Guest Column by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
Apples and honey, the sound of the shofar and a trip to the mikvah.
All of these traditions signal the coming of a new Jewish year. As familiar as the first two are, the mikvah is less common as part of the holiday tradition. The Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah is changing that.
In less than a year since it opened, MACoM has facilitated over 200 ritual dips and raised awareness across greater Atlanta. But 5777 marks the first Rosh Hashanah that the mikvah is open for High Holiday preparation and reflection.
“Mikvah is an incredibly powerful Jewish way to make a new start, to literally wash away all the things we want to leave behind,” said Rabbi Joshua Heller, a MACoM board member and chair of the Clergy Advisory Group. “Hearing the shofar, swaying in prayer, eating apples and honey, or fasting, each touch a part of our body, but immersing in water is a way to renew our whole selves. In ancient times the high priest would immerse in the mikvah five times in preparation for the Yom Kippur ritual. Modern Jews who may no longer connect to priests and sacrifices can transform the ritual. Instead of having a priest go on our behalf, we seek our own cleansing and renewal.”
MACoM is dedicated to making this opportunity accessible to the entire Jewish community. Set up to facilitate traditional and nontraditional ritual immersions, a team of trained guides is ready to help veterans and newcomers to mikvah.
According to Tracie Bernstein, who runs the guide program at MACoM with Dr. Beth Tieman, “Mikvah guides are an evolved group of extraordinary men and women who come from all Jewish backgrounds, range in age from 25 to 80, and are prepared to provide a rare space for personal and meaningful exploration on one’s own terms.”
And those who dip can decide on how much or little guidance and supervision they want and need.
“Those coming to immerse before Rosh Hashanah and throughout the holiday season can draw from a menu of prayers or follow their own path,” Tieman said.
Even the most modern use of the mikvah, after a divorce or in celebration of a milestone birthday, has the opportunity to connect contemporary Jewish life with the ancient past. Bernstein said: “The waters that fill ritual wells are drawn from the same natural waters shared for thousands of years, and the breadth and depth of the mikvah pools remain as they were in biblical times. That said, today’s Jewish expression and mikvah experience are, by necessity, not what they were a generation ago, let alone hundreds or thousands of years ago.”
One needs no special knowledge or institutional affiliation to make an appointment. Everyone in the Atlanta Jewish community is welcome to call 404-549-9679 or reach out by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and schedule a dip. People of all ages and backgrounds have been making plans, but there are still slots available through Sukkot.
Rabbi Heller, who works next door, likes to go to the mikvah before the holidays begin “as a way to focus my energy to be a better rabbi and a better person in the coming year.”
The new year of 5777 is already shaping up to be a great year for MACoM. Barbara LeNoble, who recently joined the MACoM team as executive director, feels that this Rosh Hashanah is particularly auspicious for the young institution. “We are blessed to start this landmark new year with a clean slate. We have passionate supporters, and as we build our capacity, we are hoping people come for a visit and return a second and even a third or fourth time.”
Board Chair Caryn Hanrahan is “excited to have our first gala March 16, honoring the work of Rabbis Joshua Heller and Alvin Sugarman, without whose vision and commitment this resource would not exist.”
She urges all to save the date and stay tuned for more details.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is an active advocate of MACoM.