During difficult times, new beginnings, or endings, people often look for a way to symbolically mark transitions. In her mid-twenties, Miriam had just gone through a difficult break up and was about to make aliyah to Israel from Los Angles. Wanting to start fresh, Miriam remembered an Orthodox woman who ran a pluralistic mikveh who had told her, “If you ever just want to have the experience, you can come and do a dip anytime you want. You don’t have to come only because you’re married.”
Miriam decided to visit the mikveh and told the woman that she wanted to spiritually cleanse herself for her big life changes. While explaining that the mikveh can be a symbol for starting fresh, the woman set out candles and meaningful passages. Miriam describes her first mikveh experience as beautiful and lovely. However, her second mikveh experience was not as welcoming.
A few years later, when Miriam married in Israel, she decided to have a religious ceremony, but not with a Rabbinate approved Rabbi. This meant that Miriam could not use a public Israeli mikveh for her wedding. Wanting this experience, Miriam discussed her options with friends. Some suggested she slip into the mikveh unnoticed, while others suggested she lie, but Miriam didn’t feel comfortable with these plans.
“On the one hand, I felt like I was going to get cheated out of a really positive experience that I felt I was entitled to and on the other hand, I don’t even know what I’m doing and no one is going to help me through it. This is supposed to be an experience where everybody is making it feel special for me and instead I’m going to have to feel like I’m sneaking in. That is how I felt. You are making me sneak in, instead of being welcomed.”
After much contemplation, Miriam chose the Mediterranean Sea as her mikveh with a group of female relatives and close friends at hand. The experience was a powerful, spiritual, adventurous, and memorable one. “Thank goodness I had that first experience, because I knew that it could be this wonderful experience and my first introduction to mikveh wasn’t being barred.”
Miriam isn’t the only woman who has had to use the sea as her mikveh. Michelle gave birth as a single mother. On a path to becoming increasingly observant, it was important to her to go the mikveh after her bleeding stopped following the birth of her child. “I wanted to go to the mikveh and I was told that I was going to have to lie about being married if I wanted to go. And that was just shocking to me.”
Michelle was forbidden to use a public mikveh because she is single. The Rabbinate placed an order that no single women are allowed to use the mikvehs because it would be promoting promiscuity and sexual relations before marriage. Michelle was not only upset that there had been such a narrow ruling in terms of usage of the mikvehs, but that usage was limited in a public domain.
Sara*, an American immigrant to Israel shares these feelings. “I do feel anger that public facilities aren’t open to me. It surprises me that something like this can happen in a democracy where public funds should be allocated in a democratic and a pluralistic way.”
Sara, like Michelle, is discriminated against because she is a single woman who wants to use the mikveh. Having made the decision with her boyfriend to have a sexual relationship, Sara does not believe that mikveh usage should be restricted to only married women.
It may sound unordinary to hear a religious woman talking about a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, but Sara breaks a lot of stereotypes. She grew up Conservative, but felt as if the movement didn’t fulfill her needs. She finds herself “stuck between feeling very drawn between the spiritual experience in Orthodox communities, but feeling very alienated as a woman.” This means that she finds herself amid all sorts of communities. With an Ivy league education, working on a Master’s Degree, and having studied at an egalitarian yeshiva, Sara is well-versed in Jewish thought and history, reflective, and articulate.
“I wrap teffilin every day. I believe that adult Jews are obligated in all of the mitzvot that traditionally men are obligated in, because today, women don’t have a different social stance, so that is how I see myself. That is how I try to practice.”
Her reasoning regarding pre-martial sexual relations as a religious woman follows the same line of thought. “In a world where I can earn money, where I have my own professional aspirations, I’m an adult just as much as any man who I would consider marrying is. I think it is reasonable for an individual to come to the conclusion that it is not possible to decide you want to marry someone quickly enough before you have sex with them. I think that the joining of not keeping nidah and not being married just doesn’t really make sense in this world.”
