Some of the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin on Sept. 6. Photo by Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

Hurricane Irma was no match for this mikveh on St. Martin

It was 5 a.m. Wednesday and Hurricane Irma was pounding the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz and his wife, Chana, the Chabad movement’s emissaries there, gathered their five children and hunkered down in an unlikely place: a mikveh.

According to the Chanowitzes, as told on, the ritual bath helped save their lives.

The storm killed at least eight people on St. Martin and a councilman told Reuters that 95 percent of the 34-square-mile island was destroyed. Irma’s winds reached around 180 miles per hour and decimated trees and homes, flinging cars around in its wake.

Even though the Chanowitzes’ Chabad center building was sturdy and built into the side of a mountain, the storm had them rightly terrified. By 4 a.m. Wednesday, the front door of the building had flown off.

“You could hear it; you feel the pressure in your ears,” Moishe Chanowitz said. “I thought the windows would explode at any moment.”

With more wallboards flying away, the Chanowitzes fled to the center of the building and into the mikveh. It’s still under construction but crucially has an outer wall and a door. The family pushed a commercial freezer in front of the door.

The door of the Chabad center in Saint Martin blew off when Hurricane Irma passed through. (

“We have hurricane-proof doors and windows; it’s not like we weren’t prepared,” Chanowitz said. “But this was off the charts. The mikveh saved us.”

Around 10 a.m., the family and hundreds of neighbors finally ventured out into the disheveled landscape. Most had similar stories. One friend told the Chanowitzes he survived by hiding in a closet.

For now, the Chanowitzes, along with the rest of Saint Martin, are left without electricity.

“The damage is unimaginable,” Chanowitz said. “But we’re going to rebuild.”

The Chasidic Chabad movement is known for its outreach around the world and has emissaries in nearly 100 countries.

Venezuelan Jews authenticate 19th-century mikvah

Venezuela’s Jewish community has certified the authenticity of a 200-year-old mikvah, or ritual bath, found in 2013 during restoration work on a museum.

The president of the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Venezuela, Omar Vielma, said the finding in Coro near the Alberto Henriquez Museum marks a precedent to preserve the site as the first Jewish settlement in the country. Vielma said he expects to find more artifacts.

“The certification is essential for this finding to gain legal support aiming at, in the near future, being named part of Venezuela’s official cultural heritage,” said Vielma, who was present for the certification on Monday.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have noted the unique design of the mikvah and said it was used by the Jewish inhabitants of the area, the Correo del Orinoco newspaper reported.

The finding in Coro, the capital of the Falcon state in western Venezuela about 200 miles from Caracas, has been catalogued by the Institute of Cultural Heritage as an example of diversity of the archaeological heritage of the site, which was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

The Jewish community was given the land where the mikvah was discovered. The site had been damaged by torrential rain and flooding in 2010.

The mikvah will become a study object in the curriculum of the school of anthropology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and will be added to the country’s national registry for cultural heritage.

Venezuela is home to some 9,000 Jews, down from some 25,000 in 1999. Many Jews left, mainly for Florida and Israel, due to a deteriorating financial and social climate, along with a growing anti-Semitic environment established under the Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro regimes.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate agrees to mikvah immersion without attendant

The use of an attendant during mikvah immersion in Israel will be changed from mandatory to optional.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and Ministry of Religious Services agreed on the change in a filing Wednesday with the Supreme Court. The state religious bodies were responding to a suit filed by ITIM, a group that supports Israelis in their encounters with the country’s religious bureaucracy.

“Female mikvah bathers can decide for themselves whether to follow this halachic rule (immersing in the presence of the female mikvah attendant), including bathing by themselves or with the company of a friend, while the local religious council and its employees will not condition the bathing with the presence of the female mikvah attendant during the ritual bathing,” read the response delivered to the court by the state attorney’s office, according to ITIM.

Religious authorities believe the supervision of an attendant at a mikvah, or ritual bath, is necessary to ensure that the woman’s immersion is done according to halachah, or Orthodox Jewish law, including ensuring that every part of the woman, including all her hair, is under the water at the same time.

Some women have complained of mistreatment by mikvah attendants or a screening that is too rigorous. Victims of sexual abuse also have asked to not be observed during immersion.

The response clarifies that the religious position of the Chief Rabbinate is that immersion in the mikvah must be done in the presence of a female mikvah attendant and that signs to that effect should hang in all mikvahs.

Last July, ITIM filed the petition on behalf of 13 women calling on the Supreme Court to instruct the Ministry of Religious Affairs to require all religious councils to maintain “a procedure aimed to protect the personal privacy of all mikvah bathers,” as well as to instruct all religious councils to enable bathing without the presence of the female mikvah attendant in cases where the women demand it.

Rabbi Seth Farber, director of  ITIM, in a statement congratulated the Chief Rabbinate “on showing compliance and an understating to the needs of the many women who wish to bathe in the mikvahs, thus bringing them, and many other women, closer to this important mitzvah.”

The Tzohar rabbinical organization called the decision “a further important step forward in promoting Jewish practice and halacha in Israel in an atmosphere of love and acceptance rather than coercion.”

More men making monthly mikvah dunks

Mikvah night has an unusual meaning in the Ozur Bass household.

As for many observant Jewish women, it’s the night each month that Janet Ozur Bass immerses in the mikvah ritual bath following menstruation. Once she emerges from the water, husband and wife may resume the physical intimacy traditionally forbidden while a woman is menstruating.

But in the Ozur Bass household, mikvah night is double duty: Instead of just Janet going, her husband, Henrique, immerses in the mikvah, too.

“I can’t begin to tell you how spiritual it is,” Henrique Ozur Bass told JTA.

“Mikvah is not about a blood taboo; it’s the time of the month that women are more like God in that they are getting ready for creation,” he said. “And they can’t do it alone. I recognize that I am a partner with my wife in creation, and that is what further motivated me to follow her cycles.”

Ozur Bass is one of a small but growing number of Jewish men who have adopted the practice of monthly mikvah immersions in tandem with their wives’ menstrual cycles.

Mikvah use by men is not new. Men long have gone to the mikvah before their weddings, and some visit the mikvah as spiritual preparation before major holidays. Many Hasidim immerse before every Sabbath. Jewish law requires mikvah immersion – for men and women – as part of the conversion process.

In recent years, American Jews also have begun using mikvah immersions to mark milestone occasions like bar or bat mitzvahs, miscarriages or divorce. Some couples go to the mikvah when they’re trying to conceive.

But regular monthly mikvah use by men in correlation with their partners’ cycles, known in Hebrew as niddah, has been almost unheard of.

Naomi Malka, the mikvah director at Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington, said a core group of about 10 men have begun to do it off and on. Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah in the Boston area, has had 18 men use the facility for monthly immersions since it opened in 2004, according to the organization’s records.

“It’s becoming increasingly common,” said Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. “When we talk about egalitarian practice in Judaism, our minds immediately go to women’s practice. I think it’s exciting and interesting to see men taking on practices that traditionally have been the domain of women.”

To be sure, monthly male mikvah use is still a fringe phenomenon. But its emergence is a sign of the degree to which modern Jews are reimagining traditional rituals, the lengths to which some couples are going to practice egalitarian values and the rising interest in mikvah use generally among American Jews.

“Marriage relationships have changed since Leviticus 15,” said Dasi Fruchter, program director of ImmerseNYC, a pluralistic organization in New York that promotes mikvah use, referencing the Bible chapter containing menstrual regulations. “Relationship and marriage has changed. The niddah practice is also changing.”

Michael, a 29-year-old man in the Boston area who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy reasons, told JTA he began going to the mikvah every month at the request of his fiancee when they moved in together.

“She said that since we’re living together now, she wanted to go to the mikvah every month, as that was her mother’s practice and her family’s practice,” Michael said. “I knew the concept, but I honestly didn’t know much about it.”

Women who go to the mikvah typically immerse naked after cleaning their body of any stray hairs or dead skin, and traditionally a witness is present to ensure the immersion is complete. There is an accompanying blessing, and the custom is to submerge three times. (A mikvah is any naturally derived body of water of at least 150 gallons. While lakes and oceans qualify, most Jews use specially constructed indoor mikvahs.)

Men who use the mikvah monthly have adapted the ritual in different ways. Ozur Bass, who has been doing it for 23 years, says he submerges four times, each time facing a different direction while meditating over one of the four Hebrew letters of God’s name. When he’s done, he sings the “Yedid Nefesh” hymn, traditionally sung before Friday evening prayers. He says a blessing beforehand but has no witness.

Some couples try to serve as each witnesses for each other, when possible; few mikvahs permit simultaneous use by men and women.

When Rabbi Ben Shalva and his wife decided to adopt the practice, he was in Conservative rabbinical school and the two were living in Israel with their infant son. Knowing it would be impossible to find a mikvah in Jerusalem that would allow tandem immersion, they would drive to the Tel Aviv beach once a month, find a secluded area and immerse in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – each holding the other’s swimsuit when they dunked while somehow kept an eye on the beach where their 1-year-old watched from his stroller.

“It was a little fun and crazy and beautiful, too, and it felt every time like a rebirth,” Shalva said.

