On October 17, I was “Roasted and Toasted” by Mayyim Hayyim at joyful, silly fundraiser held at a nightclub called Guilt. (A roomful of Jewish mothers at Guilt? Can’t make that up.) It was one of the best nights of my life and there is no way I’ll ever thank everyone who worked and donated on behalf of Boston’s community mikveh, which has made one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals into an expression of contemporary Jewish life, which is alive and singing a new song. (Check it out at www.mayyimhayyim.org)
A funny thing happened on my way to the mikveh; I became a president and the chair of a board of directors. For years, I had begged off serving on committees and especially boards. I told people “I lack the meeting gene.”
It wasn’t easy for me at the beginning. For a person used to working alone, “the process” drove me nuts until I learned to respect it. Twelve years later, I love the push-pull of collaboration and I know that if we’re arguing for “the sake of heaven” as it says in the Talmud, meetings can even feel like sacred work. Sometimes.
I wanted to make a list of the top ten things I love about Mayyim Hayyim, but Emilia to told me to keep it short. (Okay, I asked her to do that, but I didn’t think she’d be so strict with me.) I’ve only got three minutes. But after working with Aliza Kline for 10 years, I can talk fast, too.
I love the Torah of Mayyim Hayyim. In the Book of Guests on the front desk, there are many gems, but I’m especially partial to the ones written by bar/bat mitzvah kids. There are some phrases that recur over and over; “I felt connected to God.” “I felt connected to my mother, to my family.” “I’m proud to be Jewish.” I’m ready.”
Mayyim Hayyim gives 13-year-olds a private moment of self-reflection – away from nudgy parents, demanding tutors, and even worry about pimples. The mikveh gives them quiet time to think, “Hey, this is a big deal in my life as a Jewish person.” That moment wasn’t possible before we opened our doors.
The Torah of Mayyim Hayyim also includes our kick-ass blog, which is called “The Mikveh Lady has Left the Building” iand s a chorus of voices from every corner of the Jewish world, its diversity a testament to the radical hospitality of Mayyim Hayyim, where we let people know, whoever they are, we’re glad to see them and we will do whatever we can to say yes.
In our blog, there’s an entry from “the atheist in the mikveh:”“I have existed quite happily as a non-believer so no one could be more surprised than me to report that I decided to immerse two months after my mother’s death and one day before my birthday. At first, I obsessed a bit; did I really belong at that place? Wasn’t it a bit disingenuous? In ways I find hard to describe, something very powerful happened. Something resonated within me. We were able to create a ritual in which I could honor my grief and come out the other side.”
An entry from last summer: “I stand in front of the mikveh with my rabbi’s arm around me. He has brought me here in my final moments as a non-Jew to give me a bracha, a blessing with which to begin my new Jewish life. My rabbi wishes me a life filled with the beauty and love of Torah, of Judaism and my fellow Jews. … Without realizing it, I begin to cry. I’ve wanted to be Jewish since I was twelve years old, but a part of me never believed it would actually happen. And yet, here I am. The magnitude of this moment seems too great to put into words.”
Last week, we welcomed the 2,000th person to convert to Judaism at Mayyim Hayyim.
You know the Pew survey about American Jewish life that everyone is wringing their hands about? Don’t worry. I realize telling a bunch of Jewish women to stop worrying is like telling your dog to stop barking at the mailman. But honestly, I can assure you that we are not disappearing.
Just come to Mayyim Hayyim when it’s mobbed with 25 fifth graders learning and laughing with Lisa Berman, while there’s a conversion going on with three rabbis, a family of four plus various relatives, and at least one mikveh guide warming up to sing Siman Tov u Mazal tov. Upstairs, there’s a meeting of the ritual committee writing a new ceremony, Executive Director Carrie Bornstein is on the phone talking to someone from San Diego or Baltimore who wants to learn how to do what Mayyim Hayyim does. Sherry Goldman is paying the bills and keeping our house in order. Jody Comins is working on the next art show and on our tenth anniversary celebration this spring. Leah Hart Tannen is lining up mikveh guides for a woman coming for her monthly immersion and for a man marking his 75th birthday. My favorite time to be at Mayyim Hayyim is when it’s a zoo, bursting at the seams, full of life.
But it’s also wonderful to be there when it’s so quiet you feel physically embraced by a kind of peace. Involuntarily, the mind clears and the body relaxes. It’s very quiet but it’s never entirely silent. And I’m not just talking about the dishwasher and the telephone.
There’s a vibe: an echo of a joyful song and of the splash of a tear. It’s the vibe created by all of the ladies here tonight and many more women and righteous men who believed in and built Mayyim Hayyim. With your support – and theirs — we will continue to set a high bar for inclusivity and creativity and really great celebrations like this one.
On our way to the mikveh the motto was, “If you build it they will come. “We built it and they not only came, they taught us why and taught us what else we needed to do. That still happens and that’s why Mayyim Hayyim won’t get stuck in the mud, why we’ll stay flexible and fluid, able to respond and create what’s needed next.
I’m out of time and couldn’t begin to thank everyone I should, even if Emilia wasn’t getting the hook ready. But as I look around this room, face by face, please know that even if takes me a minute to retrieve your name, I remember our conversation, a shared smile, your generosity, and your hug.The best thing about being president of Mayyim Hayyim has been your hugs.
Whew. I am thoroughly toasted and roasted. Stick a fork in me; I’m done. To close in the Mayyim Hayyim tradition of hitting every possible reference to things liquid … My cup runneth over.