Once they made the decision to have an intimate relationship, they wanted to figure out what would be the best way to practice nidah. They went to a Rabbi who they knew and had studied with, but Sara felt uncomfortable and that it was difficult to discuss such a personal and intimate topic with a man. By chance, she has a connection to Kibbutz Hannaton which has a pluralistic, open mikveh.
The mikveh, the Shmaya Mikveh, was created and is run by Rabbi Dr Haviva Ner-David, who did her doctorate on mikveh and considers herself a post-denominational Rabbi. Rabbi Ner-David, an American immigrant to Israel, moved to Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and children when it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Having a dream of creating a pluralistic mikveh, she decided to revive the mikveh on the kibbutz and base it on the same concept as the Mayyim Hayyim, an accessible and pluralistic mikveh for learning, spiritual discovery, religious and spiritual immersions in Newton, MA. The Shmaya Mikveh is now the only mikveh in Israel open to anyone who wants to immerse and can do so in the manner they want.
“We have our regular mikveh-goers from the kibbutz and the general area. But we also have people coming to immerse for a whole host of other purposes. Tomorrow I have a bride coming with her mother; she is getting married through the Conservative movement. Next week I have a woman coming to mark her divorce being finalized and an 18-year-old doing a pre-army-drafting immersion ritual. I’ve also had a mother and daughter come to mark the mother’s rabbinic ordination and the daughter’s bat mitzvah. All Reform and Conservative movement conversions in Israel that do not take place at the sea or at a spring also take place at Shmaya. I feel especially good about the many gay couples who either adopt or have a child through a surrogate mother and convert their babies here, because they know that they can come and be accepted with open arms and in a dignified manner. There have been so many special moments at this mikveh,” Rabbi Ner-David explains.
Rabbi Ner-David allows mikveh users to use the mikveh at their discretion. She offers them a key if they want to go by themselves or she is present if they want her to lead a ceremony. She does not insist that people be checked as required at other mikvehs. Just as her mikveh is open, so is Rabbi Ner-David’s mind, which is something that Sara particularly appreciated when she went to her for advice and support regarding using the mikveh as a single woman in a sexual relationship.
“Haviva was really helpful. I really appreciated both her technical knowledge and that she is totally non-judgmental. Especially as a woman, it is unique to have a woman who is so knowledgeable in the sources and engages with them on a regular basis. She was sensitive to the effects of using the mikveh on all its levels and its implications. All the information she gave us gave me a lot of confidence,” Sara describes her discussion with Rabbi Ner-David.
As much as Rabbi Ner-David helped Sara, her mikveh has helped many people in different circumstances. Rabbi Ner-David explains that the mikveh experience is becoming increasingly synonymous with a spiritual cleansing or a renewal, rebirth ritual instead of just physical purity. “People today are interpreting mikveh immersion in all different kinds of ways: getting over some kind of traumatic event or illness, coming out of mourning, before giving birth, after divorce, before a big event. This is all both very traditional and quite radical at the same time. Today’s renewed interest in mikveh immersion is a way of taking it back, reinterpreting, and reclaiming it to fit our modern needs and sensibilities.”
One woman who has found the Shmaya Mikveh to be particularly useful is Chen*. She had just gone through a divorce and was looking to spiritually cleanse herself during this difficult period. While married, Chen enjoyed and related to the mikveh and found the experience very special. She felt a sense of loss that it was no longer part of her ritual, but felt uncomfortable using her local mikveh or another mikveh as a single woman. “I wanted to dip again, so that I could get a good fresh start and just connect with that positive feeling from the past.”
Having heard of Rabbi Ner-David’s mikveh, Chen called her up and asked her if she could come for a dip. Rabbi Ner-David opened the mikveh doors for her without any hesitation. Chen explains her experience at the Shmaya Mikveh as being very spiritually different from her other experiences, partially because she was doing it even though she didn’t have to, but also because of the atmosphere. “I didn’t really know Haviva, but I knew that she would be ok with it because she is very flexible and welcomes everyone to the mikveh. It was very nice to be in a place when there is no centralized authority and it is between you and God. There is no middleman. It is totally different from the regular mikvehs. I definitely did enjoy being alone and having the time to be with myself. It was really purifying and a way to start a new page – a fresh start in a really holy way that is connected to God.”
