[Originally posted on June 25, 2014]
by Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi
We were sitting in the “hair-drying room” at the mikveh—a room with individual vanity stations, complete with mirrors and combs and wig-stands. It wasn’t glamorous, or particularly beautiful, or really very spiritual.
And it wasn’t what I had planned, but there was a beit din (rabbinical court) in the lobby with a conversion candidate, and so for privacy we were quietly (and kindly) ushered into the hair-drying room. We sat across from one another in ordinary chairs as my student explored her reactions to the immersion ritual I had just witnessed, and which I had created with the help of ImmerseNYC.
On campus at New York University, I’m “Rabbi Nikki”—sometimes also dubbed “the Campus Mom.” It’s a role I’ve eased into over the year, letting go of the need to be “cool” and understanding that, at my best, I can be a nurturing, guideline-setting, and unconditionally-loving source of comfort, tradition, knowledge, and even discipline for the students of NYU’s Bronfman Center, which serves several downtown-area campuses. Most days my job involves teaching and mentoring and pastoring to emerging adults in a pluralistic Jewish atmosphere, though my particular focus is with the newly-resurrected Reform Jewish community and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer Jewish community as well.
Many of my students shy away from anything that smacks of “organized religion,” blindly-followed tradition, or “outdated” rituals that inherently or historically exclude wide swaths of the Jewish family. But the mikveh has quietly creept into my one-on-one conversations with students who spend so much time worrying about their intellectual acheivements, GPAs, and future salaries that they have little time (and no practice) for fostering meaningful spiritual experiences that are non-rational. These are not students who necessarily pray every day, or ever week at Shabbat, or who turn of their cell phones for 25 hours each Friday evening, or who understand much of Judaism’s ritual and sacred language. Or they’re the students who were raised in yeshiva and who dutifully go through the motions, yet seek help in connecting at a deeper, more personal level. Either way, they’re all asking questions: How can I get past the feeling that the mikveh is sexist? Isn’t it just for people who think women’s bodies are dirty?… I’m sort of jealous of converts, because they get to have this spiritual thing with the mikveh, and I only know I’m Jewish because my parents told me I am… Can I really use the mikveh if I’m Reform and I don’t believe in all that other stuff?…
One evening, after a session on niddah (monthly immersion) in the Jewish Learning Fellowship course “Sex, Love, Romance,” which I co-teach with JLF creator Rabbi Dan Smokler, a student quietly approached me, asking, “Could I use the mikveh for graduation?” Her small question led to big conversations and emails between the two of us as we crafted a ritual that would help this young, adventurous woman prepare to leave what has likely been the most life-changing period of self-discovery, challenge, and intellectual and emotional stretching she has experienced in her life thus far.
“I am afraid I am not ready,” she wrote. And that was the key to why mikveh would indeed be a beautiful way for her to face this change. Because the mikveh, like the womb, encircles us with living waters. And it feels like everything we’ve ever known. But it’s the moment just before we are propelled into a world about which we know nothing at all—except that those who came before us seem glad to welcome us, and invested in how we will carry on the family story, and eager to help us discover all that is new and old and recurring.
I like to write, and so I wrote a lot for that ritual—just for this student and for her fears and her hopes. But on that morning I found that it wasn’t the words I had prepared that mattered most. It was the tone in which they were delivered. It was a gentle hand on her shoulder as I walked her to the preparation room. It was taking a moment and asking her to sit, and close her eyes, and let go of all the barriers that remained.
The ritual was beautiful, and vulnerable, and nurturing—all those things that just seem to happen when a human being is naked and descends those seven steps and takes a breath and plunges into the water to float, like we each floated in our mother’s wombs. There were blessings, and words of reflection, and Modern Hebrew poetry, and tears.
But for me what was most remarkable was the thin line between sacred and mundane. What was most remarkable was how the sacredness seemed to linger, floating in and out like a gentle fog. It wasn’t always or only there in the pool, in the living waters. It was in the hair-drying room, too, as I watched my student cry and laugh. It was there as she sat across from me in the most ordinary chair talking about how the ritual was both less and more than what she had expected and hoped. The fear didn’t just magically wash away.
No, I thought, the fear doesn’t wash away.
The ritual I had so lovingly and carefully crafted was, technically, finished. We were “just” sitting and talking in the hair-drying room. But the sacredness was still there. And so I responded to that sacredness. And I asked my student to stand in front of me, just as I stand with my son each Friday evening, as I put my hands on her head, hair still wet, and blessed her, as a mother blesses her child, as the priests blessed the people…
Yivarechecha haShem viyishmerecha… may God bless you and keep you…
Rabbi Nikki Lyn DeBlosi, PhD, currently serves as Manager of Religious Life at NYU’s Bronfman Center. She was ordained from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York campus in 2013 and holds a BA in Women’s Studies from Harvard University and an MA and PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn with her wife and son.