[Originally posted on June 25, 2014]
by Melissa Berkowitz
“Where did you rush off to this morning?”
“Stuff with my Rabbi…”
This response to my roommate was one of many ambiguous explanations I had given her in the weeks leading up to my mikveh visit. Having lived with me for our entire four years at NYU, my roommate knew everything I did; we had become a married couple. Keeping this secret from her was rare but, in my mind, necessary.
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household where we kept kosher and were active members in our town’s synagogue. I attended after-school Hebrew High School and read Torah and Megillah on Jewish holidays. My roommate learned all about kosher laws, looked forward to the brisket I brought back when I went home for holidays, and even proudly chanted the prayers over the Hanukkah candles. While Judaism played a visible role in my life, I never pursued the Jewish community at NYU. Religion was always personal for me. So for the weeks leading up to my graduation, my roommate was understandably intrigued by all the “stuff” I had to do with one of the rabbis from NYU’s Bronfman Center.
In my last semester of college, I applied to NYU’s Jewish Learning Fellowship and registered for the class “Sex, Love and Romance.” I still was not looking for a community, but I hoped that this course would give me an opportunity to “return to my roots” as my college career slowly came to an end. Throughout the semester, I developed a close relationship with one of the two teachers of the JLF class – Rabbi Nikki. We waited for each other every week after class and walked together to the subway to begin our trek back to Brooklyn. Sometimes I enjoyed our personal discussions more than the ones we had as a group. In class, I would think of things to ask Rabbi Nikki later and looked forward to her additional commentary on the texts we were tackling.
In one of the last classes of the semester, we focused on niddah (monthly immersion). Many of the themes we discussed for the mikveh seemed pertinent to my experiences as an upcoming graduate. I never enjoyed formal ceremonies. A part of me dreaded that the marking of my completion at NYU would occur both on the stage of Radio City Music Hall and in the stands at Yankee Stadium. Having felt the need to find a personal way for me to work through my fears of graduation, I approached Rabbi Nikki after class. At first, she offered to make an event out of it. She recommended that we publicize it for anyone else with a similar desire. She quickly saw that I was looking for something more personal and quiet and was immediately committed to helping create the experience that I needed.
My concerns leading up to graduation were not rooted in the fear of the unknown as they are for many people. I was preparing to move home and immediately settle into a job. I feared the daily routine. I had spent my college career studying abroad, learning to live in West Africa and the Middle East and meeting people with different experiences and world views from my own. I feared that I would return home and settle into a state of complacency.
Rabbi Nikki reminded me that, in fact, returning home can be a return to the very core of myself. Perhaps, “return” would not be the right word to describe it. Instead, graduation could be an opportunity for rebirth to unite the different me’s – both old and new – in order to arrive at a more complete self. With this, the mikveh was not a celebration of graduating, but instead a renewal.
As Rabbi Nikki and I concluded our reflection on my immersion, we stood up and she put her hands on my head. She recited the priestly blessing, the same that my parents recited to me when they presented me with my tallit (prayer shawl), and that parents say over their children as they start each new week. It is not a blessing for what was accomplished in the previous week but a blessing for the future.
Rabbi Nikki asked what else I had to do before my graduation the next day. I had to get my nails done and pick up my gold tassel. The gold tassel represented my academic standing so that when I walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, everyone could visibly see my achievements.
Nobody, however, saw me, dripping wet from both the mikveh and from tears, with my head in my rabbi’s hands. Not even my roommate knew about that. This experience was for me.
Melissa Berkowitz recently graduated from New York University with a Bachelor in History. Throughout her college career she studied in Ghana and Israel and focused her studies on cultural and religious conflicts. She now resides outside of Philadelphia and works for a non-profit that provides in-home service care to people with disabilities.