Late last month, Mayyim Hayyim, the Living Waters Community Mikveh and Paula Brody Educational Center in Newton, Massachusetts, premiered the film Open Waters: Mikveh for Everybody.
Remaining staunchly committed to the principal of petichut, or “openness,” the film highlights the steps this community mikveh has taken to ensure that people with disabilities, both cognitive and physical, have as much access to the mikveh as everyone else.
In a blog post written just before the premiere of the film, Carrie Bornstein, Executive Director of Mayyim Hayyim, wrote, “Accessibility to people with disabilities has been a …priority since the very beginning. Petichut – openness – is one of our guiding principles and it is part of everything we do: Nobody is closed out of our education programs, art gallery, or immersion into the mikveh itself.”
Since it opened its doors in 2004, in fact, Mayyim Hayyim has been in the business of saying yes. As a kosher mikveh, maintained under rabbinic supervision, many people participate in ritual immersions at Mayyim Hayyim for the traditional reasons as outlined in the Torah: marriage, conversion and niddah. But Mayyim Hayyim was expressly created so that the Jewish community might reclaim the ancient ritual of immersion, in a bright, open, and welcoming space. And for the past 11 years, with 14,000 recorded immersions and counting, Jews have been coming to Mayyim Hayyim to do just that, marking occasions as auspicious and varied as the completion of a course of chemotherapy, a milestone birthday, a gender re-assignment ceremony, the impending birth of a child, or a bar or bat mitzvah.
While Mayyim Hayyim has always had a chair lift, which makes the mikveh accessible to people with physical disabilities who are looking to mark transitional moments, educators are now also creating a discussion guide to accompany the film.
“The whole reason Mayyim Hayyim was created was access,” says Bornstein in the film, which was created in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. “At Mayyim Hayyim we name the fact that full inclusion for people with disabilities is one of our values. Placing that on our website, making that a part of who we say we are, explicitly welcomes people in and says ‘we are here for you’. This is for all of us, period. If we say that we’re open to everyone, then we’re open to everyone.”
Each person who enters through the doors of this mikveh is put at the center of his or her experience. There is no prescribed method for any given ceremony; in fact, in an attempt to emphasize the degree to which Mayyim Hayyim mikveh guides practice empathy first, Bornstein demonstrated a mirroring game, where the woman next to her attempted to intuit where Bornstein would move her hands, as if the hands were in front of a mirror, two sets moving in the same direction, fluidly. “It’s about how we listen to people,” Bornstein explains. “When someone comes to the mikveh, it’s the mikveh guide’s job to think, does she need me? Or should I get out of the way? How can we mold ourselves around this person?”
As an example of this kind of tailored attention, Anita Diamant, author and Founding President of Mayyim Hayyim, shares a story. “A bride recently came to Mayyim Hayyim with her non-Jewish groom, just before their wedding,” she begins. “He witnessed her immersion, and was touched by the ceremony. Then, the groom asked if he, too, could immerse,” Diamant pauses. The rule, she goes on to explain, is that you must be Jewish to immerse in the ritual bath.
“However, instead of saying no, the mikveh guide went and drew some water from the mikveh, and helped the groom perform a hand-washing ceremony,” Diamant continues. “In this way, the groom felt respected and heard, and I think that helped him feel okay about being a part of the Jewish community.”
In the hand washing ceremony, the participant reads, “I stand here today to acknowledge and affirm this moment in my life journey.” On the most basic level, this ritual allows anyone—Jew or non-Jew—to have a meaningful experience, to mark a moment, to be present and connect.
And there are hundreds of other stories, just like this one. Bornstein shared that just days before this interview, she spent time with the mother of a nonverbal child with cognitive disabilities, who had reached bar mitzvah age. As part of a support group for Jewish mothers of children with disabilities, this parent shared with her group her struggles to figure out a way to mark her son’s bar mitzvah, given his disabilities. “She wondered, ‘how do I give him a Jewish identity and sense of Jewish World and values; what does that look like for him?’” Bornstein recalled. She then went on to share that someone in the support group mentioned that they had recently taken their daughter to Mayyim Hayyim before her bat mitzvah, and it was incredibly meaningful. With that information, the mother of the young boy realized that for her son, who experiences the world through his senses, immersion in a mikveh would be a perfect way to mark this momentous occasion.
The details of the ceremony are up to the family; the family is now considering whom they will invite, and how to personalize the ceremony and how the educational resources at Mayyim Hayyim can help. Mayyim Hayyim has been training educators for years, and, with grants from the Covenant Foundation, has established national training resources as well, now, they have also partnered with Gateways to create a picture guide of the seven guiding principles which inform all that Mayyim Hayyim does, allowing this child to comprehend of the kavanot in a way that makes sense for him.
