After learning that she carries the BRCA genetic mutation, Jennifer Silverman decided to have her ovaries and breasts removed rather than run the risk of developing cancer. She was anxious, of course, about having the surgeries.
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The first would be to remove her ovaries, which would thrust her from fertility into full menopause in a single day at 42. Her worry was affecting her mood and that of her husband and two sons, who are 17 and 10. So Silverman decided to mark the change with a ritual.
“This period of my life as a fertile human being was about to end. I wanted something to help me with the transition,” said Silverman, who lives in Woodside, Queens and works as a grant writer. She began Googling for ideas. The first rituals she found were secular or Pagan, which didn’t feel right to Silverman, who grew up as a Reform Jew and now identifies as Reconstructionist. She realized she wanted to mark the life-changing moment in a Jewish way. She found the website of Mayyim Chayyim, the non-denominational mikveh in Newton, Mass., which opened in 2004 as a place for people to immerse for traditional reasons — like after a woman’s menstrual cycle or for conversion — as well as unconventional ones, like marking a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, or recovering from a serious illness. A small but growing number of men are also going there to immerse.
Then Silverman found ImmerseNYC, a New York City-based organization adapting the Mayyim Chayyim model to life in the Big Apple.
Though she had known mikvehs as “something sexist, antithetical to the way I was raised,” a feminist immersion — a whole re-conceiving of the traditional ritual — felt right, Silverman says.
ImmerseNYC does not (yet) run its own mikveh and directed Silverman to a Manhattan facility where she would go with a volunteer guide. The group has access to only one mikveh for now. While it is Orthodox-run, it is open to rabbis of every denomination for conversion and the people who run it offer latitude to ImmerseNYC.
The mikveh can’t be named because political sensitivities among the Orthodox leaders who comprise its board run so high. Silverman also received some sample rituals and kavvanot, or intentions, on which she could reflect as she thought about what kind of ritual she wanted.
Silverman met her guide in front of the mikveh on a recent Sunday morning. Silverman paid the mikveh’s standard fee (ImmerseNYC doesn’t charge anything) and her guide brought her to the preparation room, which wasn’t what Silverman expected. “The space was lovely, like a hotel bathroom rather than an old fashioned sauna with old fixtures. It felt more like a luxury experience.” Once she was ready, she met her guide in the actual mikveh room. “I used a kavannah called ‘Upon Reaching Menopause.’ The attendant read part of it and then I did as I entered the water,” she said.
“I cried in the mikveh. I hadn’t done that until that point. It felt pretty transformative,” Silverman told Haaretz later. “I was really scared about undergoing surgery, about being unconscious, about the stress it was causing everybody around me,” she said. Immersing “actually gave me a lot of strength and made me feel better about going ahead with the surgery. And it was unexpected, but I felt like I was connecting with my ancestors,” who had been Orthodox, and some of whom had died young of breast cancer, long before the BRCA gene was identified.
“I thought about all the really strong women in my life while I was in," she said. “It helped me feel less isolated. It gave me the confidence not just to go to the surgery but to march into the operating room. It was invigorating.”
Shortly before her double mastectomy, which is planned for early spring, she plans to return to the mikveh.
Silverman’s is just one of close to 470 visits ImmerseNYC has shepherded in the two and a half years since it was founded. “We’ve had more need than we ever anticipated,” says Rabbi Sara Luria, ImmerseNYC’s founder and executive director, who had a positive experience at Mayyim Chayyim shortly before her wedding, but didn’t think about it again until she was in rabbinical school and interning as a hospital chaplain. “I began thinking about it being so powerful to be in a pool of water,” she said.
Luria hopes that within the next couple of years ImmerseNYC will run its own mikvehs. She is in talks with four different synagogues and Jewish community groups that are planning to renovate their buildings and are considering putting in a mikveh. She hopes to have facilities in Brooklyn and at least two areas of Manhattan, she told Haaretz.
