On the 21st of Nisan, 3,300 years ago, the Israelites stepped out of “impure” Egypt into water. They emerged from the water as a nation — the Jewish people, purified, united and on a mission to serve God.
This is our season of freedom, of releasing ourselves from the things which enslave us, which prevent us from fulfilling our potential. Every year, I marvel at how the message is relevant. But this year, the ability to be transformed by letting go of practices or perceptions that bind us feels especially relevant to me. This year, I have seen a sea-change take place around the topic of mikveh.
Women are speaking out more — and being heard — by mikveh attendants, religious councils and Israel’s highest legislative body. Significant change was made via the Supreme Court ruling that ensures that women, individually, have the right to take mastery over their mikveh immersions. The Eden Center’s work, training and educating mikveh attendants to be more sensitive and aware of women’s emotional and physical needs in the mikveh, has spread significantly in Israel to reach over 60 cities and has drawn attention and programming in major US cities. I celebrate the amazing accomplishments we have achieved in the past few months and hope to move with my nation out of murky waters of disappointment and frustration into more positive, meaningful religious experiences.
Eight years ago, I left the academic “ivory tower” to use my sociological research to enact real change in the Jewish community. I founded The Eden Center which seeks to reclaim the mikveh and transform it into a wellspring of women’s health, intimacy education, and spirituality. The journey has been challenging, but the rewards immeasurable. At our first national Eden Center conference that we held in conjunction with Hadassah Hospital and Torat Hamishpacha in Jerusalem last month, 250 mikveh attendants convened to learn from experts, share professional challenges, and work together to ensure that the mikveh becomes a welcoming place to all women. The mikveh attendants were eager to learn, adapt, and reconsider their roles in light of current vocal needs and the Supreme Court ruling. Just this week, a mikveh attendant who worked in Beit Shean for over 30 years said to me:
“The Eden Center program on sensitivity to the needs of women in the mikveh changed my perception of my role completely, and I immediately began to implement changes in the way I work. I no longer say “turn around” to check [a woman’s] naked back, but rather now I say “Would you like me to check you?” I stopped insisting on doing the meticulous checks of her fingers and toes, I look away when the woman goes down into the water to give her personal space, and in general I understand that the woman is the one responsible for her immersion and my responsibility is that she leaves happily, having had a good experience.”
Nothing could have made me happier and more hopeful. I celebrate this progress and thank God for enabling me to play a role in it.
But just like the journey of the Jewish people was not complete when Moshe led them in the song of thanksgiving at the sea — the Jews still needed to transform themselves and adapt to a new reality — so too the work of our community in relation to the mikveh is not complete. There is still much to be done, and much of it has to come from the women of Am Yisrael themselves.
Some things I would love to see and have people understand to move further towards our goal:
- The mikveh attendant is not your enemy. While you may have been upset or even traumatized in the past, most attendants have good intentions and want to serve you and fulfill their mission as religious servants. Most are open to the training and the reorientation that Eden and others are providing. With time and mutual respect, the mikveh can be a place where the needs of the women immersing will be met with love by the attendants.
- It is your responsibility to make your mikveh experience your own and meaningful. Just immersing in water may not do it for you. Find a poem or prayer that speaks to you. Bathe with music you love blasting. Have your husband prepare your favorite dinner while you are at the mikveh. Politely let the balanit (attendant) know how she can help you achieve what you would like for your experience. Many women report that spending a few minutes alone in the mikveh after they have immersed is the most calming and healing time for them. Find what speaks to you and make it happen!
- Redefine what mikveh means to you. The word mikveh has multiple connotations. Beyond a pool of water, mikveh, is related to “tikvah”, the word for hope. Mikveh touches upon many areas of life, and in doing so, it allows us to bring our hopes and prayer into our most intimate needs. It can be a spiritual or emotional recharge, or a time of reinvigoration of your sexual relationship; a time to embrace your physical body or a physically rejuvenating “spa” experience; a place or time to begin to heal pain and vulnerability that lies within you. Rather than focus on the limitations set by mikveh and Taharat Hamishpacha (the laws governing marital intimacy) see what flourishes in the space and create your own meaning in it. The whole halakhic system is built on the premise that within limits come holiness, and mikveh epitomizes the sanctity that we create in our lives. We can choose to allow that holiness to enter our physical, spiritual or emotional sides — all at once or one at a time.
- Though the privacy of mikveh facilitates holiness, education and communication are essential in awakening women to generate opportunities to create meaning. Learn more about the mitzvah and its conventional, and even non-conventional, customs. Connect with educators, yoatzot halakha and kallah teachers. Read articles and weekly blogs on The Eden Center website. Open yourself up to learn and engage with the mitzvah in new ways. And be open to teaching and sharing with others as well– with your friends, and yes, even with your children (in an age appropriate way). Find the line of what you are comfortable sharing and help make the mitzvah meaningful and relevant to others.
The Passover story, even with its miracles and overnight transformations, teaches us quite clearly that all significant change results from steadfast commitment to a being part of the long and heavy process. With the right kind of personal investment, freedom from past disappointment, pain and stagnation is achievable. May we all choose to be actors in this process, doing our share to bring purity and meaning to our traditions.