Things got easier when they moved to Boston and began going to Mayyim Hayyim, which allows tandem dunking. Sometimes they even brought their kids and then frolicked in the water all together once the ritual dunking was done. Shalva said they gave up monthly mikvah after about five years, owing to changing religious priorities, a move to Virginia and logistical challenges.

Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that when he used to lecture students on sexual issues during the 1980s and ’90s, he suggested that men consider adopting mikvah immersions to add a spiritual dimension to niddah observance. Roth, now 75, said he used to practice it himself.

“My motivation was to increase the observance of ‘taharat hamishpacha’ in the Conservative movement, and I saw men’s mikvah observance as preparation of the soul for the resumption of marital intimacy,” Roth said, using the Hebrew term for the observances surrounding menstruation. “Occasionally I would get questions addressed to me that were a fairly good indicator that people were doing what I suggested, but I have no idea how many people did it.”

Nowadays, many men who don’t go to mikvah are nevertheless adopting other novel practices during the seven “clean” days following menstruation, the period women traditionally wait before their monthly immersion, focusing on emotional intimacy rather than just abstaining from sex, said Fruchter of ImmerseNYC.

“Understanding mikvah as a partnership practice is becoming more widespread, not only among egalitarian couples but also modern Orthodox people,” said Fruchter, who is also studying to be an Orthodox clergywoman at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

“One man I know prepares music for his wife to listen to when she’s at the mikvah and preparing,”Fruchter said. “Another couple has a special dinner during the seven clean days where they talk about something difficult. I encourage couples to make it a specific time to work on something in their relationship.”

After Freundel scandal, Washington Jewish women reclaim mikvah with mural

When prominent Washington rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested last year for secretly videotaping dozens of women using the mikvah adjacent to his Orthodox synagogue, the sense of sacredness of the ritual of mikvah immersion was shattered for some local Jewish women.

Local artist Rena Fruchter recently spearheaded a community project to put the pieces back together: A mural created by female members of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue to place inside the mikvah affiliated with their own Washington congregation.

After months of work, the mural was dedicated on Sunday.

The project gave the women “something they could own, something they could feel part of,” Fruchter said. It allowed them to take “something shattered; make something whole.” She said, “We have a broken system. We don’t throw it out. We take the pieces. We put them together and make something beautiful together.”

Freundel led Kesher Israel, a different Orthodox synagogue in Washington, until his arrest last October. As part of a guilty plea, he admitted to installing video cameras in the National Capital Mikvah next to the synagogue. He was sentenced in May to more than six years in prison for 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism. He has filed notice that he will appeal the sentence.

Elanit Jakabovics, the president of Kesher Israel, endorsed the mural project even though it’s part of a different synagogue, noting that Freundel’s actions had hurt Jews across Washington and even the world.

“I strongly support anything that helps the healing,” she said. “You know the pain is never going to go away.”

The colorful new mural features a Van Gogh-like swirl, women dancing, moons, water, reeds and the words from Isaiah 12:3, in both English and Hebrew: “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of redemption.”

The design is the result of collaboration between Fruchter and local artist Arturo Ho, with input from women from Ohev Sholom.

After collecting glass objects in donation boxes stationed at their synagogue, Fruchter organized weekend gatherings of women from the synagogue to break the glass up and reassemble it.

The mood at the gatherings was celebratory. Women sipped margaritas and mojitos as they worked, and sometimes mothers brought their daughters to chip in.

“Women came and hung out. They got to know each other,” said Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a clergywoman at Ohev Sholom. “The women took the mikvah space defined it and demystified it.”

About 60 women participated in the gatherings, which started soon after Passover.

Ariele Mortkowitz contributed to the project with her mother and 6-year-old daughter. Before moving to near Ohev Sholom, Mortkowitz had used the National Capital Mikvah. That “mikvah is near and dear to me. I still have friends there,” she said. “Freundel was a big blow around mikvahs in general, and this could make it a better experience.”

Voyeurism is a form of sexual assault

With all the conversations surrounding the allegations against my congregation’s former rabbi, Barry Freundel, no one is saying what desperately needs to be said — that voyeurism is sexual assault and that eliminating sexual assault in our communities should be the direction of our next steps.

In emails, blogs and articles, the reaction to allegations that Freundel installed hidden cameras in order to view women in the mikvah has focused repeatedly on the specific location of the crime, the importance of making mikvahs safer and the abuse of rabbinic authority. But deciding to change who controls the mikvah is a narrow perspective on the wider issue of violence against women, and addressing this as an isolated incident would be a mistake. Although considering policies to make our religious spaces safer is certainly worthwhile, it is important that we recognize voyeurism as a form of sexual assault, with its own place on the spectrum of violence against women.

Sexual assault is often thought to be synonymous with rape. But according to the National Institute of Justice, sexual assault encompasses a range of unwanted sexual behaviors, including voyeurism. Whether the perpetrator is peeping through a window, hiding video cameras in locker rooms, posting illegally obtained intimate photographs or forwarding explicit private photographs intended for one viewer only, he is committing sexual assault.

The true nature of the crime is masked by the use of the word “voyeurism,” which makes it seem as if there were no victim. This is an issue of substance and not merely semantics.

Think about it. When a robbery occurs, there is a victim — someone is robbed. When a murder occurs, someone is killed. But voyeurism? Someone is “voyeured”? It’s as if there is no victim, only a perpetrator. The victim is the object — the thing that is watched. But women are not objects. This is not a victimless crime. And that’s the point.

Women know, whether consciously or not, that voyeurism is part of the continuum of violence against women, a continuum with catcalling on the less severe end and violent rape on the most severe end. Hypersexualization and objectification of women devalues women. When we see women as objects — when we dehumanize women — we enable violence.

With this understanding, our response to a high school student who forwards explicit pictures of his girlfriend to his teammates should not be “boys will be boys.” Nor should we dismiss concerns about websites that publish private, naked photos of celebrities as “the cost of fame.” Actress Jennifer Lawrence named it correctly when hackers stole and posted her images online. This wasn’t about theft or pirating; this was a “sex crime.”

Only when we place voyeurism in the mikvah in this larger context — not as a one off, but as one more example of what is becoming normalized behavior in our society — can we ask and begin to find answers to how to end gender-based violence.

To accomplish this, I suggest that we start by asking three questions in each of our communities:

* Does the environment allow all community members, even and especially the most vulnerable, to feel respected and valued?

* Is there a way for any individual who feels devalued to communicate that safely to the leadership, and is the communication taken seriously?

* Are checks and balances in place to assure that authority figures (both clergy and lay leaders) are held accountable for their words, their time and their actions?

Let’s use this opportunity to minimize the possibility of sexual assault, and then let’s turn to questions about rabbinic authority and women.

(Deborah Rosenbloom is a member of Kesher Israel and vice president of programs and new initiatives for Jewish Women International, a Jewish organization working to end violence against women and girls.)


For prospective Orthodox converts, process marked by fear and uncertainty

Tzipporah Laura LaFianza and her family have been living as Orthodox Jews for four years now. They reside in a heavily Jewish suburb of Washington, go to shul every Shabbat and keep a strictly kosher kitchen.

But they’re not Jewish — yet.

A prospective Orthodox convert, LaFianza, 34, is still waiting for the all-clear from the local rabbinical court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America so she and her family can immerse in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, and formally become Jews.

LaFianza has been working toward conversion under the auspices of Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Washington clergyman arrested two weeks ago for allegedly installing a secret camera in the mikvah adjacent to his Orthodox synagogue, Kesher Israel Congregation.

As the RCA continues to deal with the fallout from Freundel’s arrest for voyeurism, many converts and prospective converts say more must be done to address the systemic problems that make Orthodox conversion difficult. In particular, they cite a lack of clarity and consistency about the prerequisites and the timetable for conversion.

For her part, LaFianza says she has encountered unexpected obstacles at every stage of her drawn-out conversion process. She had to relocate to an Orthodox neighborhood. She was told she must send her children to Jewish day school (something she says she cannot afford). She had to search for a new sponsoring rabbi after her original choice told her he didn’t have the time.

“It’s always hard to get a real answer out of anyone,” LaFianza, who grew up a secular Christian, told JTA. “You have to figure it out as you go. We’ve been delayed, delayed, delayed.”

Now she faces yet another obstacle: the Washington rabbinical court, or beit din, has been suspended following Freundel’s arrest. LaFianza doesn’t know where to turn.

The RCA, which in 2007 began to formally accredit Orthodox conversions through a centralized system with regional rabbinical courts that work in tandem with converts’ sponsoring rabbis, says it is putting together a commission to review its entire conversion system. It’s also appointing women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”

But it’s not clear whether those steps will address the most common problems encountered by conversion candidates. Every conversion proceeds at a different pace, depending on the candidate, the sponsoring rabbi and the beit din. There are no clearly delineated requirements. Unmarried women cannot date during their conversion process. Converts have little recourse when their sponsoring rabbi is unresponsive or, in the worst cases, abuses his position, as Freundel allegedly did by requiring conversion candidates to do clerical work and donate to his rabbinical court.

