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Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

From Outsider to Insider: A Day at the Mikveh

Roger, Cristine, and Jack Abravanel outside the mikveh after their mikveh experience. Photo courtesy of Haviva Ner-David.
Roger, Cristine, and Jack Abravanel outside the mikveh after their mikveh experience. Photo courtesy of Haviva Ner-David.
Roger, Cristine, and Jack Abravanel outside the mikveh after their mikveh experience. (Haviva Ner-David)

I was not surprised when I received a message from a Reform rabbi in Milan, Sylvia Rothschild, asking if she could send a family my way. They are her congregants and are visiting Israel for the summer. The father is Jewish, and the mother is not, but they are raising their son Jewish, she said. He is nearing bar mitzvah and went through a conversion process with her (through the European Union of Progressive Judaism), but had not yet done the last step, a mikveh immersion.

Their community mikveh was closed due to Covid and the Orthodox mikveh is not open for Reform conversions. The family was excited to do the ceremony in Israel, a place they visit often both for business and pleasure. Rabbi Rothschild was hoping they could do it at Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, on Kibbutz Hannaton, where I officiate a wide range of immersion ceremonies.

Shmaya is the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse how and when they choose. The others are run by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and have strict rules about who can immerse and how and when they can do so. Like the Orthodox mikveh in Milan, they will not host non-Orthodox conversions.

I said I would be honored to officiate the boy’s immersion ceremony. “Just the boy is converting?” I asked.  “Yes,” the rabbi answered.

When the family arrived, I sat with them to hear their story and discuss the deeper meaning of mikveh. We talked about the qualities of water that help us feel renewed and revitalized. And we looked at the biblical creation story, when the first mikveh, the ocean, was created. Like that first mikveh, Shmaya has no gatekeeper. Everyone is welcome.

Mikveh, I told them, is a place to reconnect with our innermost pure essence and with the unity that existed in God’s womb, before God gave birth to this imperfect world of separation that is in such need of repair and healing. We experience that same move from unity to separation when we are each born into this world. Full body immersion is a chance to re-experience that state for just a few moments and be reminded of the divine energy running through us, like the water that makes up most of our bodies.

They were all deeply moved by this understanding of mikveh.

When the family shared their story, the father, Roger Abravanel, told me he is a descendant of the Portuguese Jewish philosopher Isaac Abravanel, and how important it is for him to pass on his Jewish heritage to his son Jack.

The mother, Cristine, shared that her father and paternal grandfather were both Jewish. When I told her that in the US, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements consider her a Jew, her whole manner changed. She sat tall in her seat, her eyes opened wide, and her face lit up. She asked me to repeat what I had just said, to make sure she had heard correctly. I confirmed what I had said, and she asked me to repeat it yet again to her husband and son.

Cristine then told me how much she enjoys participating in the Jewish rituals with her family and how committed she is to raising Jack Jewish. “I feel excluded knowing Jack will be Jewish like his father and I won’t,” she confessed. But she is not a religious person – spiritual but not religious — so did not consider converting. Until she was exposed to the welcoming approach of the Reform movement and spiritually focused way in which I described mikveh.

Jack was excited to get into the water, but did not know quite what to expect. Once he was in, he relaxed and was clearly enjoying himself and happy to have reached this important moment. He recited the blessings like a pro, along with his tearful father, who shared how emotional it was for him to see his son actively choose to carry on this heritage.

After he emerged, I asked Jack if he’d like to shower. He hugged himself, smiled, and said, “No. I want to keep the mikveh water on me for as long as possible.”

Cristine then asked me if she could immerse, too — even if no one else considered it official. Just for herself, she said. When I agreed, she asked for Jack’s permission; she did not want to detract from his day in the spotlight, but it would mean a lot to her to immerse, she told him, to feel more included in their family unit and connect to her own Jewish identity and heritage, one that she had been told before did not count.

Jack agreed. And what a beautiful experience it was. Father, mother, and son, all grasped hands before Cristine went into the mikveh. And when she emerged, they were all beaming.

After the immersion experience, we stopped at the kibbutz’ ancient mikveh (from the Second Temple period) where I told them the story of how the mikveh was discovered in a salvation archaeological dig two summers ago a few kilometers from Hannaton, and how it was slated for destruction to make way for a road. I and two tour guides who live on Hannaton, too, raised money to have it cut from the ground and moved to sit beside Shmaya.

Seeing these two mikvaot side-by-side affirmed the Abravanel family’s commitment to being part of the flow of Jewish continuity. It was the icing on the cake of such a meaningful mikveh experience, they said. The symbolism of unearthing a hidden Jewish relic did not escape me, considering Cristine’s story.

Hannaton’s 2,000-year-old mikveh. (Haviva Ner-David)
Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, at Kibbutz Hannaton. (Haviva Ner-David)

After the family left, as I walked back to my house, I thought about what had transpired at the mikveh. Clearly, Cristina had felt Jewish, but having been told time and again she was not, she had resigned herself to being an outsider in her own family. When she heard a significant portion of world Jewry considers her Jewish, suddenly she became an insider, and that was what made the difference.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of three spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual companion (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Hope-Valley-Haviva-Ner-David/dp/194929059X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1638266281&sr=8-1. The newly released Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Dreaming-Against-Current-Rabbis-Journey/dp/1949290751/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Dreaming+Against+the+Current+Haviva+Ner-David&qid=1638295562&sr=8-1. Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2022. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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