Rabbi Ner-David was originally drawn to the mikveh for a multitude of reasons. “I find that being a mikveh rabbi really suits me because I am not a dogmatic type of person and don’t believe in traditional rabbinic authority. At the mikveh, my role is to act as a guide for people during their own personal, spiritual experience. It just comes down to me, the person, and the water.” She enjoys supporting people on an individual level through different life transitions. “The mikveh is an especially individual experience. So sometimes I am not even present in the immersion room. But I can guide them before and after. And when I am in the room during the immersion, it is very intimate yet not invasive. I try to be as invisible as possible yet still very available and open. It’s a tricky balance between being present but not intrusive.” Rabbi Ner-David particularly enjoys being available to help guide people for conversion and bridal ceremonies.
Ofer and his partner came to Rabbi Ner-David’s mikveh specifically for one of these life cycle events – the conversion of their twins. In Israel, many homosexual couples use surrogacy in India to have biological children. When these couples bring their biological children to Israel, they often convert them to Judaism; however, the Israeli Rabbinate will not convert babies who will be brought up by homosexual parents. Consequently, many homosexual couples in Israel turn to the Reform and Conservative movements to convert their children. As part of the conversion process, they need a mikveh, but the public mikvehs, run by the Rabbinate, will not allow their use for such conversions. This is a void that the Shmaya Mikveh is filling.
When it came time to convert their twins at ten months old, Ofer and his partner didn’t want an Orthodox conversion, even if it had been an option. Instead, their children went through a Reform conversion, which Ofer describes as a very pleasant and welcoming process. When it came time for the children to go into the mikveh, they had two options, one to take the children to the sea or to use Rabbi Ner-David’s mikveh. They decided that the Shmaya Mikveh would be the best option.
Upon their arrival, they were welcomed by both Rabbi Ner-David and her teenage daughter, who came to be a witness and ended up also being a photographer. Rabbi Ner-David warned them that some babies are scared of the water and offered some suggestions. But the children were excited to get into the water since Ofer and his partner had been preparing the twins for the mikveh for the past five months by taking them to swimming lessons once a week. “They thought they were at the pool and got excited. It was very fun.”
Each father got into the water in a bathing suit and held one of the twins, who were naked. “We played with them for a few minutes in the water so that they would get used to it. We said blessings and dipped them three times.” After they got out, they took some pictures and Rabbi Ner-David gave them approval that they had dipped in the mikveh as part of the conversion process. Ofer recalls that the only part that didn’t go smoothly was that they got out of the mikveh too quickly for the twins.
This is the type of atmosphere that can be found in Rabbi Ner-David’s mikveh – an environment of inclusion when many other mikvehs in Israel are exclusionary. It is a place that reflects Rabbi Ner-David’s personality and philosophy.
“I’m not a dictator type of Rabbi. I really enjoy helping people find their way of connecting to (the mikveh) or not connecting to it. I don’t have any stake in it. I find it a really interesting topic to talk to people about because it deals with issues of women’s bodies, control, gender, and halacha.”
The beauty and power of the mikveh for Rabbi Ner-David is that the water maintains a state of purity. “Anybody can go in and it doesn’t do anything to the mikveh, so I can be very permissive about who goes in.”
*Name changed for privacy
Additional Information: The Shmaya Mikveh also acts as an educational center with a variety of workshops and ceremonial circles. Groups can attend study and immersion sessions, mandala and mikveh workshops, and pre-shabbat and pre-Yom Kippur meditation among other activities. The Shmaya Mikveh is active in teaching the secular community about the mikveh and offers sessions for bar/bat mitzvah groups. An additional activities offered at the Shmaya Mikveh are belly mask/immersion pre-birth circles and “period parties”.
Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003, served in the IDF Spokesperson Unit, and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.