Rachel Goldsmith is an urban planner living in the Boston area. She is currently planning her first trip to Israel.
My Mikvah: A Meaningful Part of My Reform Conversion and Journey to Judaism
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha'olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav vitzivanu al ha'tevilah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Creator of the Universe, who commands us concerning immersion.
I read the instructions from a list taped to the wall: shower and wash hair, take out contact lenses and dental appliances, brush and floss teeth, remove jewelry and nail polish, cut fingernails and toenails. I hurried to remove anything that would come between me and the water, laughing at myself in the mirror, while three rabbis waited outside the changing room door. I was going to the mikvah, a ritual bath used for maintaining the laws of family purity for Orthodox Jews and--as in my case--for the immersion of those converting to Judaism.
I had made the decision to become Jewish several years earlier. When I was young, having a Jewish name (Goldsmith) and a Jewish grandfather--even one I never knew--was something that I often thought about, something that made me identify with Jewish people. My parents had exposed me to the ideas and customs of many religions. While I definitely preferred certain ideas and practices to others, organized religion had seemed almost academic to me while I was growing up. It wasn't until I got older that I was able to feel an emotional connection to spirituality.
At that point, though, I wanted to feel a sense of belonging to something larger and began to look for a way to express my spirituality that felt comfortable for me. I was reading a book about conversion one day and came across a paragraph about a gilgul, a Jewish soul that had migrated from one generation to another. It described perfectly how I felt. My ancestral connection, the intellectual rigor of Torah study, Judaism's devotion to social justice, the odd familiarity of Hebrew words and ancient melodies, all drew me towards making this tradition my own. It was bashert, meant to be.
I had been going to services for several years, at first on holidays, then on Shabbat, taking Hebrew classes and finally beginning to study with my rabbi. When we both felt ready, she explained the mikvah process and we set a date. From the time I confirmed my mikvah date until that day six weeks later, it was the first thing I thought about every morning when I woke up and the last thing in my mind before I fell asleep. I was so excited to finally become legally Jewish, to be "official," to be able, when someone asked me if I was Jewish, to say "yes"without equivocation. I was also incredibly nervous. The thought of trying to recite Hebrew blessings from memory while naked in the water in front of a rabbi scared me to death! I had had no other experience that even remotely compared with this.
My ceremony was held at an Orthodox mikvah which is open to the Reform community on Tuesdays--a scheduling arrangement, not a religious prescription. To make it feel more like a holiday, I took the entire day off from work. From the outside, the mikvah building looks just like an ordinary house. Inside, there is a sitting room where the beit din (three rabbis who represent the community in approving conversions) convenes, a dish mikvah for koshering kitchen articles, changing rooms, and the mikvah itself, a deep tile bath that resembles a hot tub (no jets). According to Jewish law, the mikvah must contain some rainwater, and there is a small pipe through which the collected water flows. We had record-setting storms for three days before my mikvah day, and I was sure that the rain had fallen for me!
My mother, sister, and best friend came with me, and it calmed me down to have them there while the rabbis asked me questions. My family was very supportive--my sister said I was like Miss Jewish America answering all the questions the rabbis asked! It was so emotional for me to say out loud in front of the rabbis and my family why I wanted to be Jewish--why I felt that I was Jewish, that I wanted to raise my children in a Jewish home and live my life according to Jewish law.
Although I studied with a Reform rabbi, she required that I go to the mikvah as a part of my conversion. During my study process, the mikvah seemed like a goal in itself, in some ways even an ending point. I imagined that when I emerged from the bath, everything would change somehow. This expectation hasn't turned out to be true. I suppose part of me feels different, perhaps more secure in some way, but I'm essentially the same person I've always been. Before my mikvah, if someone asked me a question about Judaism that I couldn't answer, I ran home and looked it up immediately. Now I am more relaxed--I'm still Jewish, whether I know everything or not. My rabbi explained to me that it's not really the mikvah that made me Jewish, rather we make ourselves Jewish every day by the decisions we make and how we live our lives. My mikvah was the end of my formal study but the beginning of a lifetime of opportunities to make Jewish choices about how I live.
As I emerged from the water, naked and blind as when I was born, I said the Shehechiyanu, a blessing expressing gratitude for having reached a milestone or occasion, as a Jew for the first time. With these words I gave thanks for reaching this moment and becoming Jewish in the eyes of the community and in my own eyes. In the weeks since my mikvah, I have attended my first Bar Mitzvah and my first Jewish wedding, hung a mezuzah (miniature torah scroll that is hung on the doorposts of Jewish homes) in my doorway and hosted Shabbat or Sabbath dinner for the first time. My mikvah was the end of one kind of journey and the beginning of another, lifelong one.
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehechiyanu, vikiyamanu vihigianu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are You Adonai our God, Creator of the Universe, for sustaining life and for enabling us to reach this moment.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.