Reflections on Mayyim Hayyim
Written by Aly Schenker, BJEP Parent
“Where are we going?”
“What is it?”
My two boys, ages seven and ten, were pelting me with questions – none of which I could answer. It was one of those mom moments that felt frustrating.
“It’s this place in Newton that has these special baths and it has to do with Judaism.” It was an inadequate description that felt flat and naive, and yet it was the best I could do. I looked to my husband, the one with a strong Jewish education and rich cultural childhood, who typically fills in the gaps.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “My sisters did it before they got married. That’s all I’ve got.” Now our unknowing seemed doubled.
And so, almost in unison, we said, “Hop in the car. We’re just going to check it out.”
I added, “And there’ll be pizza.”
We live in Framingham, and it was a short ride to Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikveh in Newton. Our invitation to tour the mikveh was part of a Havdalah community event for all fourth and fifth grade families from our BJEP (the Boston-area Jewish Education Program) community. We told our children it is like a little BJEP family field trip.
Cantor Jeri, our BJEP director and Mikveh guide, greeted us at the door and ushered us into what felt like a cozy New England living room, as opposed to my unsupported image of a cold room encased in sea green tiles. We were invited to join a welcoming conversation about mikveh. Sitting in a tight circle, five families in all, we talked about the ancient practice of mikveh and how the practice has reshaped itself in modern life.
My boys seemed both tentative and curious. With gentle questioning, they contributed to the dialogue, suggesting milestone celebrations like “birthdays” and “bar mitzvahs” as times when someone might choose to immerse in the mikveh. Together, we learned that this mikveh is a place for anyone: gender, age, race, sexuality. It is a place to mark moments of transition, both joyous and sad. I went from feeling like a mere visitor with zero context, to a someone thinking, “This place could be for me.” And this was all before we even saw the rest of the facility – including the immersion pools!
To the boys’ delight we took some time to eat pizza, while rambling through the educational side of the building. An art installation flanked the walls and corners, in anticipation of a community opening the following day. We told our boys they got a sneak peak, just by being special guests to the mikveh. It was sort of challenging to put it all together – BJEP friends, pizza, art, and the anticipation of special bath tubs. And yet, it felt a bit right, too.
When all that remained in the pizza boxes were smears of grease, it was time to explore the other half, the so-called “wet side” – the preparation rooms and immersion pools. With encouragement to look, touch and ask, my boys spilled into the rooms with wonder and comfort. I paused. The space was stunning with calming curves in the ceiling and glowing light. It was easy to imagine the numbers of families who’ve spent time in here in a spiritual way. I couldn’t help but create some of the stories in my mind from all parts of life: a beautiful adoption, passing of a loved one, recovery.
My kids had an opportunity to touch the waters, ask about the Hebrew on the plaques, and role play how an immersion might go. While the space had no familiarity in their world, it was becoming something that could be theirs as much as anyone else’s. And for this, I felt grateful.
We closed out our time with Havdalah prayers under the arched ceiling to mark the end of Shabbat. I wrapped my arms around my ten-year-old, and hummed along to the acoustic guitar. I thought “Never would I picture this moment as mine, and here it is.” As I am learning through my time at BJEP, one might call this kavannah (focus or intention) – a moment of grace and spirituality.