This is a busy time of year for a mikveh rabbi. I run Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, on Kibbutz Hannaton, where I create and officiate individualized mikveh ceremonies, and meet with groups from across Israel and around the world, to share my love of mikveh.
There is a custom to immerse during the High Holiday season, the Days of Awe, so Shmaya is busier than usual. I do my own immersion for the New Year in the Sea of Galilee, when I participate in the annual Tzlichat HaKinneret (Sea of Galilee swim) along with thousands of other Israelis who come from near and far.
I adore this tradition and have wondered if its founders chose this time of year as a kind of collective mikveh practice. For me, at least, it feels this way. Like a literal melting pot, as we all swim together across the sea, thousands of heads bobbing like matzoh balls or shushbaraq. One big soupy group mikveh for a new year.
This year is different, however, because as I end my swim across the Kinneret with my usual three immersions (reflecting on the year before, centering myself in the present moment, and looking towards the year ahead), I will know that a photograph of me immersing in the Shmaya mikveh is hanging for all to see in the center of Washington, D.C. and thus spreading the beauty and power of mikveh to a much larger audience.
When Jordanian-American (but living in East Jerusalem) photojournalist Tanya Habjouqa came to Shmaya several years ago to interview and photograph me for her forthcoming book “Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity” — about space, being on land, and the Palestinian-Jewish conflict — I had no idea one of those photos would end up on a billboard in the city where my own mikveh journey began as coordinator of the Adas Israel mikveh thirty years ago!
If Tanya was not such a talented and sensitive photographer, I would never have given her permission to photograph me immersing, let alone publish the photo — one immerses in the nude, like a fetus in the womb — in a book. And certainly not put it up on a billboard. But the photo is a beauty and skillfully captures that feeling of immersing in the Divine womb.
I, who was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease called FSHD, have a complex about my body. Yet, miraculously, this photo does not make me uneasy. I feel comfortable with how much of my body is showing and how it looks. Perhaps because I am in my happy place: water.
The photo sends a message central to my mikveh work: Mikveh is a powerful spiritual practice that should not be kept secret. Nor should it be reserved for Orthodox Jews who comply with the regulations the authorities in that community enforce.
The spiritual practice of full body immersion in “living waters” has universal appeal, speaks to a basic human need to return to the primordial feeling of wholeness and unity, and should be accessible to everyone. After all, the first mikveh, created by God God’self (according to Genesis 1) is the ocean, which is open to all to immerse as they choose.
Mikveh is about unity, not separation. And it is about wholeness and touching our most pure essential selves, without all the baggage of our broken reality. It is about hope (the Hebrew word for hope is תקווה “tikvah”, similar to the word מקווה “mikveh”) and faith in what is possible, even when the world seems too wounded to ever have the potential to be healed.
Tanya’s billboard is part of a series up now in various U.S. cities, aimed at subtly combatting anti-Semitism. This conceptualization of mikveh I presented to Tanya when she visited sends a powerful message about how to counter the hate in the world — because the source of that hate is fear of “the other”. When we lean into the notion we are all connected and, essentially, part of the greater One, hate dissolves.
Tanya, who was blown away by mikveh and my understanding of its deeper meaning, is not Jewish. She grew up in a home with one parent who was a non-practicing Christian and the other who was a practicing Muslim, and she considers herself a humanist, so she was pleasantly surprised when I invited her to immerse. And the powerful experience she had in the water has not left her all these years later, I discovered, when she called me a few weeks ago.
When Tanya was approached to create a billboard for this anti-anti-Semitism campaign, she thought of our time together at the mikveh. But she could not articulate why. I invited her to come back to meet with me again so I could help her make this connection she had felt viscerally but could not put into words. It was then we created the wording for the billboard:
where all is one
where difference dissolves
mikveh – womb
repairing our world
This will be my meditation this year as I swim across and then immerse in the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by thousands of other unique humans — each one so different from the other. Yet we are all connected, all part of the One. All heading into this new year, whether we like it or not, together.