Finding a Welcoming Mikveh Experience (A Mikveh Guide’s Perspective)

[Originally posted on July 9, 2014

By Julie Sissman

10 years ago, I was about to get married in Florida, and I wanted to go to the mikveh. While I’d never been before and had no plans to go ever again, I wanted to mark this important milestone in my life in a Jewishly spiritual way. I thought that using the mikveh as a “breath” in the midst of wedding craziness – a moment to reflect on marriage as a transition and transformation – was a really important experience I did not want to miss.

I asked a rabbi where there was a mikveh nearby, and he said he wasn’t sure he could help – that there was no mikveh in the state of Florida that was open to liberal Jews, and that he performed conversion-required mikveh immersions in the ocean. I couldn’t believe it! How was it possible that no place would welcome me for this important pre-wedding ritual? He suggested trying one specific mikveh – they might be somewhat welcoming. I called the number, and a woman answered. I told her that I was getting married and that I wanted to immerse. She asked a series of questions: “Who are you learning with? Who is marrying you? Where is he a rabbi?” I felt attacked, rather than welcomed, and I quickly concluded that this mikveh would not offer me the personally meaningful experience I was looking for.

So I went to the ocean, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, in January. I drove to a place where there weren’t so many people. I swam out far enough to be able to dunk fully underwater after taking off my bathing suit while treading water, but not so far that I thought I would drown. Did I have a meaningful experience? Yes. Was it anywhere near ideal or the spiritually fulfilling experience I’d been wanting? No. And I thought my mikveh stories would end there.

But when I was pregnant with my daughter, looking for a way to spiritually prepare for the journey that labor and birth would be and to Jewishly mark the transformation that birthing a child would be, I again thought of mikveh. How perfect! A ritual with me immersed in water, just as my baby was immersed in the womb.

I created a beautiful ritual with poems, songs and blessings, but again was confronted with the mikveh problem – where in New York would I be able to immerse? By this time, I had heard good things about one particular mikveh, so I decided to try it. I called ahead to make an appointment, and when I arrived, the attendant looked at me, 8.5 months pregnant, and said, “You’re not here for usual reasons, you can do whatever you want.” I spent time in the preparation room, and then the attendant walked me down the hall to the mikveh pool room itself. And then she turned and left. While I appreciated that she was friendly and hadn’t stayed to “watch” me immerse, I was tense. She had left the door open. What were the rules here? Could I close the door? If I left the door open, would anyone see me? Was there a time limit? If I sang out loud as part of my ritual, would I bother anyone? As in Florida years earlier, while I had a positive experience with my ritual, it was not ideal.

When I saw a posting last year from ImmerseNYC requesting applications for mikveh guides, my heart jumped. What an amazing opportunity to help other people to have a wholly positive mikveh experience. And because I knew how transformative mikveh could be for people who had never been before – if they had the right support – I was excited to enable others to have that kind of experience.

This past September, two of us mikveh guides served a group of women from a synagogue who came for pre-Yom Kippur immersions. Organized by the cantor, the women were a diverse group – some born Jewish, some converted; some with mikveh experience, some with none; some familiar with Hebrew, some not at all. Each woman took the ritual that ImmerseNYC provided to read in the preparation room, and each woman I guided asked something different of me. Some asked me to stay outside the room as she did her own spiritual “work” and immersed. One asked me to read the words of intention she’d written for each dunk; “Courage, Gratitude, Compassion,” I called out as she prepared for the first dunk. And each woman said something different as she completed her immersion. Some said simply, “Thank you.” One told me that it was 4 years since she was cancer free, and this was a closure for that experience. One said that now she felt “ready” for Yom Kippur.

One thing every woman had in common was that they all came out to the lobby when they were done getting dressed, and each woman was truly glowing, with a quiet, strong energy about her. And I wondered…”Maybe I should immerse, too…” So I spoke with the other ImmerseNYC mikveh guide, and we agreed to guide for each other after the group had left. I spent some time in the preparation room, and then walked down the hall with my mikveh guide to the mikveh pool room. She asked if I wanted her to come in, and I said, “No. Please can you wait outside?” She did, and I went in with the ImmerseNYC pre-Yom Kippur ritual, and took myself through it. I felt safe. I felt supported. And the experience was deeply powerful. I felt transformed. I felt like I was glowing. I finished and came out of the pool room, where my mikveh guide greeted me with a smile and said, “Beautiful.” Yes! It was. I let out a big sigh. What a different experience with ImmerseNYC there with me.  Thank you!

Julie Sissman is an organization and leadership development consultant, in addition to being an ImmerseNYC mikveh guide and advisory board member.  She’s also a board member of HEKDESH, a Jewish giving circle made up of alumni of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel, and she sings classical choral music.  Julie lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and two daughters.