Mikva a communal space

Mikva a communal space

Abby Wisse Schachter
Abby Wisse Schachter

A few weeks ago Rabbi Michael Werbow of Congregation Beth Shalom gave his Shabbat d’var Torah on a topic that some might think unusual for a Conservative rabbi. He spoke about the construction of the new Squirrel Hill mikva and how performing the ritual immersion – both for women and men – is not strictly an Orthodox obligation.

Unusual though it may have been, Werbow is perfectly correct, of course. The mikva is not an Orthodox space, it is a communal Jewish space, and the mitzva of ritual purification at the mikva is an obligation that can be performed by every Jew, woman or man.

The new mikva that is to be built on the site of the old ZOA house on Forbes Avenue is an opportunity to recognize the vital role that a mikva plays in the life of every Jewish community and to consider anew the importance of Jewish practice – doing rather than believing – in the life of our Pittsburgh Jewish community.

Traditionally, the mikva has been used by unmarried women before their wedding day, married women to mark the end of their menstrual cycle and the resumption of relations with their husbands and of course, for purposes of conversion to Judaism, for both women and men. These days, as Werbow made clear in his remarks, non-Orthodox men and women use the mikva ahead of their wedding day as well as “purifying” themselves in a mikva to mark a new stage of life, for example either post-illness or upon reaching menopause.

The first non-Orthodox mikva, which opened in 2004 in Newton, Mass., was called Mayyim Hayyim (living water, which is what mikva water is defined as. In most cases this means collected rainwater). “Mikvah is our model, but it’s a paradigm for helping people find meaning in a ritual they haven’t felt is theirs,” Aliza Kline, Mayyim Hayyim’s first executive director told Tablet last year. Anita Diamant, author of the “Red Tent,” is one of the founders of Mayyim Hayyim and in her telling the idea stemmed from her own husband’s experience of using a traditional mikva for his non-Orthodox conversion. Instead of what he experienced, Diamant argued for the creation of  “a [more] welcoming and inviting place, from the minute you walk through the door. A place for laughter and mazel tovs, with a gracious room in which to celebrate with brides and grooms, a place for the newly Jewish to raise a glass of wine,” Diamant explained.

The growth of mikva usage is not limited to the liberal streams of Judaism however. Among modern Orthodox women and men there has been a growing adoption of the mitzva of mikva. By the 1960s the tradition was totally out of fashion, with fewer than 200 in operation. “They were horrid: small, sparse and unfortunately, sometimes very dirty,” says Rivkah Slonim, author of the mikva book “Total Immersion.” Slonim says many Jews, including the baths’ builders, “felt that they belonged to the old country and didn’t have a future.” Today the landscape is completely different with nearly 400 Orthodox mikvas in operation and the design and amenities up to the highest standards of any spa.

Even TV stars are in love with the dunking in the mikva. As Mayim Bialik, co-star on “Big Bang Theory” recently admitted, she’s missing the mikva since her divorce. “I miss the rhythms of it, and how it marked the loss of an egg and the potential to create life when I was trying to get pregnant, and how it marked the phases of my cycle even when I was not trying to get pregnant. I miss it,” Bialik wrote at Kveller.com.

We ought to recognize and be grateful that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is so varied. We have a vibrant Orthodox segment that has supported a mikva and has worked hard to finance and plan the new facility. The community also boasts a variety of unique features such as a Shavuot study session that brings together Jews from all different branches of the faith as well as programming and religious education that combines different streams and denominations. The mikva is no different. It ought to be embraced by a variety of Jews for a variety of reasons and included as part of a vibrant and meaningful Jewish life.

(Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, blogs at captainmommy.com. She can be reached online at awschachter@gmail.com.)