BEAUTIFYING THE COMMANDMENT OF MIKVAH
The traditional use of a mikvah may be for Taharat HaMishpacha – family purity – but there’s no reason the facility itself has to be merely functional.
“The driving force behind the construction of a new mikvah is the recognition that a community cannot exist without this important mitzvah,” says Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford. “People are aware that, if you have a choice between building a shul and a mikvah, mikvah comes first because it is so integral to family life.”
But beyond the mitzvah, Judaism is a way of life that should be filled with beauty and enjoyment, and a deep appreciation of the ways the mitzvot can enhance our relationship to God and to each other, Cohen says. “So, in the 21st century, if a mikvah isn’t a beautiful place where one can fulfill the mitzvah with a sense of joy, it diminishes the beauty of the mitzvah,” he says.
In modern life, people choose to spend money on material possessions like homes and cars, and that’s one area of pursuit, Cohen says. “But at the end of the day, Judaism says, ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him,’ which but becomes an inspiration to do mitzvot in a beautiful way. We build a nice sukkah, prepare a welcoming seder and Shabbat table. In these ways, we’re saying to God and to our community and ourselves, ‘My Judaism is important to me.’”
The mikvah has the power to enhance Jewish life, Cohen says, specifically through enhancing Jewish family life. “Marriage is not only about two bodies coming together, but about two souls coming together,” he says. “Marriage is built on timeless values, not fleeting values; the bride and the groom each immerses before their wedding, and has the opportunity to think about their hopes and dreams for their new life together.”
Miriam Gopin is director of Chabad Women’s Organization at Chabad House of Greater Hartford in West Hartford. “The intention is that, as a woman observes the law of family purity month after month, the separation from her husband gives her an opportunity to refocus on the things she’d like to improve in her marriage,” Gopin says. “The mitzvah is meant to give both husband and wife different ways of communicating that are not just physical. The woman immerses in the mikvah – which we compare to the waters of the womb – and emerges renewed and rejuvenated afterwards. The separation from her husband often means that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that you don’t take each other for granted.”
Gopin runs educational programs for women, including a special class for brides-to-be that includes immersion. “I teach the women that mikvah is a very spiritual moment, and that they may feel wet and uncomfortable but that the spiritual moment is still happening,” she says. “Everyone has that spiritual experience, but you also must bring with you an intention. If you put mikvah on your calendar and see it as a chore and you rush through it, you won’t feel the specialness of the moment.”
Earlier this year, doors opened at the new Minnie Manger-Marcia Lieberman Mikvah at Congregation Agudath Sholom. The synagogue has long been the site of Stamford’s communal mikvah, first on Grove Street, then at its present location on Strawberry Hill Avenue. “For many years, there’s been a dream in Stamford to build a new mikvah,” Cohen says. “A coalescing of many factors made that possible – the right leadership within our synagogues, significant donors, forging bonds with important partners in the community, and a vibrant committee that allowed Congregation Agudath Sholom to spearhead the new project.”
The Mikvah Committee worked from the start to make the facility truly communal and inclusive, Cohen says, using a mikvah consultant and discussing all issues with community partners.
“To its credit, Agudath Sholom has always been a community-oriented synagogue, largely due to the efforts of Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz,” he says. “The new mikvah meets the highest standards of kashrut, so that Chasidim and those coming in from Brooklyn feel comfortable using it, as well as Reform and Conservative rabbis coming in to do conversions.”
While mikvah has been a consistent part of life in the Orthodox community, both Cohen and Gopin note the revival of the mitzvah in the U.S. over the last 20 years.
“This is an opportunity to use the openness in our society to again explore a timeless part of Judaism that we need more now, because relationships are so temporal today,” Cohen says. “We’re missing that face-to-face encounter and mikvah is a way to remind us.”
Cohen cites a line in the Book of Psalms as an indication that Jews are meant to experience mitzvot, rather than only be instructed as to their value. “King David wrote, ‘Taste and see that God is good.’ I can tell you what it’s like to ski the Rockies, but unless you experience it yourself, you won’t understand,” he says. “Judaism is less about explaining, and more about experiencing, and the mikvah can enhance your personal spiritual life and that of your family. We all take risks, in positive ways, in our spiritual growth. I would encourage people to think about using the mikvah to deepen their relationship with God and with their family. In a world cluttered with a lot of noise, and that’s moving so fast, we have another opportunity for spiritual renewal in our community.”
