She and I sat next to one another on a small wooden bench outside of the mikveh preparation room with a box of tissues and a cup of water between us. Our voices bounced off against the silent, tiled walls. The ceiling grasped our words as we spoke. I took a deep breath, and like we train all of our ImmerseNYC mikveh guides to do, I began to discuss with her how she would like to shape her experience at the mikveh this time around. Part of our work as mikveh guides is organic ritual creation—drawing from texts and the needs of the one who is immersing to create an experience that feels sacred and satisfying. This particular individual explained to me that she wanted a chance to start fresh, to obtain a sense of renewal through dunking in living waters.
The theme of newness has been at the center of many of the immersions we coordinate at ImmerseNYC, New York’s community mikveh project. Our appointments ramp up especially around the time of the Jewish New Year, as individuals, friends and groups come to the living waters to mark the beginning of something new. Instead of driving forward, they’ll come for a reflective opportunity to think about the past, to savor the now, and to anticipate and give blessings for the future.
To me, it is no surprise that I was drawn to working at the mikveh. I loved the ability to savor the edge between now and the future through reflective rituals in childhood and beyond. From lighting the Shabbat candles with a wave of our hands, to the joyous blessings I was taught to make when opening my eyes in the morning, what it meant to be ritually observant in my home was a constant awareness of not only who I was—but who I could be.
Water is a unique medium through which we can reimagine ourselves. The Shem M’Shmuel (R. Shmuel Bornsztain, 1856-1926) explains that the power of renewal as it relates to mikveh is profound, since “a creation who lives on land is not able to live in the water. Therefore, the one who immerses in a mikveh—their humanity as it was becomes temporarily nullified in the all-water environment, and they emerge out another person and begin to live anew—a different person than the one who went into the mikveh.” Some of those who come to the mikveh hope for the same; that in some way, part of their past selves can dissolve in the water. What is important to note, however, is that our lives are only temporarily nullified underwater. This moment of breathlessness reminds us that the immersion is not about obliterating ourselves, but an opportunity to reimagine who we could be.
The modern mikveh movement, a network of community mikvaot all over the country, has been the source of this immensely important spiritual tool of renewal for so many. All of these institutions have offered the mikveh, one of the only entirely embodied rituals located in the Jewish tradition, as a way to provide a sacred container around moments in our personal and communal lives.
This woman on the bench with me, however, was not coming at the beginning of a major life transition or at the start of a New Year. We had been here before, at this bench, since she visits the mikveh regularly after her menstrual cycle, and we come here every month. Sometimes, when I explain that monthly mikveh users access our service, I’m met with confusion: Aren’t community mikvaot for those going through intense life moments that need marking? The monthly story is a powerful one—we don’t need to wait for a New Year or a cataclysmic moment to pause and ask ourselves how we want to change or how we should change. In addition to a body, we have a spirit that requires upkeep and renewal.
As we immerse, particularly in the mystical waters of the mikveh, the pool or the body of water embraces us and radically accepts us for who we are. Under the waters we hold our breath, and when we emerge, we refill our lungs—grateful for our lives, for our breath, and for the opportunity to renew each day, each month, and each year.
Hadas (Dasi) Fruchter thrives on spiritual leadership, vibrant Torah learning, and community building. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, Dasi graduated summa cum laude from the Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, and recently completed an M.P.A. in Non-Profit Administration and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. Dasi is a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar and is the Program Director at ImmerseNYC, New York’s only community mikveh project, and a teacher of brides and grooms before their weddings. Dasi, who also serves as the Maharat Scholar at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, MD, spends her free time singing, thinking about world-changing communities, and hosting extravagant Shabbat meals.