or agency decides to install one as part of its renovations.
In the meantime, Rabbi Luria will be training a new corps of facilitators to lead small groups of Jewish New Yorkers as they share and learn and immerse together. The groups may take various forms, meeting for an extended stretch or just a few weeks, focused on cohorts such as mothers with young children or observant women who engage in traditional monthly immersions but would like to enhance their experience of mikveh.
Growing up in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, when it was known as the less chichi Kensington, Rabbi Luria was one of those very engaged Jewish teenagers who led services at her Reform synagogue in the summer. When she was 15, her parents divorced, and her world split in two. The rabbi of her synagogue spoke with her in her office. In retrospect, Rabbi Luria believes that the very physical separation of her parents would have been well served with a physical ceremony — like mikveh. “Where are the rituals for challenges?” she asks.
Of course, for some liberal Jewish women (and men) the ritual itself presents a challenge. First, you need to wrap your mind around, or look past, or reimagine mikveh’s connection between menstruation and ritual impurity, since, traditionally, married women immerse in the mikveh to transition from a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity) to tahara (ritual purity), following menstruation and before a sexual reunion with their husbands. Also, there’s this: “The barriers are higher than for any other Jewish ritual. You need to get to the mikveh, interact with someone else, and take off all your clothes,” says Aliza Kline, the founding executive director of Mayyim Hayyim.
There’s also the challenge of finding a moment for mikveh in our harried New York lives. Amid the hubbub of a typical weeknight with three young children last month, Rina Cohen Schwarz managed to slip out of her Manhattan apartment. She hadn’t submerged in the mikveh since she was a new bride almost 14 years earlier. She’s not so interested in taking on the traditional monthly observance of mikveh. But when a close friend asked if she’d like to join a group preparing for the New Year with ImmerseNYC, she didn’t hesitate.
At the mikveh, she opted to be alone, with no one standing guard to judge if her performance was kosher or not. She stepped into the waters slowly. She thought about herself, her character, the year past and the year ahead. She submerged. She released the stresses of the summer. She submerged again and again. She was ready.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.