Rabbis involved in the RCA’s conversion courts say conversion is not a one-size-fits-all program, and that while they try to be sensitive to converts’ needs, the ultimate goal of a successful conversion may be at odds with a smooth process.

“The conversion process is not like getting a degree where you have to fill requirements X, Y or Z,” said Rabbi Zvi Romm, the administrator of the RCA’s New York beit din for conversion. “Acquiring knowledge is one component. But ultimately, the conversion process is about embracing a new lifestyle and community, and some people are going to do that faster than others. It’s like dating: How long do you have to go out with someone before you know?”

For the rabbinic gatekeepers who oversee RCA conversions, there is only one acceptable gauge for whether a conversion should be approved: They must become an Orthodox Jew.

Romm outlined the basic requirements: Shabbat and kosher observance; daily prayer; fluency with the blessings; wearing a head covering and tzitzit ritual fringes for men; and commitment to family purity observances — abstaining from sex during menstruation and immersing in the mikvah afterward. Hebrew reading skills also are usually required, and the person must be part of an Orthodox community.

On average, the process takes about two years, Romm says.

During that time, dating is banned because it’s a Catch-22: Romantic relationships with non-Jews are forbidden, and any Jew willing to date someone who has not formally converted is thought to be an unsuitable romantic partner for the convert.

For Jennifer Ajsenberg, two years of study with an Orthodox rabbi in the Minneapolis area came and went with no end in sight.

“Every time we’d meet it was always, ‘I’ll see you next month.’ It never felt like I was being checked for anything. There was no sense of timeline,” Ajsenberg said. “It felt like a really long and ambiguous process and that it’s really in the rabbi’s hands: whatever he determines the requirements to be.”

A single woman in her 20s, Ajsenberg knew she was not supposed to be dating but met a Jewish man she wanted to marry. Eventually, after three years of waiting, Ajsenberg gave up and enrolled in a Conservative conversion program. Within a year she converted Conservative, and two months later she married. That was a decade ago.

Maury Kelman, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches a weekly conversion class in Manhattan, says rabbinical courts need to be more up front about timetables.

“It can be devastating psychologically for students, who have devoted themselves to transforming their lives, to feel that the beit din is delaying their conversion, even by a week,” Kelman said. “It’s of crucial importance to give the prospective convert an understanding of the timeline and process involved, and the reasons behind any delays — whether for bureaucratic reasons, such as the difficulty in convening three busy rabbis who are all volunteers, or because the beit din feels that the student is not yet ready to accept Jewish law.”

Orthodoxy requires three rabbinic judges to approve and witness conversion. Orthodox converts don’t have to go through the RCA system; all they really need is a cooperative rabbi. What the RCA system offers is a degree of authentication that makes the conversion less likely to be challenged or questioned down the line, especially by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a rabbinical conversion court judge in New York who works as a mashgiach, or spiritual adviser, at Yeshiva University, says it’s impossible to offer converts a concrete timetable. For example, he said, the timing for someone still in college is likely to be longer because the beit din wants to be confident that the person’s interest in Judaism is not part of some passing phase.

“A lot of this really is a judgment call,” Blau said. “If you give the person a time frame that’s very precise, you’re running the risk of being misleading.”

About 70-80 people convert per year through the RCA’s New York regional beit din. To handle the load, the RCA has only one part-time rabbi, Romm, and a pool of about 15 volunteer rabbis who take turns serving as judges. Converts are expected to pay about $400 in fees, but the beit din sometimes will waive costs based on financial need and on occasion has played a proactive role in helping converts get tuition discounts at Jewish day schools.

That can be a dangerous proposition, however, Romm says, because the beit din wants to be confident that the convert will be able to afford the higher costs associated with an Orthodox lifestyle: kosher food, Jewish education, housing in an Orthodox neighborhood.

“One of the considerations we make is, can the person hack it financially?” Romm said. “If a person says I have no money whatsoever, I can’t afford the $400 fee paid out over time, the question you have to ask is, how are you going to make it as an Orthodox Jew?”

After the Freundel scandal broke, Bethany Mandel, who converted with Freundel in 2011 and took one of his now-infamous “practice dunks” in the mikvah in 2010, published a proposed “bill of rights” for converts in the Times of Israel. Among other things, she called for an accelerated and unique conversion process for converts raised in Jewish homes — a demographic that makes up a sizable number of Orthodox converts in America.

“I was born to a Jewish father and was raised Reform. I didn’t know I wasn’t halachically Jewish until a college Birthright trip,” Mandel wrote. “While in the process I was treated with the same unacceptable dismissiveness and disdain afforded to girls who were converting for marriage.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, agrees that the RCA should do all it can to ease the path to formal conversion for those raised in Jewish homes, like those in Mandel’s circumstance.

If one good thing comes out of the Freundel scandal, he says, it should be to help redirect the RCA back toward the converts that its conversion guidelines are meant to serve.

“The whole focus for RCA conversion has been oriented toward making sure the Israeli Chief Rabbinate accepts conversions,” Lopatin said. “Hopefully this will reorient toward an embrace of people who are very interested in converting.”


Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh

Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.

But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear. 

“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?” 

“It … was … awesome.”

Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.

Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.

In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete. 

Suzanne Rosenthal, left, and Judith Golden, the “mikveh chicks,” staff the mikveh office, aid with immersions and provide enthusiastic support. Photo by Susan Freudenheim

For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.

It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room. 

“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.” 

“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.

The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.

Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all. 

“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981. 

“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said. 

While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”

Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child. 

Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.

There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said. 

So, what was he like?

“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison. 

“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added. 

There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet. 

“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time. 

Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).

The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh. 

“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.

“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.

“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.

Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”

The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself. 

“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”

It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.

After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”


An example to her children

Fourteen years ago, Catherine and Bruce Penso’s oldest daughter, Leah, was ready to become a bat mitzvah. But before her big day, Leah told her parents that she wanted to go to the mikveh and formally convert. 

Catherine and her younger daughter, Rebecca, decided to join Leah in the ritual. 

Catherine, a native of San Francisco who now lives in Westchester, holds a master’s in social work and volunteers with a variety of charities as well as for her synagogue. She grew up Catholic, but started questioning those beliefs when she was in college. Then she met her Jewish husband-to-be. 

“Because the foundations of Catholicism are built on Judaism, it wasn’t hard for me to incorporate the aspects of the religion into my life,” she said. “It would have been a lot harder for Bruce to accept Catholicism. I’ve never felt that strong relationship with Jesus Christ that some Catholics and Christians do. It was a gradual moving away from Catholicism and moving toward Judaism.”

Before Catherine married Bruce, she took an Introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), as well as a Jewish holiday workshop class when she was a newlywed. The couple both decided to raise their children within the Jewish religion. Prior to the conversion, Catherine and Bruce were already members of Temple Akiba and committed to raising their children — Leah, then 12, Rebecca, 5, and Daniel, 10 — in a Jewish home. All of the kids had attended nursery and religious school at Akiba. 

“The conversion was a formalization of what I’d been living, but it seemed finalized,” Catherine said. “It was very special to do it with my daughters, and it made it that much more meaningful.”

Because Catherine had taken courses and was already living a Jewish life, all that remained for conversion was to step into the mikveh and to meet with the beit din (Jewish court of law). She converted through the Conservative movement. 

Bruce had never pressured her to convert, but Catherine remembers that his sister had, at one point, brought up the fact that his daughters wouldn’t be considered Jewish by some people. 

“She had actually suggested [to convert] to my daughter, because in the future if she met someone who was more religious, [he or she] might not recognize her Judaism,” Catherine said. 

“At first I was kind of insulted because they were raised Jewish, but Judaism is through the mother, so there was a sense of formalizing it and having it recognized by other Jews and other sects.”

Although Catherine’s parents died before the conversion, Catherine said they had been very accepting. Her mother, she said, had a hard time with the fact that the babies weren’t going to be baptized, but her father said he was just happy that she had religion in her life. 

In the 14 years since her conversion, Catherine has become increasingly involved at Akiba, and spends upward of 25 hours per week devoted to volunteering. She chairs the mitzvah day committee, planning how the congregation devotes a special day to tikkun olam (repairing the world). The Jewish principle of giving back and being the best person one can be resonates with her: “I just try to be mindful of being a good person with the work that I do,” she said. “I try to live my life as an example to my children. I try to be kind to people and speak well of people.”

Catherine and Bruce’s children also continue to lead Jewish lives as well. Leah is the most active: She teaches religious school, and next summer she plans to run the synagogue’s youth group and direct its resident camp.

Being a member of Akiba for the past 30 years has reinforced the Penso family’s — and Catherine’s — love of Judaism. 

“There’s a real community,” she said. “I never feel alone. A lot of that has to do with the temple I belong to. It really feels like a home away from home. I’ve made some wonderful friends. I just know that Judaism is something I believe in. It’s something I want to be a part of.”

Finding Judaism through music

For Chris Hardin, converting to Judaism was a family affair. 

In November 1994, Hardin, then 38, stepped into the mikveh. That day, his daughter and wife did the same. 

