Some say Fanit Panofsky was destined to build a mikvah. In her native Morocco, her great-grandmother operated a mikvah. So, too, did her grandmother.
So it came as no surprise to Panofsky's friends and family when she opened a mikvah in a Fort Lauderdale suburb, her hometown. But, the Mikveh Shulamit is anything but your grandmother's ritual bath.
Sure, the mikvah is filled with rainwater, as dictated by Jewish law. Yes, women immerse themselves in the water at least three times in order to be ritually pure after their menstrual periods, reciting the same blessings that have been said for thousands of years.
However, at a time when the new age, mind-body-spirit mantra has entered the psyche of almost every multitasking American, Mikveh Shulamit has a twist: In addition to tevila, the ritual dunking, the same building also includes the Contour Day Spa, which offers such services as reflexology, hot stone massage and hydrotherapy.
Since it opened at the beginning of last year, Mikveh Shulamit has been the talk of the Florida town. Immense and ornate, with high ceilings and a faux domed skylight, the adjoining spa is equipped with no less than 28 hair stations and 28 manicure stations.
The "wet area" is home to the spa's signature treatment, Journey to Eden, which features four heart-shaped jacuzzis. Various wings house a pilates center, a suite for couples' massages and a physician offering Botox consultations.
The mikvah, reached by a separate entrance, has the same Old World-meets-Las Vegas decor as the spa, along with hand-painted murals with views of Jerusalem. Contour also incorporates a boutique and a cafe.
The overall effect is a little like cruising about the Starship Enterprise, albeit with a largely Hebrew-speaking crew. This morning, a constant stream of SUVs pull into the makeshift "drive-thru" in order to purchase gift certificates in time for, yes, Christmas.
Some might raise eyebrows at the juxtaposition of a Jewish ritual associated with modesty and a center dedicated to the pursuit of physical beauty and comfort. At the mikvah, though, makeup, jewelry and even press-on nails must be removed so that no part of the body is left untouched by the pool waters. The ritual is so private that women, once inside the mikvah, don't meet one another.
At the spa, on the other hand, endless products, even permanent makeup, are applied to clients' bodies, while the common areas are abuzz with ladies trading the latest gossip.
Devotees of Mikveh Shulamit, equally comfortable in the salon and the shul, see no contradiction. According to Rabbi Mendy Posner, from the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement who oversees the mikvah, the mikvah-cum-spa helps provide a rare "combination of internal and external beauty."
As Chanie Posner, the rabbi's wife and the day-to-day operator of the mikvah, pointed out, Jewish law dictates that "a woman should feel and look beautiful at all times."
There are no mikvah-and-manicure specials at Contour -- at least not yet. "Most women who use the mikvah use the spa," Panofsky said. "We're thinking about next quarter doing something to encourage more people to do both. Chanie's idea was for women who frequent the mikvah, give them certain discounts in the spa."
Amid the buzz of customers recently was 23-year-old Joy Quittner, trailed by a camera crew. She first came to Contour to have her hair done for her bat mitzvah; on this day she was preparing for her wedding. The week before she had participated in her first dip in the mikvah.
"I came in on Thursday and had everything off" for the mikvah, she said. "On Friday, I had my nails done, a massage and a facial. Today I'm doing hair and makeup."
"We heard Fanit was doing [a mikvah], and we loved the idea," she said. "I went on two trips to Israel; I saw the mikvah on top of Masada. It was something I always wanted to do. I'm truly honored."
Panofsky, a 20-year veteran of the spa business, received a grant from the Small Business Administration in order to relocate Contour to a larger, custom-built building. Rabbi Posner -- knowing the history of mikvah in Panofsky's family -- suggested a mikvah and the idea took off from there.
Chanie Posner estimated that 15 to 20 women partake in the ritual monthly. In the last three months, she said, 20 women have immersed themselves in the waters for the first time. Sixty curious women recently attended a mikvah class taught by Posner at the spa. Of course, the numbers pale compared to the business generated by Contour, which, according to Panofsky, sees between 2,300 and 3,000 clients each week.
"The mikvah is a gift to the community -- it is not a profit center," Panofsky said, noting that the next closest mikvah was at least 40 minutes away. "The city needed it."
"Fanit is considered the high priestess of fashion," Rabbi Posner said. "If Fanit did the mikvah, it's the right thing to do."
Despite her admirable track record in the business, Panofsky credits the mikvah for her success. "The economy is not good. A lot of businesses are not doing well," she said. "The spa business is becoming a big thing, but, you know, not everybody makes it."
"Here, the overhead is immense, and we're doing fine," Panofsy said. "I credit the mikvah, the mikvah is watching over us." Â