NYC Reform rabbi reclaims — and reimagines — the ritual bath
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NYC Reform rabbi reclaims — and reimagines — the ritual bath

Rabbi Barry Freundel scandal propels a wider discussion on mikveh practices in every Jewish denomination

Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)
Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)

NEW YORK — When I met Rabbi Sara Luria over coffee on a cold fall afternoon last month in Brooklyn, she had just returned from training a group of Hebrew Union College students in Manhattan, teaching them how a mikveh, or ritual bath, could be used in the communities they will go on to preside over. For some students, this was their first introduction to the concept of ritual immersion, and for others it was a new look at an old tradition.

Her role, as she puts it, is to “put mikveh on their radar” —  to encourage the students to experience it for themselves, but also to expand their notion of what mikveh is, and can potentially be used for.

But what’s unique about her vision is that it’s markedly different from the one traditional, Orthodox Judaism has been promoting for years.

Luria, 35, from Brooklyn, NY, is the founder and executive director of Immerse NYC, a young, and steadily growing community project that aims to put mikveh on the map for everyone. Their objective is simple: To make ritual immersion a pluralistic, open and welcoming space for all.

Luria, who looks like your archetypal Jewish-girl-next-door, spent her childhood attending NFTY, a Reform Jewish youth group and summering at Surprise Lake Camp as a kid and then working at B’nei Brith Perlman camp as a counselor. Warm and usually soft spoken, she’s strongly vocal on the issue that has now become her calling.

Rabbi Sarah Luria, founder and executive director of Immerse NYC, a community project that aims to put mikveh on the map for everyone. (courtesy)
Rabbi Sarah Luria, founder and executive director of Immerse NYC, a community project that aims to put mikveh on the map for everyone. (courtesy)

For Luria, who was ordained in May 2013 as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College, mikveh immersion was a surprisingly unknown ritual. Her first introduction came only in 2007 when she was looking for a place to immerse before her wedding day. Her search led her some 200 miles away from New York, all the way to Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, Massachusetts.

Based just outside of Boston, Mayyim Hayyim is considered the founding community mikveh project and runs on the progressive philosophy that individuals can observe the ritual as they prefer.

Whereas immersion in an Orthodox-run mikveh customarily involves specific times you can immerse, a regulated preparation process, and dunking a certain number of times, at a community mikveh, the process is more open to individual preferences. It is also open to essentially anyone who would like to take part in the ritual.

In the midst of wedding day chaos, Luria found serenity and calm in the mikveh’s waters. She returned to New York eager to recreate this meaningful ritual for others.

‘At the back of my mind I thought if Boston is doing this, New York can’

“At the back of my mind I thought if Boston is doing this, New York can,” she said, banking on the larger, and more inherently diverse, Jewish community in New York.

Immerse NYC has taken the Mayyim Hayyim model and made it their own. As in Massachusetts, Luria and her staff train cohorts of mikveh guides to facilitate immersions sensitive to the unique needs of the individual. But unlike Mayyim Hayyim, they host frequent Salons, or group discussions, on topics of interest such as infertility, parenting and Jewish ritual. They’ve also covered more complex topics such as navigating queer relationships and the mikvah.

Currently Immerse NYC doesn’t have its own mikveh and makes use of two in the area, one in Manhattan and one in Westchester.

Dassi Fruchter, a mikveh guide and rabbinic intern at Immerse NYC, views her role in the capacity of mikveh guide as a form of pastoral care. She creates individualized pre-and post-immersion exercises for people immersing. For one woman who was attending mikveh while trying to get pregnant, Fruchter created a writing exercise on the topic of fertility and immersion.

‘In that way she is creating her own liturgy around the ritual’

“In that way she is creating her own liturgy around the ritual,” Fruchter noted.

To Luria and her staff, their quest “to reclaim the mikveh” has only become more relevant following the recent scandal involving Rabbi Barry Freundel.

Freundal, a high profile rabbi at Washington DC’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested in October on six misdemeanor charges of voyeurism, after he was allegedly caught installing hidden cameras in a women’s mikveh. Freundel pleaded not guilty and is set to appear in court again this month.

But rather than drive women away from the ritual, Luria says the scandal propelled a wider discussion on mikveh practices as a whole, and in particular on the issues of safety and vulnerability that are naturally part of the immersion experience.

‘It was a catalyst for having a broader conversation about mikveh — a really unfortunate catalyst — but a real one’

“It was a catalyst for having a broader conversation about mikveh — a really unfortunate catalyst — but a real one,” she said.

Since October the Immerse NYC team has seen a rise in interest in their services, with more women eager to find out about their unique approach to an old tradition. They also hosted a Salon devoted to the issue of safety and vulnerability at the mikveh.

“When we build a New York community mikveh, the pools will be filled with water, and overflowing with stories,” Luria wrote in 2012.

For Sara Shapiro Plevan, a Manhattan based educator, the role of the Immerse NYC mikveh guide is to act as a listening and supportive ear. She’s accompanied people marking difficult life transitions, healing from trauma or loss, or commemorating joyous occasions such as a birthday by dipping in the mikveh.

“As wonderfully powerful as this is for people that immerse, it’s just as deeply a meaningful experience for myself,” Plevan said.

In her work Luria hopes to change the notion that mikveh is gendered.

“It’s not about gender, it’s not about sexuality, it’s about a pool of water as a place of transition,” she says.

An Immerse NYC course for mikveh advisers. (courtesy)
An Immerse NYC course for mikveh advisers. (courtesy)

Like Mayyim Hayyim whose mikveh houses an art gallery, Luria hopes to one day have a mikveh with a designated space for people to welcome friends and family to commemorate their reasons for immersing, whether that be a birth or to mark a conversion.

And unlike in most traditional mikvehs that house separate pools for men and women, their pools will be open to all. “Gender binaries are not the future,” she said.

Luria encourages her visiting students from Hebrew Union College to shed the trepidation that people often experience when it comes to mikveh, and to embrace it as a core part of their toolkit as practicing rabbis.

“I think Judaism can be this loving, welcoming, warm… experience, where you feel like you’re welcome for whoever you are,” Luria says.

“If you’re healing from sexual trauma, there’s a place for you in our religion. If you’re recovering from chemotherapy, there’s a place for you. If you’re celebrating your 40th birthday, you can do it in a Jewish way.”

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