Hardin’s conversion process began when he met his future wife, Jennifer, on a cruise ship. He was directing the music, and she was one of the singers. They were both Lutheran, but she told him that she had the desire to be Jewish. 

After the birth of their daughter, Calah, Hardin started attending classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) out of support for Jennifer. He admired how the rabbis would allow questioning, unlike the pastors with whom he grew up. “I had no intention of converting, but by the second class I was hooked,” he said. “Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a way of life.”

As a child, Hardin went to church and Bible study every Sunday. After his parents divorced when he was 11, church was no longer a regular event. “I fell away from any kind of organized religion,” he said. “But I never left my feelings and thoughts about God.”

When he decided to convert, Hardin chose to be a member of the Conservative movement. Orthodoxy was full of practices that he and Jennifer did not wish to partake of, and Reform wasn’t enough for them. After going to more than a dozen shuls, they settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where they’ve been members for 18 years. He’s also the music director. “Every time I write some new music for our synagogue, I learn more about Judaism, and I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s made me a better person.”

By the time Hardin was Jewish, his mom had already passed away. His dad, a music director for Lutheran churches, said that if it made his son happy to practice a different religion, then he was fine with it. The only member of his family who had a huge issue with the conversion was his younger sister, an Evangelical Christian. “She didn’t speak to me for a few months,” he said. “She thought I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t accept Jesus as my savior. Then her priest said we were going to the same place, but we were just taking different paths. Now we’re tighter than I am with my other sisters, because she and I are the only ones with any observance at all.”

Today, Hardin brings Judaism into his family’s life by keeping a kosher home, learning Hebrew, observing all the holidays, and playing music at shul most Friday nights and Saturday mornings. It took him eight years to balance Shabbat and his work schedule, but he is now able to enjoy his day of rest. Calah, who is 20, was the president of United Synagogue Youth at her high school, and Hardin’s 15-year-old son, Benjamin, is now active in the same organization. 

Much of Hardin’s enthusiasm for Judaism can be attributed to Valley Beth Shalom and the community he’s been a part of there for nearly two decades. “In shul, you want your kids to have freedom and fun,” he said. “All the people in shul, I trust with my kids. You don’t find that in very many places. We have a community that’s helped us raised our kids.”

Hardin continued, “The community is unbelievable. My wife just lost her mom, and we got phone calls and e-mails from people. Everyone was coming up to me at shul asking what they could do. I’ve watched it with other deaths. Even if people in the community don’t know you, they come to you and support you and let you know they’re here for you.”

The only regret Hardin has about his conversion, he said, is that he didn’t do it sooner. “Judaism is the best-kept secret in the world. It makes one happy. But I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve seen people who are not so optimistic, who don’t even know why they came to shul but leave feeling uplifted, and that is beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing, and I wish more people could find it.”

Historic mikvah to be displayed at Holland museum

A mikvah uncovered during construction will be restored in a museum as the oldest testament to Jewish life in Holland to date.

The Jewish ritual bath will be restored this week in the Limburgs Museum in the city of Venlo, the same southeastern Netherlands city in which it was uncovered several years ago.

The mikvah dates to the13th century, more than 300 years before it was believed that the first significant Jewish community in Holland was created by Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, during the late 16th century.

“This mikvah proves there was a Jewish presence in Holland more than 700 years ago and proves that although the Jewish community may have been small, they had a mikvah, a testament to a flourishing and dedicated community,” said Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, the chairman of the Rabbinical Council for Netherlands and a member of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe.

According to archeologists, the mikvah was in use for several decades before it was put to other uses. It is believed that the Jews were driven out of the area in the wake of a deathly plague.

The mikvah, weighing approximately 180 tons, will be placed in a newly constructed wing of the museum created especially for the purpose of displaying the mikvah and educating about it and Judaism, according to the Rabbinical Centre of Europe.

Siberian mikvah is dedicated

A new mikvah to replace one destroyed by the Soviets was dedicated in the Siberian community of Tomsk, Russia.

The dedication of the ritual bath last week came just months after the grand reopening of Tomsk’s historic Choral Synagogue and its Rohr Sanctuary and Jewish Community Center.

Soviet authorities had destroyed the mikvah, built in 1928, and replaced it with a 10-story apartment building.

The new mikvah was funded by S. Paulo, Brazil’s Ateret Ruth Foundation, with assistance from the Rabbinical Council of Europe in Brussels. It was named after Fridah Vogel and Esther Shur.

From shul to the mikvah, transgender Jews seek place in Jewish life

Noach Dzmura has a master’s degree in Jewish studies, publishes widely on Jewish topics and is the communications director at his synagogue. In 2006, he received an award from the San Francisco Jewish Federation that funded a year’s study in Israel.

He also was born a female.

Dzmura, 48, is one of a growing number of transgender Jews who are open about their status, taking leadership roles in the synagogue and trying to carve out a place in the Jewish community for those who fall outside the standard definitions of male and female.

It’s not easy, he acknowledges.

“Transgender people have tended historically to ‘go stealth’ [blend in as a nontransgender person] or opt out of Jewish communal life altogether,” he wrote in “Balancing on the Mechitza,” a collection of essays about transgender Jews in the Jewish community that Dzmura edited in 2009. It won this year’s Lambda Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Transgender individuals do not identify with the gender into which they were born. Some undergo sex reassignment surgery so their external genitalia correspond to their inner sense of who they are, but most do not. Some take hormones to encourage secondary sexual characteristics. Others simply live as the opposite sex, changing their dress, hairstyle and other outward details. Still others do not identify as male or female.

There are no hard statistics on the number of transgender Jews.

Rabbi Reuben Zellman, 32, who transitioned from female to male before his acceptance to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and who is now the assistant rabbi at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, says hundreds of transgender Jews from all over the country have contacted him for advice.

Zellman, who graduated from HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, says he has worked with more than 150 people who wanted to change their Hebrew names to reflect a different gender status.

“I’ve heard people combine ‘ben’ and ‘bat’ to get ‘ban,’ ” he said, referring to the custom of calling Jews the “son of” or “daughter of” their parents. Other variations are “mibet,” meaning “from the house of,” or “mimishpachat,” meaning “from the family of.”

Zellman changed his Hebrew name from Hannah Yoninah to the masculine Hananya Yona when he began living as a man 22 years ago. But he is still “bat Herschel v’Gitel.” There are no set rules, he says; the business of living openly as a transgender Jew is still too new.

Jewish tradition does not look kindly upon those who cross accepted gender boundaries. Although the Mishnah and the Talmud discuss the legal status of individuals who are not fully male or female — hermaphrodites, eunuchs and others with questionable gender identities — the observant community does not accept transgenderism as distinguished from intersex individuals, those born with indistinct sexual status.

“Halachically and theologically, from the perspective of the Jewish religious tradition, a person’s sexual identity is dependent on the sex he or she is born as, assuming that the person’s genitals are unambiguous,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said.

The Conservative movement also regards genitals as the final determinant. Although the movement has not said whether sex reassignment surgery is allowed, a 2003 responsum by its committee on law and standards holds that individuals who complete surgery and whose new gender is accepted by state authorities should be so recognized by Jewish law.

There are a variety of Reform responsa on the topic.

Dzmura, Zellman and their colleagues in the trans-Jewish activist community want to encourage the next generation of transgender Jews to join the Jewish community instead of avoiding it.

The goals they have set range from the mundane to issues of ritual and worship. They want to get Jewish institutions to provide nongendered bathrooms, which a few now do. They also want to be able to determine for themselves which side of the mechitzah to choose in an Orthodox shul and how to marry or convert in more liberal congregations.

“Liberal Judaism says come on in, but when it comes to changing our schools, how we bless our children, our rites of passage to adulthood, how we bury people, we really stick to a gender binary,” Dzmura said.

As more transgender Jews come forward looking for inclusion in Jewish life, there are a growing number of trans-friendly Jewish resource and advocacy organizations nationwide. At least two are in the San Francisco area:,  run by Dzmura, and, run by a collective of local rabbis and scholars, including Zellman.

These resources can be accessed anonymously, which is particularly important for the more observant users, they say.

“Many trans people are not ‘out,’ especially those living in Orthodox or Chasidic communities where no one knows they’re transgender,” said Zellman.

“I work with trans people who have suffered tremendous exclusion from Jewish life,” he said. “Sometimes people get overwhelmed or intimated by the idea of expanding Jewish rituals. But it’s really not that hard.”

New South Bay mikvah puts the ritz in the ritual bath

Women living in the Beach Cities need no longer travel to Long Beach, Lomita or the Pico-Robertson area to experience the tranquility of a mikvah.

Mikvah Mei Menachem, a $350,000, 1,100-square-foot ritual bath facility set in north Redondo Beach on the expansive campus of Jewish Community Center-Chabad of the Beach Cities, brings an opulent mikvah option to the South Bay area. Organizers began taking reservations for the first time this week, offering the community a luxury setting with architectural flourishes more typical of a day spa.

The north Redondo mikvah, the third ritual bath for the South Bay/Long Beach area, is the crown jewel of Chabad on Vail Avenue, one of the South Bay’s largest synagogues.

