By Cindy Mindell ~
WEST HARTFORD – It was a broken ankle that brought Judy Levy back to her home town in 1988. More specifically, a broken ankle sustained while serving as a shomeret, or attendant, in a mikvah in Kew Garden Hills, N.Y. Her route was a circuitous one that took her from Kew Garden Hills, back to the Kiryat Nachliel community she and her husband had helped build in Israel, and eventually to rejoin extended family in West Hartford.
But once she had been offered the job of shomeret at Mikvah Bess Israel, she felt as if she had finally come home. Then she understood the mysticism behind the broken bone. “There is a reason for everything,” says Levy. “It was bashert. I was being guided.”
Over the last 24 years, the many women she has welcomed and guided at Mikvah Bess Israel on North Main Street have become like family. Now, on Monday, May 21, that “family” of women will honor their shomeret, the public face of Judaism’s most central institution.
“We know about the importance of the mikvah to any Jewish community from the Torah and the commentaries,” says mikvah board member Vera Schwarcz of West Hartford. “Torah is referred to as ‘mayim chaim,’ the living waters, and the mikvah is the concrete embodiment of that. The mikvah is the central source of renewal for the Jewish people.”
In the days of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the mikvah was used by all Jews who wanted to enter the precincts of the Sanctuary. The law required every person inside the Temple grounds to be in a spiritually pure state appropriate to the pristine spirituality of the Sanctuary itself.
While married women are commanded by Torah to immerse after each menstrual cycle, the mikvah is used in many other ways, says Miriam Gopin of Chabad House of Greater Hartford and a mikvah board-member. “Many women use it once a month; men use it – some every day, others on erev Shabbos; as well as people converting to Judaism; and brides before marriage,” she says. “The entire community is using it. So we felt that it was time to do an event to raise the public’s awareness about the mikvah and its importance as a community institution. It’s also time to honor Judy for serving the community for more than 20 years.”
As shomeret, Levy checks each mikvah user to make sure she is completely free of anything that might separate her body from the water – no knots in the hair or contact lenses, no makeup or nail polish, no lint or stray hairs or slivers. She guides the woman down the stairs into the pool and watches the immersion – some will submerge once, others three or seven times, depending on her Jewish tradition – to ensure that every hair is underwater.
Perhaps as important as the religious proscription is the opportunity mikvah offers for some private time, Levy says. “I know the women so well that they will tell me their problems and ask for guidance,” she says. “I tell them to take some time to pray to Hashem.”
Beyond establishing and maintaining the physical place, Judaism proscribes “hiddur mitzvah,” beautifying the mitzvah. “Judy has brought an added measure of beauty, happiness, joy, and holiness to the mikvah,” says Schwarcz.
Indeed, Levy’s first priority was to fix the place up. With the mikvah board’s approval, she updated the curtains and furniture, creating an environment where women would feel comfortable.
“Judy’s main task is a practical one, but she is also very gracious, and always greets you warmly and with affection,” says Schwarcz. “It’s a very delicate balance to be both warm and welcoming and to respect the privacy of the person using the mikvah.”
Because using the mikvah is such a personal act, it has traditionally been discussed only among women and their daughters, not in the open, Gopin says. “So people didn’t know of its importance and centrality in the Jewish community,” she says. “It’s not as important to have a synagogue because you can pray anywhere, but without a mikvah, how can a Jewish community continue its existence?”
Gopin says that the mikvah board is working to increase awareness of the institution, by offering tours to day schools and Hebrew schools. “I have heard from women getting married whose rabbis didn’t tell them about the mikvah, and they feel cheated,” she says. Schwarcz hopes to help develop a mikvah-related curriculum for high school-age girls, as a way “to open the idea, experience, and joys of the mikvah to younger women,” she says.
During her tenure, Levy has tended to two generations of women in the community. “I feel like they’re all my children, and I am fulfilled by helping them,” she says. “I look forward to every day I serve at the mikvah.”
A women’s community tribute in honor of Judy Levy and Mikvah Bess Israel: Monday, May 21, 7:30 p.m., Agudas Achim Synagogue,1244 North Main St., West Hartford | $18/person includes dessert reception; the program will feature a comedy sketch by D’vorah Weiss, a kindergarten teacher at Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield, about her experiences as a shomeret at a mikvah in Atlantic City.