Mayyim Hayyim, a Progressive Community Mikveh, Opens

Today in Jewish History: May 14, 2004

Reprinted with permission from This Week in History, a project of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh [ritual bath] and education center in Newton, Massachusetts, opened its doors on May 14, 2004. The opening was the culmination of over three years of work by a committed group of Boston-area women led by author Anita Diamant.

Mayyim Hayyim, whose name means "living waters," adopted the following mission statement: "To reclaim and reinvent one of our most ancient Jewish rituals–immersion in the mikveh–for contemporary spiritual uses and to make this new, sacred space open and accessible to all Jews in the Greater Boston area."

Reclaiming Mikveh

In opening the community mikveh, the Mayyim Hayyim founders joined a growing movement among non-Orthodox American Jews to reclaim the mikveh for new uses. Traditionally, married women are required to immerse in the mikveh after each menstrual period, while men may immerse each week in preparation for Shabbat and also before holidays. Immersion also forms a central part of the conversion ceremony. The mikveh ritual was long rejected by feminist Jews because of its association with the laws of family purity (taharat hamishpacha), which suggest that a menstruating woman is "unclean."

However, in the 1990s, women began to find new meanings and uses for mikveh, creating rituals for healing after divorce, rape, or abuse; to mark milestones such as major birthdays and graduations; and to mark the end of difficult events or stages such as chemotherapy, miscarriage, or bereavement.

Mayyim Hayyim was designed to be used for these newer rituals as well as for traditional monthly and weekly immersions. Constructed to meet traditional standards of halakhah (Jewish law), it was also designed to be, in Diamant’s words, "a mikveh that is beautiful in design and decoration, a welcoming and inviting place." It is also meant to be accessible to individuals with disabilities, with one of the two immersion pools featuring a wheelchair lift.

Although other mikvaot (plural of mikveh) exist in the Boston area, Mayyim Hayyim is the first that is not connected to an Orthodox authority; for this reason, it is more accessible to women who may not feel comfortable using–or may not be able to gain access to–an Orthodox-affiliated mikveh for a non-traditional purpose.

A Leader in Education

In addition to reclaiming and reinventing the mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim seeks to fulfill its mission through a variety of educational programs. By January of 2004, before the building even opened, Mayyim Hayyim estimated that its education programs had reached about 1,000 people.

Since the opening of its building, the organization has sponsored art exhibits and public programs to engage the community. To mark its first anniversary, the group staged a performance of Mikveh Monologues, modeled after Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, and featuring the stories of mikveh users. The script was written by Diamant and Janet Buchwald.

Diamant noted in an interview that despite the seemingly narrow focus of the topic, "all religious rituals use water as a metaphor for change and transformation and purification…there’s a potential for universal appeal." Mikveh Monologues II, presented in March 2006, raised $200,000 for Mayyim Hayyim.

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