“In Judaism, a mikvah is one of the foundations of a synagogue. Before you build anything, Jewish education and a mikvah are the two most important things,” said Rabbi Yossi Mintz, the synagogue’s senior rabbi.

Mintz and his wife, Sara, first envisioned the ritual bath in December 2006 as an opportunity to bring greater Jewish observance to the cozy coastal neighborhood. But as the project progressed, the lavish design of the mikvah financially stretched the shul.

As costs for materials began creeping up over the past year, the project almost doubled from an original estimate of $180,000 to $350,000, including $50,000 for glass tiles.

“Tiles went up crazy,” Mintz said. “Originally it was $16 a foot when we were picking it. When we bought it [six months later], it was $24.”

Despite the increases, the couple felt it was critical not to compromise on their vision.

“The beautiful, materialist world is not opposed to tradition. It’s just the opposite; we have to embrace the materialistic world and uplift it,” he said. “Rather than reject it, embrace the beauty. Why should Judaism be ugly? Have beautiful homes, beautiful sukkahs and beautiful shuls.”

Mintz says that if he had the means he would have continued to build, but the synagogue currently owes about $100,000 on the mikvah.

“There’s only a certain amount of debt you can go into,” he said.

The mikvah’s gated entrance is set far enough away from the synagogue’s main entrance that it’s still possible to ensure client privacy. Flowers and ferns line newly paved steps that descend to what was once the basement of the 6,700-square-foot synagogue.

Female guests — this mikvah is not for use by men — are greeted by warm earth tones in a reception area that leads to three private bathrooms, which feature engraved mirrors, vessel sinks and embroidered bathrobes and towels.

The slight trickle of a decorative wall fountain is enough to cut the silence in the white circular mikvah room. Red blossoms, frozen in freefall behind glass, serve as a reminder of the natural world that provides the glass-tiled mikvah with its water.

A mikvah is a small pool that must contain, at least in part, water that never has touched metal, including rainwater and snowmelt. Visiting a mikvah is considered a mitzvah for both men and women, especially before marriage, after conversion and before major holidays, like Yom Kippur. But the mikvah is most commonly associated with Orthodox and Conservative women who follow Jewish laws concerning niddah (family purity) and want ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth.

“Mikvah is about transitioning from one stage in your life to another,” said Sara Mintz, who will be one of about five women who will serve as the mikvah lady. “From single to married. From having your period to being available to your husband. From wanting to be Jewish to becoming Jewish.”

There are about 20 mikvot in Southern California, including Mikvah Chaya V’sarah Leah in Long Beach and Mikvas Chana in Lomita. The majority of ritual baths are run by Orthodox synagogues, and all but a few are intended exclusively for women, including north Redondo’s mikvah.

It’s yet to be seen how many women will use Mikvah Mei Menachem, which has a suggested donation policy of $25. Current Jewish population numbers are not available, but the 1997 L.A. Jewish Population Survey found 9,100 Jews in the Beach Cities area with no significant Orthodox population at that time.

Sara Mintz says she hopes women will find the mikvah an escape from the outside world.

“Women in general are so busy, and I want them to be able to stop what they’re doing, and come and enjoy,” she said. “I want them to get into that right frame of mind. Women are the foundation of the home, and I want them to really feel that.”

She feels the investment is worth the expense, because it will help women who have never used a mikvah to see how beautiful the experience can be. She is hopeful that the spa-like experience will nourish a craving for spirituality.

“I want them to feel like this is a special place for them,” she said. “For people who have never used a mikvah before, I want them to see how beautiful the mitzvah of mikvah is.”

For more information or to make an appointment, call (310) 265-3868.

Valley couple shares bimah for rite of passage

When Lee Larsen and Bob Clarke met in the 1970s at the 8709 Bathhouse — one of Los Angeles’ best known gay social spots of the time — they never imagined that they would one day share a very different kind of aquatic experience.

“We were so high after our mikvah,” Temple Beth Hillel member Clarke, who started down the path of conversion with his partner about three years ago. “I walked around in a state of bliss for hours.”

The experience was equally moving for Larsen.

“Our teacher [Rabbi Sarah Hronsky] told us that the mikvah doesn’t mean we’re abandoning the past but that we’re evolving into Judaism,” he said. “It did feel that important.”

With their conversion over, the next stage in Clarke’s and Larsen’s evolution into Judaism begins with their b’nai mitzvah on May 30, which they will celebrate on the bimah together.

Larsen and Clarke had each been a spiritual seeker before they met more than 30 years ago. Larsen, 65, was reading Ram Dass, experimenting with drugs and dabbling in meditation. In reaction to his parents’ open-minded secularism, Clarke decided to become an ardent Christian, studying Aramaic and following his restless muse from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Dallas and Cleveland.

“When we met, we weren’t too stable or responsible,” said Clarke, 71. “Then we started examining our lives, asking ourselves ‘What are we doing?'”

That earnest, companionable introspection has been the foundation for a relationship that both men credit with saving their lives.

“We shouldn’t have been successful,” said Larsen, who points toward the traumatic experience of growing up gay in a conservative Christian home as the source of the self-destructive behavior in his past. “But even when I was living the wild life, I was praying for a partner and thinking I really needed to be married.”

Clarke notes that without their commitment to each other, they might not have managed to avoid the fate that befell many other gay men in the 1980s.

“AIDS probably would’ve claimed us, too,” he said.

Over the years, as they’ve healed each other, the spiritual yearning that each man felt in his youth has taken shape as a desire to heal the hurting world they see around them. That hunger for spiritually motivated social activism led the couple down a few blind alleys until a client in their gardening business suggested that they visit a synagogue near their home in North Hollywood.

“I was pretty wary at first,” Larsen said. “I thought Judaism was like an even more conservative version of Christianity.”

But after the couple attended services at Temple Beth Hillel, Larsen felt immediately at home.

“At first I was shocked when I realized what was happening,” Clarke said. “I thought, ‘Now we’re going to be a double minority.'”

Clarke’s fear of marginalization turned out to be unwarranted at Beth Hillel. The couple says that the warm, wide cultural embrace at their synagogue encompasses other gay men, lesbian couples with children, atheists and agnostics, as well as straight people and deeply religious believers.

“Jews deal in reality,” said Clarke, who sees the synagogue’s eclectic demographic mix as its greatest strength. “And the reality is that we’re all here to make the world a better place.”

Lee echoes that assessment.

“Temple Beth Hillel isn’t so much faith-based as it is social-action based,” he said.

By their own account, Clarke and Larsen have blossomed at Beth Hillel — “our tribe,” as they call the congregation. In a short time they’ve both learned enough Hebrew to follow the prayers at services and have come to relish the observance of holidays on the Jewish calendar, particularly Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

“It just makes sense to take stock of your life and reaffirm your commitment to acting responsibly in the company of the people you share your life with,” Larsen said.

While the couple is looking forward to their b’nai mitzvah on May 30, Larsen is already looking past that event to their next rite of passage.

“We’re going to have a Jewish wedding,” he said.

Initially the men assumed they would need to have the ceremony at a gay synagogue, but the importance of publicly honoring their commitment to each other in their new spiritual community quickly became apparent.

“Rabbi Jim Kaufman said people need to see us get married,” Clarke said of Beth Hillel’s senior rabbi. “That’s when it felt like we’d really come home.”

To an outside observer, Larsen’s impatience to find himself under a chuppah in his seventh decade of life may seem a little puzzling, but to him it feels like a dream too long deferred.

“It has taken me a long time to grow up,” he said.

Conversion for those raised Jewish? Rabbis address unique obstacles for patrilineal converts

When David Levine stepped into the mikvah last year, he believed he was affirming what he already was, not converting to something new.

“I was raised Jewish, was always told I was Jewish,” said the 35-year-old, who did not want his real name printed. “I went to Jewish camps, even had a bar mitzvah.”

But when Levine joined a Conservative congregation after his marriage, the rabbi told him that because his mother was not Jewish, he needed a legal conversion. That was hard to hear, he said, even though the rabbi was “very sensitive” and moved him quickly through the study process.

Levine views his mikvah experience — the final step in conversion — as very different than that of a person with no Jewish parents or grandparents.

“I felt Jewish all along,” he said. “I didn’t see it as a break with the past. It was just sort of a continuum.”

Rabbis, especially Conservative rabbis, are seeing more and more of these cases: young adults with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, people who have spent their lives in the Jewish community, coming forward to seek conversion. Rabbis and candidates alike say it requires different sensibilities and a different approach.

“The conversion process is the same, but the emotional journey is very different,” said Rabbi Avis Miller of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, a longtime advocate of greater outreach to the adult children of intermarried parents. “They already feel part of the Jewish family.”

According to national figures, approximately 1.5 million Americans have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. More than 360,000 of them are between the ages of 18 and 29, the product of the first big surge of intermarriage in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Many of those young adults with non-Jewish mothers grew up in the Reform movement, which since 1983 has accepted patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent. In earlier generations they may have been excluded from the Jewish community; now, like Levine, they are raised Jewish.

As adults, some decide to undergo formal conversion. Some seek out Orthodox rabbis. Some ask Reform rabbis, although conversion is not needed for Reform recognition.

