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Transforming a Community (part 2): Liberal Mikvahs Spring Up in Response to Growing Need

The conversion controversy is not just an issue in Israel. It is playing out a lot closer to home in conflicts across the United States over access to mikvahs.

Immersion in a ritual bath is a critical step in the process of converting to Judaism. It is required among Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and is increasingly encouraged by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Non-Orthodox rabbis who once had access to ritual baths are increasingly being shut out. In response, an unprecedented number of Conservative and Reform synagogues are building their own.

Being able to access mikvahs is important for all converts, just as it is important for those seeking to use it for other rituals.

Many adoptive parents seeking to bring their child into the Jewish community find themselves, as one mother put it, "caught in the `Who Is a Jew’ wars," using the expression often used to depict the conflict over conversion and the rabbis who perform them.

Observant Jewish women follow the law of family purity by monthly immersion in a mikvah after their menstrual periods and before they resume sexual contact with their husbands. Some Orthodox men go before the start of Yom Kippur and before Shabbat.

The baths are also being increasingly used by non-Orthodox women and men before marriage and to mark the conclusion of traumatic events, from miscarriage to rape, from the end of chemotherapy to the end of a ritual period of mourning for a parent.

There was a time, in decades past, when most of the country’s mikvahs were supported by — and available to — the entire Jewish community.

That is no longer true.

As community mikvahs have aged and fallen into disrepair, they have often been replaced by new mikvahs built by the Orthodox community, which uses mikvahs the most.

Though some of these newer mikvahs remain open to non-Orthodox women who observe the mitzvah of family purity, many of them are closed to non-Orthodox rabbis seeking access for the purpose of conversions.

Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which is Orthodox, says that many communities want the mikvah "solely for the use of the Orthodox community and don’t want to perpetuate what they see as non-halachic conversions."

In the past, he says, "many people were Orthodox-affiliated but not practitioners. Today, thank God, people live by Torah law and are more conscious of observance and all of its ramifications, even as the liberal community has gone further to the left. The lines of demarcation are much stronger."

In response to the denial of access, some non-Orthodox synagogues are taking the unusual step of building their own mikvahs.

About 10 ritual baths have recently been built or are in the process of being created in Conservative synagogues all over North America, according to Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of that movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

And even though the Reform movement does not require immersion in a mikvah for conversion and most Reform Jews do not engage in mikvah rituals, two temples – – one in the Philadelphia area, one in Detroit — have recently built their own mikvahs.

The Philadelphia area, home to more than 200,000 Jews, has one of the most vibrant liberal Jewish communities in the nation. It also hosts the headquarters of the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.

Even so, babies adopted by Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform or Renewal- affiliated Jewish parents do not have access to any of the several Orthodox- sponsored mikvahs in the region.

Until a few years ago they went to nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., but the mikvah there began restricting its use to two days a year, when the children attending the adjoining Orthodox school wouldn’t see them, according to one area rabbi who asked that his name not be used.

The result was that 15 or 20 people would be lined up to use it on each of those days, said the rabbi, which meant that no one had privacy.

Since then Philadelphia rabbis and the converts under their tutelage, as well as parents converting their newly adopted children, have had to drive 90 minutes each way to Allentown, Pa., to find a mikvah.

Rabbi Elliot Strom of Congregation Shir Ami, a temple in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown, Pa., returned one day from the Allentown mikvah thinking there had to be a better way.

He spent a year convincing his 950-member Reform congregation to embark on building their own.

"They felt it was the epitome of Orthodoxy, that it flew in the face of being modern, that it’s archaic," Strom says of his congregants. But eventually he won their confidence.

Since the $30,000 mikvah opened in mid-February, "I’ve been getting calls from everywhere," Strom says. "I’ve heard from 20 or 30 rabbis who want to use it. There’s a huge pent-up demand in Philadelphia."

In the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, Congregation Beth Hillel-Beth El has been raising the $250,000 it anticipates needing to complete its own mikvah, says Rabbi Neil Cooper of the Conservative synagogue.

Cooper, who describes the plans as "luxurious and spa-like," says they hope to break ground in about a year.

A mikvah is open at an Orthodox day school just a mile away, but while a few of his female congregants use it on a monthly basis, he cannot use it for conversions, Cooper said.

"We need access to a mikvah, so we’re building our own," he said. "We in the Conservative movement need to take ownership of things we have ceded to the Orthodox community, like mikvah and kashrut."

The problem in the Cleveland area has been even more acute.

Liberal rabbis there used a community mikvah until a couple of years ago, when it became so decrepit that its roof caved in.

They don’t have access to the several other baths in the area, which is home to a thriving Orthodox community.

Instead, they drive to Youngstown, two hours away, to use a mikvah in a building shared jointly by a Conservative and Orthodox congregation.

"With respect to matters of Jewish status there is so little cooperation and agreement that this is just a symptom" of the problems between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements, said Rabbi Gary Robuck of Conservative Congregation Shaaray Tikvah, in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

The message non-Orthodox Jews are getting is a strong one.

One Cleveland couple who adopted a child about a year ago are Conservative Jews but want to convert their son in an Orthodox ceremony, so, his mother says, "he is covered and no one can say, 10 years from now, that he needs an Orthodox conversion."

The couple asked that their names not be used because they didn’t want to embarrass their Orthodox relatives in the Cleveland area.

They have been trying for more than nine months to find a way to have his conversion supervised by an Orthodox rabbi at a local mikvah, but haven’t succeeded, delaying an experience that they fear will now be traumatic for their toddler son.

Someone suggested they join an Orthodox synagogue for a year, but "we don’t want to be dishonest," says the mother, adding, "We do keep a kosher home and attend synagogue every week, and I’m sure that there are plenty in the Orthodox community who don’t even do that.

"It’s bad enough that you go through the court hearings and thousands of papers with adoption," she says. "If the Jewish community can’t help us embrace a new member of the Jewish people, then we have a real problem."

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