When Israeli celebrity Alina Levy came to immerse at Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul a few weeks ago, before her wedding, she said that despite the rejection and harsh treatment she had received from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate when trying to convert to Judaism, she feels God watching over her.
I had never heard of Alina before. I do not keep abreast of Israeli pop culture. But I looked her up and found that her fame came when she appeared on the reality television show “Big Brother,” and then on “Survivor”. She has acted in many Israeli television shows, and even in a play and a short film that earned praise in the Khan Film Festival. She is also a model and hosts a weekly radio show on Radio Jerusalem and has many followers on Instagram.
Alina moved to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1994 at the age of 4 with her Jewish father and Christian mother. But her father soon left and moved to France, and they are not in touch. Still, she considers herself Jewish and feels very connected to Jewish tradition, ritual and spirituality. But according to the Israeli Jewish establishment, she is not Jewish. Even the Reform movement in Israel does not recognize Jewish patrilineal descent.
She (along with her mother) began a conversion process with the Chief Rabbinate (the only option she knew existed for conversion), but after two years of study, she was told she could only convert if she stopped acting. She ended the process then, deciding that she did not need their stamp of approval if in her heart she knows she is Jewish. Which is why it felt natural to her to want to immerse in a mikveh before her wedding. But she did not know if there was a mikveh in Israel where she could do so since she had not officially converted.
She was elated when I told her she was welcome to immerse at Shmaya. I told her about the Reform movement’s faster conversion track for Israelis of only patrilineal Jewish descent who had grown up keeping Jewish traditions. She had no idea and began to cry when I told her. She said she would call right after the wedding.
Alina arrived at the mikveh all in white and with no makeup; and with her long blonde hair, she looked like an angel. Accompanying her was a woman she calls her “spiritual mother”, a Jewish woman named Anat Petlasky. They became friends when Anat produced “Big Brother” when Alina appeared on the show.
The three of us spoke for at least an hour before Alina immersed. I heard her story, we discussed the deeper spiritual meaning of mikveh, and Anat and I helped her prepare her kavanot, her intentions, for her seven immersions (a number she chose). I had been told that she was an emotionally and spiritually intelligent and down-to-earth woman; but I admit I did not understand to what extent that was true until I met her.
When she immersed, she let go of anger and resentments — towards institutions and people who caused her pain — and concentrated on moving forward in love and openness to what would be. She left her tears in the mikveh and emerged, her face aglow, to Anat’s undulating and singing. We danced and hugged right there in the mikveh room. I had not been prepared for how moved I would be by her and the honor of companioning this beautiful soul at the mikveh.
The next day, Alina sent me what she posted on Instagram about her mikveh experience: “When I immersed, I felt I had come home. I was overjoyed. I felt embraced by Divine energy. I washed away all of my fears, my preconceptions and previous mindsets, and let go into the embrace of the Cosmos. I send gratitude from the depths of my heart to Rabbi Haviva Ner-David who allowed me this space in which I could express with my full self my deep connection to Judaism right before the step of starting to build a family.”
That was on a Wednesday. Thursday evening was the wedding, and on Friday, I saw articles on the internet with photos of the wedding. She looked happy, which made me happy. I put the experience aside and went on with my life.
A week later, I received a photo via Whatsapp of Alina sitting in a recording studio. The message was from a young woman I had yet to meet in person. She had called me months before to talk about joining a group of Israelis with FSHD, the degenerative genetic muscular disease with which I, and two of my children, live. My daughter, Hallel, and I started an FSHD Israel group a few years ago, and this woman, Eden, had called me to ask about joining and to talk about living with this difficult disease.
I immediately wrote back to Eden, asking about the photo. I remembered that Eden had told me that she works at Radio Jerusalem. I asked her if she was interviewing Alina. I had forgotten that Alina has her own radio show on that channel.
Eden told me that she had been working on Alina’s show for a few years already, and that Alina told her that she suspected that the rabbi at the mikveh where she had immersed before the wedding has the same disease that she does. Eden saw my name and said that yes, I was the woman she had spoken to about the FSHD Israel group. Eden told me to listen to Alina’s radio show that night, that I would be pleasantly surprised.
FSHD is not a well-known or widespread disease. Only four in every 100,000 people have it. There are only about 50 people in our FSHD Israel group. I was stunned by the synchronicity of these events that reminded me of just how connected we humans are, and how God, the Cosmos, Divine Spirit, or whatever one chooses to call the mystery of the universe, is, indeed, watching over us, despite how challenging life can be — whether our challenges are physical, emotional, mental, familial or societal. Or simply the result of difficult life circumstances.
I listened to Alina’s radio show that evening. She spoke about her experience at the mikveh. She talked about how it had been a dream for her to immerse in the mikveh, and how she had thought she would not be able to. How she felt the connection between the material and the spiritual when she immersed. How the ritual helped her feel in all of the cells of her body the significance of this step she was taking of joining her life with another.
She talked about how important life transition rituals are, and how she felt wrapped in Divine love and a deep sense of belonging. She said that even with all of her excitement and anticipation, it was an even more powerful experience than she had imagined it would be.
Alina thanked me for helping make her experience possible. And I thank you, Alina Levy, for sharing your mikveh experience with the world so that more people can know the power of this ritual. I thank you for reminding me that we all live with our own life challenges, that we are all connected, and that we are all held in Divine love.