But the largest numbers are found in the Conservative movement, which requires conversion of people with non-Jewish mothers.

Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet congregation in Chicago sees many more of these cases than he did 20 years ago. He attributes that to “an entire generation growing up under Reform auspices.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, said they are most often people who “grew up very involved with Judaism and the Jewish people, who think of themselves as Jewish.”

As a result, he said, “we try very hard, with great sensitivity and compassion, to work with them.”

Each conversion candidate meets with a sponsoring rabbi, who ascertains the candidate’s Jewish knowledge, observance level and commitment to the Jewish people, Meyers explained. Those with strong enough Jewish backgrounds may not have to study much, if at all. For them, the conversion “is more of a technicality,” one Conservative rabbi explained.

Because their conversion experience is different, so is the terminology used to describe what they are going through.

Miller is one of a growing number of rabbis who use the word “affirmation.”

Rabbi Stuart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said he’s done several affirmations and is currently overseeing three this year.

“If someone was raised as a Jew, in terms of their spirit and soul, I accept them as Jewish. Affirmation is just formalizing of that,” he said.

Siegel prefers to call it a “completion.” “I tell them, as far as I’m concerned you’re Jewish. But every people has its definition of citizenship,” he said. “It’s not a judgment; it’s a formality. We want to celebrate your Jewishness and complete it from a legal perspective,” he said.

Sensitivity is needed, these rabbis say, because many such adult children of intermarried parents resent having their Jewishness questioned.

“They say, ‘But we’re Jews! We’re not converting!'” said Rabbi Stu Kelman of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. “I understand what they’re saying, but since matrilineality is a Conservative movement standard, we have to take a strong but compassionate stance.

“The initial reaction is one of resentment. Often I end up working with people to overcome the resentment before we even begin talking about conversion,” he said.

Many confront the problem while preparing for a key lifecycle event such as marriage or a bar mitzvah. That can lead to great emotional upset.

“Here’s a person who sees himself as Jewish, who grew up with all things Jewish, and now at what should be the happiest day of their lives, they find themselves under question,” Siegel said.

Rebecca Goldstein (not her real name) had plenty of anger. Goldstein, 31, is still seething from the rejection she felt as the daughter of a non-Jewish mother whenever she stepped outside her Reform community.

She first ran into it was when she was 19, when her Jewish boyfriend wouldn’t introduce her to his grandmother. She experienced it again the year she spent in Israel on a student program — Israelis would ask whether she was planning to convert.

“It was a weight I had to carry during the entire program,” Goldstein said. “I felt the burden of having to prove myself more than people ‘born Jewish,'” she said.

Goldstein converted while she was pregnant — not because she wanted to, but to spare her child what she went through.

“I didn’t want my daughter to have to face that duality,” she said. “I converted, but resented that I had to do it.”

“This is a problem the Jewish community has created for itself, and those of us who can help have the responsibility to do so,” said Rabbi Carol Levitan, program director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, referring to the divide between those Jewish streams that recognize patrilineal Jews and those that do not. “When it’s a person who clearly identifies as Jewish and is knowledgeable, I’m eager to make it happen without making them jump through hoops.”

Mikvah: Calming Waters for a Chaotic Life

The first time I saw a mikvah I had no idea what it was. My college roommate took me to a small building behind her synagogue that looked like a storage unit. We entered a dimly lit area where a small, green-tiled pool dominated the shabby room. It was hardly appealing, and I was shocked when she told me that Jewish women immersed themselves in it before they got married.

“My mother told me that the rainwaters that fill it are like the waters of Eden,” she said as we left.

The next time I encountered a mikvah was in “The Ritual Bath,” a mystery novel written by Faye Kellerman. While the moving descriptions of the Orthodox women who went to the mikvah had a powerful hold on me, I never thought that I would go to one myself.

Several years later, I made a decision that was life-altering: I decided to leave my law practice and pursue my passion for Jewish learning. I wanted to do something special and spiritually significant to elevate my choice into something more than just a career change. That’s when it hit me. I would begin my journey into Jewish learning by preparing myself in a very Jewish way: I would study the texts about ritual purity and go to the mikvah. To this day, it stands as one of the highlights in my quest to find ways to live a meaningful Jewish life.

Traditionally, the mikvah is a thoroughly private experience, so I feel somewhat uncomfortable writing about it. But I take some comfort in knowing that along with other traditional Jewish rituals that are being redefined today, there is renewed interest in mikvah observance as modern Jewish women discuss, explore and participate in mikvah for the first time.

The laws of family purity, or taharat hamishpacha, date back to biblical times. There are a lot of misconceptions and negative connotations about these laws, which have been viewed by Jews who are not familiar with the reasons behind the laws as primitive or demeaning to women. But the mikvah lies at the heart of Jewish life because it offers us the opportunity to become spiritually pure and to perpetuate Jewish life and Jewish living.

Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 prohibit marital relations during a woman’s menstrual cycle and for seven “spotless” days thereafter. A woman goes to the mikvah to become spiritually pure — not physically clean, as those who misunderstand the ritual suggest. If we understand menstruation as a reflection of a woman’s unique potential to create life, then we can appreciate a ritual that honors the renewal of a woman’s capacity to conceive.

Mikvah attendance requires conscious, vigorous preparation, including bathing, washing and combing the hair, cutting fingernails and removing all jewelry, makeup or anything that is a barrier between a woman and the mikvah waters. It gives a woman the opportunity to luxuriate in being “squeaky clean” and offers a time to focus on the miracles of being a woman.

Mikvah has traditionally been used for conversions, kashering utensils and preparing the dead for burial. But today, Jewish women are reclaiming mikvah to celebrate important lifecycle events and provide meaningful rituals in times of loss, tragedy and sickness. Women also go to the mikvah to mark the onset of menopause, the end of a marriage, a trip to Israel and, in my case, a change in careers.

Many community mikvahs are open to all Jewish women before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the purpose of spiritually preparing themselves for the year ahead. What a wonderful mitzvah to add to our lives as we embrace the New Year and the joys of being a Jewish woman.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at

Tajikistan Razes Its Sole Synagogue

Tajikistan’s government has begun demolishing the Central Asian nation’s only synagogue, offering in exchange a plot of land far from where most Jewish community members live.

The work started last month. So far, demolition crews have destroyed part of the synagogue’s property, including the mikvah (ritual bath) and classroom space, according to sources in Dushanbe, the capital city. The synagogue’s yard was turned into a dump for the refuse.

According to local residents, the road to the synagogue was damaged and people now have to walk over demolition debris to get to services. The remaining part of the old, one-story building is slated for demolition later this year.

The conflict over Dushanbe’s 100-year-old synagogue began several years ago. In May 2004, Dushanbe city authorities ordered the Jewish community to vacate the synagogue so the site could be cleared for a Palace of Nations and national park. Authorities rejected the community’s proposal to give the synagogue a facelift and include it in the new architectural complex.

After negotiations with the city, the Jewish community was given a plot of land in a remote area to build a new synagogue, something the small, aging and impoverished community could not afford to do.

Dushanbe’s Jewish community is estimated at about 400 people, primarily Bukharian Jews. Most are elderly, and about 200 regularly attended services in the old synagogue. Aside from religious services and some charitable activities, the community runs a small Sunday school.

Community representatives said they do not believe anti-Semitism is behind the demolition plan. Instead, some sources indicate the community had poor relations with the government and could not reach a viable solution with city authorities.

Two years ago, Lev Leviev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) of the former Soviet Union and head of the World Congress of Bukharian Jews, called on Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov to scrap the synagogue demolition plan. His proposal, he said, would not have affected the construction of a palace and park.

A federation source said this week that the group condemned the synagogue demolition and has suggested that city authorities might give the Jewish community space for its worship services and other activities.

The federation, a Chabad-led umbrella group that has built most of the new synagogues in the former Soviet Union, normally does not undertake such projects for communities with less than 1,000 members.

Dushanbe’s Jewish population is only a fraction of the once-numerous community, made up of indigenous Bukharian Jews and a large number of World War II refugees, Ashkenazi Jews from European parts of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, most left for Russia, Israel and the United States during a civil war between rival local clans following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The FJC said it would monitor the situation and try to find a solution with the local government.


‘Purity’ Director Comes Clean

"Six months after giving birth, and I’m still impure," says Anat Zuria, director of the controversial Israeli documentary, "Purity," as she glumly strides to the mikvah (ritual bath) on a cold, Jerusalem night.

Zuria’s intimate film explores the ambivalence some women feel about Judaism’s family purity laws, which prevent husbands from touching their wives for a proscribed period of time after childbirth and menstruation. Physical contact may resume only after she immerses in the mikvah.

Ha’Aretz magazine called the film a "pioneering expose.’" Just as Sandi DuBowski’s "Trembling Before G-d" provoked dialogue about homosexuality in Orthodox circles, "Purity" has prompted debate about the family laws — often praised as Judaism’s recipe for sustaining spicy marriages.

"It’s a very important movie since it opens discussion on what has been a taboo topic," Bambi Sheleg, the Orthodox editor of Eretz Aheret magazine, told The Jerusalem Post in 2002.

