Many women have heard of the mikvah. In Atlanta we have seven mikvahs (mikvaot) and women from across the spectrum immerse. Mikvah is a mitzvah performed by women when their menstrual cycles have ended. A certain number of days are counted and then a woman immerses in the mikvah waters as an act of spiritual purification. But since the Torah states that a couple should not engage in sexual relations while the woman is bleeding and until she immerses in a mikvah, immersion is also what allows women to resume intimate relations with their husbands. Lots of women speak of the beauty and specialness of the mikvah; of the spiritual renewal and hopes which are bound up in the night of immersion. They also speak of the anticipation and reconnection which both partners experience as they reunite on and after mikvah night.
When a woman immerses there is an attendant present, another Jewish woman there to assist in the process. At a time when we are at our most emotionally and physically vulnerable, the more sensitive, encouraging, empathetic and warm the attendant is, the more positive our feelings about the mitzvah and our own situations will be.
“When people learn about or describe the mikvah, they also often emphasize the connection to fertility,” says Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, Founder and Director of The Eden Center in Jerusalem. Women generally immerse 12-14 days after the onset of menstruation, right before ovulation in an average cycle. This means that immersion takes place at the time many women are likely to be the most fertile. Dr. Grumet examined contemporary mikveh practice for her doctoral research in sociology. She explains “I found that for many women, one of the underlying messages is that going to the mikvah protects the family and brings God’s blessing into it. More than that, they often feel that keeping the laws around mikvah will increase a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant. But it isn’t quite so simple. And for women going through infertility, the mikvah elicits a whole different set of emotions.”
Indeed, the infertility journey itself is a challenge. For women who observe mikvah, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that she must go to the mikvah monthly, as opposed to when a woman becomes pregnant when she generally does not need to go to the mikvah again until after the birth of her baby.
Dr. Grumet’s research led her to develop a training to help others understand the kind of sensitivity that is needed around mikvah issues that has taken place around Israel: “It’s important that female community leaders become aware of the range of emotions that exist, so that they can be sensitive to the needs of different women. By sharing resources and developing communication skills, we can create a more nurturing community which feels supportive and caring to those going through the infertility process. For women experiencing fertility challenges the mikvah can be a moment of introspection and personal pampering, a time to concentrate on oneself and one’s prayers. But for many, the monthly visit, rather than being a pleasurable time of renewal, becomes a reminder of pain, disappointment, and yet another “unsuccessful” attempt at getting pregnant.”
Through conversations with several Atlanta women we learned that each woman experiences mikvah differently.
37-years-old, Young Israel Toco Hills, 2 biological (IVF) children
For me, mikvah is a monthly reminder that my body continues to fail me. I strive to enjoy the magic and beauty of the mikvah but immersing each month reinforces the painful knowledge of my infertility. It reminds me that another cycle has passed that did not result in pregnancy.
56-year-old, Congregation Beth Tefillah, 2 adopted children
Prayer in Judaism originated with Hannah, an infertile woman whose fervent entreaties for a child were mistaken for public drunkenness. The most revered women in Judaism – our Matriarchs – were barren, as the pain of infertility is chronicled in the Torah over three succeeding generations through the lives of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. Their offspring were the result of miracles, of G-d’s direct intervention. Immersing in the mikvah each month provided me with an opportunity to pray for a miracle to occur in my own life, and a concrete way to grieve for each cycle that did not result in a pregnancy. Judaism acknowledged the loss I felt each month of the unrealized potential of my future children, and allowed me to feel that each new cycle was a fresh start. Although it became harder to sustain that feeling as time went on.
34-year-old, Congregation Beth Jacob, 4 (IVF) children
My husband and I are carriers for one of the fatal genetic Ashkenazi diseases and IVF was the way to ensure that we had children that would not be affected by allowing us to do pre-implantation testing (PGD). Little did we know how difficult this process would be emotionally, financially and physically. When I went to the Mikvah I just prayed it would be the last time I was going for a while. There was a special יהי רצון that I started saying before I went in and still say to this day before I go into the waters.
34-year-old, Temple Sinai, 1 (IVF) child
Visiting the mikvah for the first time, the day before my embryo transfer, was refreshing and calming. I was able to leave behind all my anxiety and worry, and truly allow my mind to ‘let go and let G-d’. I felt calmer, lighter, and 100% ready after my submersion.
33-year-old, Shul hopper in Toco Hills, 2 children
Going to the mikvah is one of my favorite mitzvot. Maybe it’s because I get to go so rarely because of the way my Polycystic Ovary Syndrome ( PCOS) works, or doesn’t work! I have always been drawn to water, and I find it healing and rejuvenating. For me, going to the mikvah brings hope.
26-year-old, Congregation Beth Jacob, 1 (IVF) baby
Early on (in my infertility journey) I really had to disconnect mikvah from trying to get pregnant in my head or it would have been too hard to go every month for 6.5 years!! I treated it like a chore to be honest. I just wanted to get in and out as fast as possible.
The mikvah experiences elicits strong emotions from infertile women. It is a marker in our lives, of loss, failure, and hope. It can be an experience to dread or to eagerly anticipate. It can result in a successful cycle – one where we blessedly become pregnant – or yet another unsuccessful one. The more awareness there is about the pain of infertility, and its frequency in our community, hopefully the more support there will be for infertile women. And the mikvah experience is a pivotal one. It represents the intersection of halacha, ritual, femininity, spirituality, connection, grief and hope. It is the cornerstone of the Jewish family – when husband and wife bond, and when pregnancy becomes possible. Mikvah plays a pivotal role in our experience; it can be positive or negative, reinforce our feelings of defeat or of optimism, and place us in the continuum of Jewish women and families that originate with our infertile matriarchs.
The above is a preview to our May 7th Atlanta Infertility Sensitivity Training. It was co-authored by Debbie Derby and Elana Frank
The Jewish Fertility Foundation is excited to bring in Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, Founder & Director of The Eden Center, from Israel for an Infertility Sensitivity Training geared to Mikvah Attendants, Rebbetzins, and Kallah Class Instructors on Sunday, May 7, 2017 at the MJCCA. This is the second in a series of Infertility Sensitivity Training’s coordinated by the Jewish Fertility Foundation (the first was sponsored by the Atlanta Rabbinic Association for local Rabbis.)
Partners Include: The Dunwoody Mikvah, Young Israel of Toco Hills, Congregation Beth Tefillah, MACoM, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, Mikvah Duvid Aryeh, and Congregation Or Hadash.
More information: www.jewishfertilityfoundation.org
About The Eden Center: The Eden Center was founded with the goal of enhancing the mikveh experience and connecting it to women’s health and intimacy education. A Jerusalem-based initiative, Eden is working to infuse mikveh with relevance to the lives and challenges of couples today, and to connect women to resources of support within the Jewish community. Eden’s programs for professionals and the general community in Israel focus on the intersection of halakha with women’s health, wellness, and intimacy.