Community Mikvah Nourishes Interest in Ritual, New Uses

Community Mikvah Nourishes Interest in Ritual, New Uses

By Suzi Brozman

Rabbi Joshua Heller

Thirty years ago, you could count the number of mikvaot, or ritual Jewish immersion pools, in Atlanta on one hand. Orthodox synagogues maintained their own mikvaot for their members, and people outside the community who needed a mikvah for conversion or wanted to use it sometimes didn’t feel welcome, especially if the intended use was out of the ordinary or if those people didn’t know exactly what to do in a place outside their own experience.

Traditionally, the mikvah has been used for ritual purification, mostly in the Orthodox community. A halachic marriage requires a mikvah because a woman must immerse after her monthly period before resuming marital relations. Women may immerse monthly and before their weddings; men, with no halachic requirements, may immerse before Shabbat or holidays.

People use the mikvah before conversion to Judaism. Kitchen utensils are dipped to render them kosher for use.

In recent years, a movement has arisen in the world of ritual immersion, spurred by the foundation of Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters) mikvah. The healing and restorative power of water has led to the development of new uses for one of Judaism’s most ancient practices and the need to provide an appropriate facility for those more innovative uses.

For many years, the mikvah at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs has served the needs of Conservative, Reform and Traditional congregations. Needed renovations will put the mikvah out of service in coming months, but B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller saw the need as an opportunity to create a new mikvah — a community resource to serve the needs and desires of many more Jews.

For some time, The Temple’s Rabbi Alvin Sugarman has explored the concept of a community mikvah. He had met author Anita Diamant, who was instrumental in the start of Mayyim Hayyim, and been invited to visit the Boston mikvah.

“It was so warm and inviting, so welcoming. They were doing programs and ceremonies. I saw how meaningful it was,” Rabbi Sugarman said.

“Josh Heller was a driving force,” he said. “To the non-Orthodox community, it was an outreach place. It was a natural to gravitate to him.”

Thus, MACoM — Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah — was formed. The organization’s goal, Rabbi Heller said, is “to create a mikvah that will meet the highest ritual standards in terms of its construction but will be welcoming to Jews across the spectrum of observance.”

Rabbi Heller acknowledged the presence of a number of “wonderful and welcoming mikvaot in town, but in some cases restrictions on how and when they may be used mean that they can’t serve the full needs of the broader community.”

He expects a diverse user base, encompassing more than 100 conversions a year, monthly users, and many who will explore innovative ceremonies for healing, lifecycle events, holidays and more. “This is a resource for people who are not currently being served.”

Temple Sinai Rabbi Elana Perry is passionate about water as a powerful symbol in Jewish tradition. She has begun doing education, inviting people to explore the meaning of using water on a regular basis for marking life milestones and transitions in ways that could be more meaningful.

She said those uses could be for happy and sad occasions and go far beyond the stereotype that a mikvah is only for Orthodox women on a monthly basis. “Not only is the mikvah halachic,” she said, “but it’s a beautiful, serene, welcoming space to inspire and encourage spiritual transformation.”

The mikvah could be used after a serious illness, chemotherapy, the loss of a pregnancy or a divorce, at the onset of menopause, as a relationship begins — in other words, to commemorate any lifecycle event, change or transition.

“It’s like making Shabbat meaningful or keeping kosher or whatever you do in the rest of your life,” Rabbi Heller said. “It’s about finding meaning in a ritual. Our purpose is to create a new mikvah served by and owned by the whole community.”

More than a dozen synagogues and organizations are part of the effort. More than 20 congregations already depend on the B’nai Torah mikvah, and more may want to use the new structure.

“The plumbing is kosher,” Rabbi Heller said. “The rest is up to you. Individuals from all parts of the Jewish world use it. It’s up to people and their rabbis to determine its appropriateness for themselves.”

The plan is for the mikvah to offer appointments on a schedule that keeps men and women separate. Conversions and creative uses will occur during the day. Women will have evening hours, while men will have early mornings and Friday afternoons.

The facility will offer the guidance people are looking for. Rabbi Heller said MACoM won’t argue with what rabbis require but will assist people in planning, following rules and expressing their own spiritual values.

Diamant will appear at The Temple, 1589 Peachtree St., Midtown, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, to support MACoM. She will discuss “Reimagining Ritual for the Modern Age” and relate her experiences with Mayyim Hayyim. The program is free and open to the community.

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