Others worry about its critical point of view. The film has the "potential to encourage Jews who may not yet have experienced the power and beauty of Jewish observance to simply dismiss those precious things out of hand," Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America wrote in an online essay, "Impure Intentions."

Zuria, 42, describes her intentions as personal. Although she grew up secular, she says she fell in love with Judaism after marrying an observant man in 1982. Yet, she found the purity laws "oppressive, alienating, humiliating" impacting her relationship and her body image. The artist-turned-director sometimes spent hours at the mikvah as the attendant inspected her for paint spots (Jewish law prohibits the slightest barrier between the skin and the water).

Around 1999, Zuria decided to explore her feelings in a movie, interviewing more than 100 women before focusing on three women: Natalie provoked a divorce by refusing to go to the mikvah; Katie is happily married but struggles with the laws; and bride-to-be Shira clashes with her mother’s conservative views.

Zuria also shows herself as so conflicted about the ritual that she visits the bath "in the night, in the dark, so as not to be seen."

She feels "Purity" has shed some light on the subject since winning best documentary at 2002’s Jerusalem International Film Festival. "This was a nonissue, and now it’s an issue.

"Purity" airs on the Sundance channel July 26 at 6 p.m.

Menopause Goes Mainstream

After years of being talked about in hushed tones as “the change of life” — or not being talked about at all — menopause is now in the spotlight. Two recent plays, “Is it Hot in Here … Or Is it Me?” and “Menopause the Musical” literally put menopause center stage. A support group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centers, called “Red Hot Mamas,” is part of a nationwide program. There’s even a World Menopause Day.

So it’s no surprise that the topic is also being explored in a Jewish context as women increasingly look to their tradition for meaningful ways to mark this transition.

“Jewish tradition has been silent for a lot of years about menopause and other biological passages that women go through, and the losses and stresses that these passages represent,” said Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.

“In the last 25 to 30 years, we’ve begun to fill in some of these gaps. Menopause touches on getting older, on loss of fertility, on mortality and femininity. Judaism has a lot to teach about these themes.”

Using Jewish sources and existing traditions, rituals have been created to recognize menopause as well as childbirth, abortion, miscarriage, retirement and a host of other biological milestones and significant life events that have not traditionally been formally acknowledged. While many women are creating their own ceremonies, an increasing number of books provide suggested formulas and inspirational readings. Ceremonies can range from a simple blessing to an elaborate seder.

“Many menopause rituals draw on Pesach metaphors, and many use mikvah. There are also menopause prayers based on new moon blessings and tkhines [Yiddish women’s prayers],” noted Orenstein, who edited “Lifecycles Volume 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones” (Jewish Lights Pub, 1998). Examples of seder-based ceremonies can be found on the Web site One incorporates expanded meanings of such Pesach symbols as the four cups of wine, the four questions, the shank bone and matzah.

Regarding the middle matzah, author Shoshana Silberman writes, “One section will stand for a part of me that is gone. The other section will stand for what lies ahead. These parts will be united at the end of my journey.”

Other ceremonies focus on the mikvah.

“More and more women are discovering the mikvah as part of marking — of moving from one stage of their lives to another,” said Penelope Oppenheimer, supervisor of the Rabbinical Assembly’s mikvah at the University of Judaism. “Mikvah represents the womb of the Jewish people. So when you come to the mikvah you’re actually being reborn, which opens itself up to the idea that you are emerging into a new self. It isn’t a matter of losing things, but of going toward something that’s new and exciting and different … and that has worth as a Jewish experience.”

In addition to ceremonies around Passover and the mikvah, women are creating their own Jewish interpretations. Speech therapist Linda Kaufman created and participated in a midlife ritual along with five other women as part of a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y.

“We looked at the roles we’d played up to this point in our lives, and what we wanted to commit ourselves to [now],” Kaufman said. “I thought it was transforming.”

As a result of her experience, she helped start a Lifecycles Havurah for women at Makom Ohr Shalom.

So why has it taken this long for Judaism to recognize such integral moments of women’s lives? Both Oppenheimer and Orenstein agree that pointing to a patriarchal society is too simplistic. Oppenheimer says the lack of rituals around menopause may have resulted from the “inherent value of modesty at a time when menopause was considered a very private matter.”

Orenstein noted that menopause is a relatively modern phenomenon. Women continued to have children throughout their lives, which were much shorter in ancient days. But in our time, the lack of recognition of such events as miscarriage or menopause has caused many women to suffer in silence.

“Making ritual available takes away any aspect of shame,” Orenstein said.

She believes that rituals for these occasions “provide a communal way to address” such major life transitions.

Orenstein said there is no “standard” menopause ritual at this time because it hasn’t had time to evolve. By contrast, naming ceremonies for girls have been occurring much longer and versions are offered by the Reconstructionist, Conservative and Reform movements.

“It wasn’t until the 1998 edition that the Conservative rabbi’s manual offered a full-blown ceremony for naming a baby girl, as well as prayers for grieving miscarriage and stillbirth,” Orenstein said. “My hope is that the next edition will include prayers for [getting older] and menopause, too.”

In the meantime, she said, women who sit down to create their own rituals learn about and forge a stronger link with their tradition. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Go for a Holy Dip

Picture a woman floating submersed in a warm bath, the water enveloping her like the womb and bringing her to a renewed state of spiritual purity. That is the experience of the mikvah, the ritual bath of natural water where for centuries Jewish women have immersed themselves after their menstrual cycles and after childbirth.

This month the Fine Arts Council of the University of Judaism (UJ) is exhibiting a collection of ethereal mikvah photographs that examines all facets of the mikvah experience. Titled “The Mikvah Project,” the exhibit combines the work of photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax.

Rubin and Lax, who both live in Houston, interviewed women in five different U.S. cities and asked them for their personal stories of mikvah use. The stories, all told anonymously, range from tales of using icy mikvahs in the former Soviet Union with the threat of gulag looming over every dip to using the mikvah to feel renewed after a divorce or an abusive relationship.

“We didn’t know that we were going to tap into this sort of grass-roots rebirth of mikvah outside of the Orthodox community,” Lax said. “Ultimately, half of our subjects use mikvah according to Jewish law, and the other people have utilized mikvah into all kinds of personal and creative rituals.”

With their aquatic grace, the photographs in “The Mikvah Project” manage to illustrate the mystical secrecy of this ancient mitzvah, and the uniqueness of the mikvah experience. Each subject in the exhibition put her own personal imprint on these bodies of pure water, and so in many ways, it seems, the ritual becomes a form of prayer — an opportunity to connect to God using one’s whole body.

“We didn’t have a single interview without tears,” Lax said. “At the end of every interview, I would say, ‘Come with me now. Close your eyes, we are standing at the railing of the mikvah. Tell me what you are thinking.”‘

And the women would say, “It’s just me and God,” she said.

The Mikvah Project exhibition opens Oct. 26 at the
Marjorie and Herman Platt and Borstein Galleries at the UJ, 15600 Mulholland
Drive, Bel Air. Call (310) 476-9777 or visit .

My Mikvah Lady

The 21st victim of the heinous bus bombing in Jerusalem last month was Rachel Weitz, 70.

Her name probably flew by most of you. It almost flew by me, too, the first time I heard it on the 9 p.m. Saturday news. When I heard her name the second time that night, on the midnight news flash, I knew. My breath stopped as I ran to the phone book to check if there was any other Rachel Weitz in Jerusalem. There wasn’t.

Rachel Weitz was my beloved mikvah lady, the woman who ran the ritual bath.

Rachel ran the private mikvah in Mattersdorf until several years ago. Almost all the women who used it, except for me and a few others, were ultra-Orthodox. Even after I moved to Efrat, 18 years ago, I would still return there if I happened to be in town too late to get home to the Efrat mikvah, or just because I liked seeing Rachel.

For the 27 years of my married life, I measured all the mikvah ladies I met by Rachel. It was unfair competition. Had Agnon known her, he would have written a story about her, like he did about Tehila. But, of course, he couldn’t have known her like we, the women, did.

When I was a young bride, Rachel made me feel comfortable with this new activity that went along with the wedding ring. She always greeted me with a warm smile and a bit of friendly chatter. Each time I entered her pristine structure, tucked away behind a large Mattersdorf synagogue, I felt like I was parting a veil and entering a sanctum. No matter what insanity was going on in the world outside, it was always safe in Rachel’s mikvah. There, I was home.

As time went on, our family grew, and I loved the experience of returning to Rachel’s mikvah after giving birth, sharing with her the fact that a new child had been born to the tribe of Israel.

Most of the other women who came to Rachel’s mikvah wore thick stockings and either wigs or hats that covered all their hair; some had black stretch snoods pulled over shaved heads, and women even came from the heart of Mea Shearim to use it. I arrived in flowing colored head scarves with my barefoot toes sticking out of my sandals. Rachel didn’t care. She was as loving and caring toward me as she was toward the others, who were a much closer match for her mode of dress and lifestyle.