ImmerseNYC’s goal is to build mikvehs that are designed for the needs of their clients, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise immerse, Luria said. While mikvehs are visited by both men and women in Orthodox Jewish communities — Hasidic men customarily immerse before the Sabbath and holidays, during the day, while women go to effect the conclusion of ritual impurity a week after their period ends, and visit only after sunset — they are inherently intensely gendered spaces.
ImmerseNYC has clients who identify not with a binary view of gender as male or female, but as somewhere on the gender spectrum, and clients who are transitioning from one to the other.
Luria wants ImmerseNYC to be a welcoming space for everyone. “We hope to build a mikveh that has a room for rituals before and after the immersion, and one which has a beit din room” where rabbis can interview someone there to immerse for conversion. “Obviously the mikveh we build will be open to people of all denominations and we want to make sure people of all genders feel comfortable, that there’s a sense this is a mikveh for all people and genders across the spectrum,” Luria told Haaretz.
But not everyone thinks mikveh should be used in innovative ways.
Using mikveh in the ways that ImmerseNYC does “is a travesty, it’s nonsense,” said Rabbi J. David Bleich, a renowned authority on Jewish law and professor of Jewish law and ethics at Yeshiva University.
“It does more harm than good. Mikveh is not a game and shouldn’t be used that way,” said Bleich, who is also a Talmud professor and yeshiva head at YU’s rabbinical school.
“Judaism does not accept man-made rituals. The emphasis in Judaism is not on subjective religious experience. There are commandments and they are to be performed. If it’s something that has nothing to do with the mitzvah and hangs all by itself, as far as Judaism is concerned, there’s no religious value,” Bleich said.
But, like Silverman, a growing number of women and men want to immerse in mikvehs only when it feels positive and comfortable, rather than alienating. When Chana Schwartz [not her real name] first wanted to begin immersing each month, she asked the rebbetzin on her college campus to connect her with the local mikveh, which was Chabad-run. Schwartz, who was in a relationship but was not married, was turned away.
As someone who loved studying Jewish classical texts, “I’ve always been fascinated by texts about tuma [ritual impurity] and tahara [purification] and the whole embodied ritual aspect of Judaism,” she told Haaretz. But she encountered obstacles to learning more. “If you’re a woman who’s not married, you don’t have access to it. You’re told ‘you don’t need to know about that,’" she said.
After being turned down at the mikveh closest to her upstate New York college, Schwartz made her own arrangements to go to the next-closest one, which was more than an hour away. “There was a lot of drama,” she told Haaretz. “I showed up and lied about it. I wore a hat. She [the mikveh lady] didn’t explicitly ask if I was married, but she asked if I was a student. I said yes and didn’t tell her I was a terrified undergrad.”
After some time, she began driving hours to get to a Manhattan mikveh, but felt compelled to continue the subterfuge so she could still immerse.
“For a couple of years I had to pretend or lie by omission, wear a hat, and get asked ‘what does your husband do’ [for a living]. I felt very, very uncomfortable with it. It felt like I was stealing something from the people who rightfully owned it, but at the same time, it was very precious to me,” she said.
Through a friend, Schwartz then met Dasi Fruchter, ImmerseNYC’s program director, and a student at Yeshivat Maharat. “She offered to guide me at the mikveh, which we did and it was wonderful," Schwartz said.
The organization has been running salons, or intimate gatherings where women share their experiences, for single women and women dealing with pregnancy loss or infertility. The organization has trained 28 mikveh guides, Luria said, and in February will start training its next cohort of guides. ImmerseNYC’s advisory board is made up of people connected with Open Orthodoxy and the Conservative and Reform movements.
Asked about opposition like Bleich’s, Luria said, “There is some hesitation in some parts of the community, but I’m not worried about it because there is so much need out there."
Now Schwartz, too, has become a guide as well as a client. “Guiding people feels so much like a tikkun [healing] for my experience,” she told Haaretz. “It’s given me a lot more power. It’s made a huge difference in my own immersion, that I’m fulfilling a mitzvah as opposed to going into some machine and being spat out.”