MEN AT THE MIKVAH
By Cindy Mindell
It’s not only married women and those converting to Judaism who use the mikvah, though they are the ones commanded to do so. Men will immerse as well, though only from custom (minhag), not commandment (mitzvah). Many bridegrooms go before getting married; a father might immerse before his son’s bris, a Kohen may go prior to a service where he’ll say a certain blessing, and a Torah scribe will usually immerse before taking on his or her sacred work.
There is an exception in the Torah, where men are commanded to immerse after they have had an abnormal discharge of body fluids.
“Some Orthodox men go through life and never go to a mikvah because it’s a custom, not a commandment,” says Rabbi Yossi Pollak of Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport. No blessing is recited by a man using the mikvah, except if he is converting.
Chasidic men, however, tend to go every morning before prayers, or at least on Friday before Shabbat, Pollak says, and the custom has found its way into other parts of the Orthodox world as well. Many Orthodox men will immerse before any Jewish holiday, especially Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Orthodox communities usually have separate mikvaot for men and women, while others set separate times for each gender. Chabad rabbis who serve in remote areas without built mikvaot often make arrangements to use natural bodies of water, Pollak says.
“In the times of the Tanakh, when there was taharah – commonly translated as a ritual purification – immersion was needed before one ate certain foods or went into certain parts of the Temple,” he says.
Miriam Gopin, director of Chabad Women’s Organization at Chabad House of Greater Hartford in West Hartford, explains it this way: “We consider prayer a replacement for the service in the Temple. In the siddur, we see that the structure of the prayer service follows the structure of the service in the Temple. Just like a person had to be pure and holy before participating in a service in the Temple, the Chasidim and other very Orthodox men take that very seriously. In Hebrew, we call prayer “avodah,” the same word that is used to describe the Kohen’s service in the Temple. So pious Jews will prepare themselves spiritually before praying – including immersion – because prayer is a way of uniting with God on a personal level.”
Because the Jewish people have no Temple, all Jews now have the status of “tumat meit,” the defiling that occurs when someone comes in contact with a corpse or human remains. The ashes of a red heifer are required in order to purify a tumat meit, but because the animal stipulated by halacha is a biological anomaly, nobody would be allowed to enter the Temple today, anyway, Pollak says.
A movement in Israel that seeks to worship on the Temple Mount has stirred halachic controversy. “The question is, where on the Temple Mount can you go without being totally pure?” Pollak says. “So those men who do go up to the Temple Mount today, even though they can’t release themselves completely from tumat meit status, do go to the mikvah to release themselves from any other impurity.”
While the act of immersion is a private one for both men and women, Pollak says that his own visits to a Lower East Side mikvah before Shabbat or a holiday bore out a more social, bustling side to the experience.
“A huge number of men wanted to use the mikvah over the course of a few hours, so it was chaotic and crowded and there was a lot of waiting around,” he recalls. “There were five or six dunking areas flanked by two prep rooms each, and you’d go into your own room and then enter the pool to immerse by yourself. But sometimes someone would open his door to enter the pool before I had completed my immersion. My recollection is that men at the mikvah were seeing a lot more of each other than women probably see of each other.”
WHERE TO FIND A MIKVAH IN CONNECTICUT
Those looking for a mikvah to go to have several to choose from around the state.
1326 Stratfield Road, Fairfield
New Haven Mikvah Society, Inc.
86 Hubinger St., New Haven
Women’s Lubavitch Mikveh
16 Colony Road, New Haven
Mikvah Mei Menachem
25 Pacific St., New London
Congregation Brothers of Joseph Mikvah
2 Broad St.(corner Washington St.), Norwich
Congregation Agudaath Shlom Mikvah
301 Strawberry Hill Ave., Stamford
Mikvah Tcharna of Waterbury
186 Roseland Ave., Waterbury
Mikvah Israel of Waterbury
B’nai Sholom Synagogue
135 Roseland Av., Waterbury
Mikvah Bess Israel of West Hartford
61 North Main St., West Hartford