When I came occasionally after I had moved to Efrat, Rachel always expressed great concern for my safety. When I said goodbye, she would ask me if the road was safe and wished me best of health.

Over the years my scarves and flowered skirts were sometimes replaced by suits, heels and a fashionable hat or styled wig. But Rachel never changed. She remained an anchor of tradition in a shifting world.

Part of that tradition was what happened while the women waited their turn. The women in Rachel’s mikvah all said Tehillim (psalms) while they waited. There was no small talk. They turned inward and prayed for the people of Israel — and perhaps for their husbands and for their children. And if they had no children, perhaps they were praying for themselves.

Rachel had a custom from the old country that few mikvah ladies adhere to nowadays. As a woman emerged from the mikvah, while still on the last step, Rachel would grasp her wet hand, shake it warmly and give her a blessing for joy and good luck, as she helped her step up and out. And even though Rachel watched you dunk and say the blessing while in the water, once she had witnessed the act, she would hold the towel up to hide her own eyes from you as you emerged, offering you a final moment of modest dignity before you swathed yourself in terry cloth.

In the years of our marriage I’ve had occasion to travel, and to visit the luxurious mikvahs of London and of Beverly Hills. I’ve been to the beautiful establishments in Toronto, Cleveland and Queens. But even with their multicolored tiles, carpeting, piped-in music and collections of condiments and coffee for post-immersion pampering, none of those mikvahs were ever as soothing to me as Rachel’s spartan one.

I feel that Rachel’s blessings have accompanied me throughout my married life. She has been a role model to me of chesed, of kindness, of cheerfulness, of what it means to make another person always feel comfortable, special and welcome.

The last time I visited the Mattersdorf mikvah, more than a year ago, they told me that Rachel had retired. But I noticed that the spirit she had brought to the mikvah was still there. Well, I thought, some day I’ll go and visit her at her home, just to say hello and tell her how much I appreciated her all those years. Someday I’ll call her and tell her what’s going on with my children.

After the Aug. 19 bombing, Rachel suffered for four days before she died. This knowledge is almost more than I can bear. This righteous woman — who lovingly clasped the hands of thousands of women, lifting them up and out of the ritual bath, who then sent them forth from her sanctum to go home to their husbands, her blessings ringing in their ears, who should have spent her last years in comfort and joy, basking in the laughter and love of her children and grandchildren — was slaughtered by the epitome of evil. This knowledge is hard for me to live with.

And so is the knowledge that I never found the time to tell her, "Thank you."

Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, a community theater writer and director (“Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court”) and the editor-in-chief of

Mural, Mural on the Wall

A new mural joins the A-list of great Jewish murals in Los Angeles. At Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, local artist and temple member Wanda Warburton-Peretz recently unveiled “The Jewish Holidays,” a 16-foot by 8-foot mural depicting Judaism’s annual celebration cycle.

The bright, almost kinetic work uses child-friendly designs and splashy colors, while the words “Shabbat Shalom” glow warmly in the center.

The mural took two years to design and about 200 hours to execute on a curved wall in the rotunda that joins –appropriately — the Early Childhood Center and the religious school classrooms. Warburton-Peretz based her design largely on what she learned while attending Rabbi Neil Weinberg’s Introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism.

“Learning about the ethical principles, historical and agricultural significance, the symbolic foods and objects associated with each of the Jewish holidays was so amazing during my conversion process,” she said. “The idea of a mural started percolating in my mind even before I went into the mikvah. I am so pleased to have finally completed it in a place where kids of all ages can enjoy the colorful characters and scenes, and educators can use it as a teaching tool.”

The artist worked with both of Kehillat Israel’s rabbis, Steven Carr Reuben and Sheryl Lewart, as well as religious school director Nancy Levin, to personalize and fine-tune the overall design, weaving in pictures of the main sanctuary’s Torah covers and a ceramic tzedakah box that is presented to each new bar and bat mitzvah. It also features the Reconstructionist Press’ machzor and siddur and its newly published Passover haggadah, “A Night of Questions.”

The mural was dedicated on Oct. 20, just before Kehillat Israel’s Simchat Torah celebration. During a brief ceremony, Warburton-Peretz was honored for her “creative Jewish spirit.” Kehillat Israel’s senior staff presented her with a beautiful handmade tallit. Rabbis Reuben and Lewart, along with Cantor Chayim Frenkel, officiated at the ceremony and gave Warburton-Peretz the honor of carrying the first Torah around the sanctuary during the Simchat Torah processionals.

Thai Tikvah

While that may sound like an old Jewish joke, it's an arrangement that well suits a community which feels at home in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation but keeps a low profile.

The three synagogues serve as a rough guide to the makeup of the permanent and transient Jewish community here.

Worshipers at the showpiece Bet Elisheva synagogue tend to be wealthier suburbanites. The three-story building serves as community center and houses the sanctuary, the meeting and recreation rooms, the mikvah, and the living quarters of the youthful Rabbi Yosef Kantor and his family.

There are daily preschool classes for six children, and a Sunday school for older kids is in the planning stages. The preschoolers are taught by two young women, still in their late teens, who arrived two months ago from Kfar Chabad in Israel.

Bangkok, as the gem-trade capital of the world, has attracted a large number of Israeli businessmen. They, along with tourists staying at the more expensive hotels, pray at the appropriately named Even Chen (Precious Stone, in Hebrew) in the center of the city.

Serving the lower end of the economic scale is the Ohr Menachem synagogue, which, with a kosher kitchen, is part of Bet Chabad. It caters to the stream of backpackers, an estimated 15,000 a year from Israel alone, who stay at the nearby cheap hostels and guest houses.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, with wife, Dvorah Leah, and son, has been spiritual leader of the Bangkok Jewish community for four years. Photo by Tom Tugend

The first contingent of Jews arrived in Thailand at the turn of the century, mainly from Middle Eastern countries.

These Sephardic Jews were joined in the 1920s by groups of Ashkenazim, said “Jacob,” whose father arrived here from Russia, via Italy, in 1920.

Jacob, who requested that his real name not be used, represents what is now the oldest Jewish family in Bangkok. He is president of the Jewish community, as his father was a generation earlier.

Besides the Israeli businessmen, the community includes a sizable segment of American Jews. The men, mainly lawyers, got to know Thailand while serving with the U.S. military or the Peace Corps, liked what they saw and decided to stay.

Jacob's request for anonymity is grounded in his sense of vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In 1973, the Palestinian Black September group seized the Israeli Embassy here — although Thai authorities were able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

Four years ago, Jacob says, police apprehended a terrorist “by a stroke of luck. He had enough explosive material to level everything within a mile radius in the heart of the city.”

Surveying his constituency, Jacob notes that, “basically, all of us are Orthodox; we have no Reform or Conservative Jews here.” The community gets together for Purim and Chanukah parties, and, during the past year, celebrated one wedding, one bris and a few bar mitzvahs, and welcomed one young Thai woman as a convert.

As for the burden of the presidency, Jacob confides that “just because it's a small community doesn't mean it's an easy one.”

What attracts Jews to live in Thailand?

“It's a nice country with friendly people. All religions can function freely, and there are good business opportunities,” says Jacob.

There is also no anti-Semitism, perhaps because “the Thai have no idea what Jews are,” as one resident put it.

In the past, the community had a hard time attracting and then keeping rabbis. “We had one who stayed for a year, and then a second one who left after six months,” says Jacob.

Four years ago, community leaders turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who dispatched Rabbi Kantor. The 28-year-old native of Australia has “done a terrific job,” according to Jacob.

Kantor and his wife, Dvorah Leah, who hails from Los Angeles, are now well-settled and are raising a family. He relies primarily on e-mail to stay in touch with Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn and with the rest of the world.

Some things about Thailand, though, are hard to get used to, including the extremely hot and humid weather. “Sometimes, I dream of just taking a pleasant walk, like in Los Angeles,” says the rebbetzin. “Now [in February], it's the middle of the winter, and the temperature is 100 degrees.”

Mindi Gerlitzky, one of the two young teachers recently arrived from Kfar Chabad, is struck by other phenomena.

“I was shocked to see so many Israelis here,” she says.

Israeli tourists now flock to Thailand at the rate of 50,000 a year, according to Yaakov Avrahami, the No. 2 man at the Israeli Embassy.

Besides the 15,000 backpackers, there are some 35,000 mostly middle-aged visitors, attracted by cheap package tours and the regular El Al flights between Tel Aviv and Bangkok.

The Israeli Embassy was opened in 1957, but the Thai reciprocated in opening an embassy in Tel Aviv only last year. One reason for the latter move was to serve the estimated 20,000 Thai nationals now working in Israel, mainly in the agricultural sector.

Trade between the two countries runs at $500 million a year, with the balance almost 2 to 1 in Israel's favor. Thai exports are mainly in diamonds and gemstones, and imports from Israel include machinery, electronics and communication equipment.

Diplomatic relations between Thailand and Israel function smoothly, says Avrahami, and, judging by the three English-language dailies in Bangkok, Thailand's people and government seem well-disposed to the Jewish State.

Entrance to Bet Elisheva, one of three synagogues in Bangkok which also serves as community center. Photo by Tom Tugend