“I can’t think of a place where there are more barriers,” Bornstein says, referring to the fact that there are so many aspects of the mikveh experience that could potentially make a person feel shut out—from the requirement that one remove all garments before immersion to the act of fully immersing in water to the connotations about mikveh, ideas of who is a Jew, any disabilities that might prevent immersion, and on and on.
But at Mayyim Hayyim, those who have experienced a Judaic culture of “no,” suddenly find themselves within the land of “yes.” The bottom line is that the experience is meant to be a positive one, not coercive, not negative.
“If we can find a way to do this here, to include everyone, then we should be able to figure this out in our other Jewish organizations and communities. We are hoping that this initiative can be inspirational and make people realize, ‘we can make it work,” Bornstein says.
“We are such a head and language-based religion,” Diamant adds, “but this is not that. Immersing in water is something totally elemental. You put your body in, and it feels good. This is powerful for everybody.”
Interestingly however, despite the power of a ritual immersion, many of Mayyim Hayyim’s supporters have never entered the mikveh. Thanks to hundreds of educational programs run throughout the year, and a series of popular local events, Mayyim Hayyim has managed to provide an entry point for the community beyond just that of its “main” business.
“Our events are fun,” Diamant promises. “There’s no seated dinner, there’s lots of upbeat music, and the tickets aren’t expensive, which lowers the barrier to entry and allows genuine community involvement.” At the recent reception for Open Waters, held on May 18th of this year, Mayyim Hayyim featured speaker Matan Koch, a lawyer and speaker on Universal Inclusion, paid tribute to the 10th anniversary of the publication of Blessings for the Journey: A Jewish Healing Guide for Women with Cancer, featured singer-songwriter Noam Katz and musical guest Julie Silver, and debuted Open Waters: Mikveh for Everybody, Mayyim Hayyim’s original film.
Over 500 people showed up that night, including friends of the honorees, rabbis, clergy, Jewish professionals and Mayyim Hayyim fans, proving that in addition to the mikveh, the events are a portal, too.
Another portal are the educational curricula that Mayyim Hayyim produces. Their most popular is the Beneath the Surface, a three-session program that uses activities to strengthen the mother-daughter relationship as they prepare for a bat mitzvah. Now, communities across the country have begun to use the curriculum. “We’ve found that people are very open to programs and ceremonies that occur at times of transition,” Bornstein says.
Mayyim Hayyim can help other communities develop programs like Beneath the Surface, and has a number of concrete resourcesthey can provide; some of their curricula require a mikveh, but some do not. Beneath the Surface, for example, can be done in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers; the Open Waters discussion guide may be used in camps, or day school and afternoon school settings.
“This is a way for those who aren’t here, in Boston, to bring Mayyim Hayyim to their community,” Bornstein says. The Mayyim Hayyim education center has created a variety of programs around the meaning of the Jewish ritual of mikveh, geared toward students ages 10 and up. They lead over 100 education programs a year, and can tailor the programs for a variety of ages and intentions.
In fact, just before this interview, Mayyim Hayyim hosted a group of 6th grade boys from a local synagogue, who spent a long while in the basement of the mikveh, inspecting the plumbing system. “What’s amazing is that the whole experience around the mikveh has been normalized for kids,” Diamant says. “Now they know, in 6th grade, they’ll visit the mikveh. It’s not a foreign concept to them.”
And should those same kids choose to immerse in the mikveh come time for their bar or bat mitzvah, their kavanah, their intention, is likely to be informed and focused.
In the immersion ceremony literature for such a moment, before the second immersion in the ceremony, b’nai mitzvah read:
“May my decisions and behaviors help make the world a better place. I commit myself to contributing my time, my talents and the best of myself to doing Tikkun Olam, Repair of the World.”
While it’s probably safe to assume that most 12-year-olds are busy doing, doing, doing, moving from school to extracurriculars to socializing and homework, there’s something to be said for taking a brief moment to pause and give a bar or bat mitzvah child the space to reflect on what this rite of passage actually means. Away from the crowds at synagogue and the thumping beats of the DJ at their bar mitzvah party, in the quiet, light space of the mikveh and with their parents, a child just might be transformed into an adult, or at the very least, into a young person cognizant of a sacred tradition that’s theirs for the taking, ready to be molded in whichever way makes sense to them, at this very moment.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project