December 6, 2007
New kind of mikveh washes off ritual’s negative image
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"'The Red Tent' was becoming a phenomenon in 1999 to 2000, and suddenly everyone started to return my phone calls," said Diamant, who is now board president of Mayyim Hayyim.
She delivered her spiel to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in New York, and Aliza Kline joined Diamant, becoming the founding executive director of the project.
"Other people were having the same idea," Diamant said. "It was the moment that liberal Jews in America were coming into our own, and anything in Judaism belongs to us -- people today aren't intimidated by taking on something old that's been foreign."
Mayyim Hayyim, which translates to "Living Waters," is located in a renovated traditional wood-frame house in a residential neighborhood. It contains two mikveh pools connected by a transom, so that a couple can both immerse simultaneously. It has the ambiance of a high-end spa, with low and natural lighting, marble floors and tiles surrounding the small, deep pools, which can be entered by spiral steps. (Handicap access is also available.) An atrium, reception room and educational center are located in bright, naturally lit rooms with cherry walls.
"The beautiful architectural detail is part of our commitment to hiddur mitzvah," their Web site states, referring to the act of enhancing a positive commandment. In place of the "mikveh lady," Mayyim Hayyim is run by a committee of 60 "guides" -- local volunteers, each with particular expertise or focus, who are selected and undergo a seven-week training program using the group's curriculum, "Guide My Steps."
The educational center also hosts groups and artistic performances, such as "The Mikveh Monologues," and though it was also created to reinvent the ritual, some 75 percent of the immersions are traditional -- for conversions, brides and marital purity.
To date, some 20 cities and communities have made inquiries about replicating Mayyim Hayyim. The question is, can it work in Los Angeles?
Marca Gay, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Mikveh and Education Center (LACMEC), believes it will. After attending a conference at Mayyim Hayyim last year, she decided Los Angeles should have a community mikveh like Boston's.
"There is a need for the type of space that would be welcoming for all Jews, no matter where they are in the spectrum of Jewish observance," she said.
Gay should know. She first immersed in a mikveh in 1988 for her conversion to Judaism, and she found it a transformative experience: "I started to see it as something I could incorporate into my Jewish practice, not only in the traditional use."
Later, when she had to have an operation so she could carry a child, she decided to immerse in the mikveh.
"I felt that immersion in the mikveh would provide me with the embrace of the family of the women that I didn't have anymore, to provide me with a spiritual place to say my individual prayers -- I came up out of the mikveh feeling hopeful." She became pregnant on her first try, and her 12-year-old son is now studying for his bar mitzvah.
In April, Gay left Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) to co-found LACMEC with Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein (Goldstein is the secretary and George Caplan is president). Caplan and Goldstein are also both involved with the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic religious court founded in 2002 that has had financial ups and downs despite Caplan's funding of it, in memory of his wife, Sandra.
The question is, will Los Angeles support another pluralistic project, this one with an $18 million price tag?
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University, who was instrumental in bringing about the Rabbinical Assembly's (RA) nondenominational mikveh there in 1983, is not so sure. Even though the RA mikveh is "quite busy," he said, "What I don't know is what the demand for such a thing would be," although "there may well be room for a mikveh for the non-Orthodox community in a community of 550,000 Jews."
But the real question he has is whether such a project should be a number-one priority for the Jewish community's money.
"I frankly think if we really had a lot of money in the Jewish community, I would spend it on scholarships for day schools and camps and day care so that people don't have to worry about having more children," he said. "Frankly, I think that's much more important than another mikveh."
On the other hand, he said, he understands how fundraising works, and he believes it's a good project, if not a top priority.
The proposed new community mikveh would cost $18 million, Gay said, of which $7 million would be used to purchase land and the mikveh and $11 million for endowments. It would require a 7,500-square-foot site in West Los Angeles, and would include an education center and two mikvehs. She said she hopes it will begin operating by 2010.
"The hardest thing when I talk to the donor community is to explain that it's not your grandmother's mikveh," Goldstein said.
Which is why the production of "Mikveh Monologues," to be performed by professional actors, is crucial not only as a fundraiser, but also as an educational tool.
"Anyone who sees it will be carried into the mikveh vision," Goldstein said. "They'll never think of the mikveh in limited terms."
Like the Gen-X bride in the "Monologues," who despite her initial cynicism ("I suppose it was meaningful in some way, but mostly I felt like I was just getting really clean in a friend's tub"), ends up calling for her mother and bursting into tears.
"Then I went, and I dunked. I remember wanting to jump up and down in the water because the whole experience was just so cool. It was fun. I felt really light -- like I had to force myself under because I was so buoyant.
"And happy. And clear."
"The Mikveh Monologues: Stories and Songs From Mayyim Hayyim," will be performed at The Wadsworth Theatre Monday, Dec. 17, 8 p.m. For more information, call 323-683-0766 or visit http://www.richmarkent.com/shows/mikveh-monologues.php
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