Magic Water

The mikvah at Beth El Congregation (David Stuck)

Walk into the mikvah [ritual bath] at Beth El Congregation and the tile sparkles — literally. Its healing waters call out, “You are at Heaven’s gate. Connect with God.”

It sounds like the start of a good novel — fiction, of course. But the Beth El mikvah, transformed this past year from a beautiful ritual bath into the first stage of what will ultimately be a healing center, is just that magical. … And it is a reality.

It is an incredible community resource that, as one visitor explained, “exudes warmth and comfort from the moment that the door opens.”

It is a place to ask God for strength, courage or hope, a place to re-create a better self and to begin anew.

Plans for the renovation, the brainchild of Rabbi Dana Saroken, began about a year ago, when the shul considered a bit of “cleaning and fixing up” of the mikvah due to normal wear and tear; the Beth El mikvah was originally built in the 1980s under the direction of Rabbi Mark Loeb and through the generosity of Elliot and Susan Weinstein and Dr. Michael Schultz in honor of his wife, Joan Schultz. However, said Rabbi Saroken, when they went in to consider the repairs, it was determined that “if we were going to take the time to make these changes, we might as well look into really making it beautiful again.”

Rabbi Saroken formed a mikvah task force to assist in the process (Debbie Abrams, Jill Baldinger, Jennifer Grossman, Jane Krosin, Alice Levine, Susie Mann, Lisi Nigrin, Beverly Penn, Elise Rubenstein and Marlene Siegel). The group quickly understood and bought into the vision: Create a beautiful community mikvah, and broaden the scope of how the mikvah is being used.

“What we wanted to do was to make it beautiful, to try to entice people, to help them to see that a mikvah really has a beautiful transformative power, that it really can be a vehicle to experiencing spirituality and holiness and celebrating the passage of time and sacred events in a person’s life,” said Rabbi Saroken. “It is something in which you can feel a sense of peacefulness, in which you can immerse and leave feeling more whole.”

Again, the Weinsteins and the Schultz family offered their support, along with a third donor, Barbara Mendelsohn, and the task force set out to make the dream a reality. A group of women, including interior designer Dale Kahn, visited the Four Seasons Hotel spa in Harbor East for inspiration. Shortly after, renovations began.

Kahn told the JT she looked for the right combination of tiles, colors and other amenities to make mikvah visitors — both men and women — feel instantly comfortable.

“I wanted it to be a warm, welcoming and wonderful experience,” said Kahn.

Those who have experienced it since the renovation said Kahn achieved her goals. And many Beth El mikvah-goers are eager to tell their stories and share how the power of the mikvah has transformed or enhanced their lives.

Eden Himelfarb first went to the mikvah several years ago, after losing a baby to a miscarriage.

“I felt it was something I wanted to do to cleanse my body after the miscarriage,” said Himelfarb, who noted that it was one of her girlfriends who recommended it to her. She said that same friend accompanied her for what turned out to be a life-changing moment.

“I just felt like it was a very spiritual, cleansing experience for me. … I felt I needed to move on,” said Himelfarb.

She said that she has plans to go to the mikvah again soon — this time in celebration.

“We just adopted a little boy, and we will be taking him to the mikvah when it comes time to complete his conversion process,” said Himelfarb. “[The first time] I went it was for a not-so-happy occasion, and for my son it will be a very happy occasion. And I would do it again if I felt I needed to leave one chapter of my life and go on to another.”

Jillian Book-Manko used the mikvah on her wedding day. She said she heard about other people’s mikvah experiences, “and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I really wanted to go, but I had no idea what it was.”

The weekend before her wedding, however, she almost pulled out. With nail and hair appointments and girlfriends to see, she was ready to cancel her appointment. But when Rabbi Saroken called to encourage her, she took the plunge — literally.

“I thought to myself, ‘I am getting married tomorrow to a guy I have been with for so many years. How cool to cleanse myself of everything before we are together, to take time to think about us and what it means to get married and to stand before God and our family and friends and start a new life together.’ I squeezed it into my day,” said Book-Manko. “It is just a really cool feeling walking down the steps into the mikvah and thinking, ‘This is a cleansing moment.’ You feel really close with God.”

Book-Manko recently returned to the mikvah after the birth of her first child. She said the new mikvah is stunning — “you literally are in a spa.”

Task force member Penn said she always felt that Beth El needed a mikvah that “was a ‘Wow!’”  specifically for people such as Book-Manko and Himelfarb. She said, “We want the young people to understand the mikvah and what it is meant for and how beautiful it is so that it will be a wonderful experience for them rather than something they had or have to do when they get married because [they were told] they need to go to the mikvah.”

Himelfarb said she hopes the renovation and the work Rabbi Saroken is doing to promote the mikvah will re-educate people about the ways one can use the ritual immersion bath. Of course, as Rabbi Saroken explained, it is still regularly used for purposes of taharat hamishpacha [family purity] and for conversions, but using the mikvah does not have to be only for those who choose to use it halachically [per the specific mandates of Jewish law].

“I think a lot of people consider the mikvah as very religious, like it is this ancient religious tradition or something,” said Himelfarb. “I got that reaction when I told people. They said, ‘You’re not Orthodox.’ I feel like it can really give you a new beginning, and I think that message needs to be more widespread.”

Ailene Sher, Beth El director of development, said they are seeing greater community use of the facility, and a capital campaign is under way to  continue renovations and expansion of the area surrounding the mikvah to create a community healing center, one that will offer meditation, classes, support groups, healing services and a safe space for those in need.

Monthly, Rabbi Saroken has been offering thoughts about creative use of the mikvah in the synagogue’s newsletter. She has also trained additional mikvah attendants, including male attendants, to make the facility more accessible. In partnership with CHANA, a team of 25 mental health professionals have also been coached in mikvah use so they can use it as a tool in assisting victims of abuse. To make an appointment, call the synagogue office at 410-484-0411.

“We want a peaceful, loving, accepting place without judgment and interruption,” said Rabbi Saroken. “Our tradition encourages us to re-create ourselves, to let go of the old self and to re-create a new self. … Immersing in our mikvah can be a magical experience.”

Maayan Jaffe is former JT editor-in-chief

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