May 8, 2013
Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh
Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.
But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear.
“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?”
“It … was … awesome.”
Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.
Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.
In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete.
For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.
It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room.
“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.”
“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.
The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.
Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all.
“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981.
“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said.
While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”
Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child.
Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.
There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said.
So, what was he like?
“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison.
“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added.
There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet.
“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time.
Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).
The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh.
“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.
“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.
“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.
Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”
The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.
“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself.
“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”
It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.
After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”
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