After having a miscarriage three years ago, Cara Parsons found solace and healing by way of an ancient Jewish practice.
“I thought the cleansing ritual of the mikvah could help me move on,” says Parsons, who was 30 at the time. “Each month we didn’t conceive brought up feelings of loss.”
After going to the mikvah at Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation for several months, Parsons discovered she was pregnant. She visited the mikvah again during her ninth month of pregnancy, her “favorite visit so far. It was a really special way to express appreciation for my body, to pray for a safe delivery and my hopes for parenthood.”
A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath used for various types of spiritual purification. It is customary for people to fully immerse themselves in a mikvah at least three times, reciting particular prayers in between immersions.
According to Jewish law, a mikvah must have seven steps and contain approximately 200 gallons of warm water sourced from rain or a naturally flowing body of water.
For generations, the ritual was a central tenet of Jewish life, used by individuals converting to Judaism; by men and women preparing for marriage or Shabbat; for kashering dishes and silverware (in a separate mikvah not used by people); and by married women observing niddah, family purity laws. (In Orthodox circles, men and women utilize separate mikva’ot.)
As American Jews assimilated, many stopped participating in the mikvah ritual. But over the past two decades or so, that began to change. Today, mikva’ot are increasingly utilized by Jews of all branches of Judaism to commemorate such watershed life moments as birthdays, pregnancies, coming out as LGBTQ, b’nai mitzvah, the end of cancer treatments and healing from sexual assault.
Baltimore is home to several mikva’ot. Among local non-Orthodox Jews, the mikvah of choice tends to be at Beth El. The Conservative congregation’s mikvah was built in 1988 and renovated in 2014. The Beth El mikvah is frequently used by non-Orthodox men and women for non-traditional reasons.
Since 2016, the mikvah has operated under the auspices of the Alvin & Lois Lapidus Center for Healing & Spirituality, aka the Soul Center, also located on Beth El’s campus.
“We have seen a beautiful rise in visitors to the mikvah,” says Beth El Associate Rabbi Dana Saroken, founder of the Soul Center. “The impact the experience has on people’s lives is profound.”
According to Rachel Siegal, the Soul Center’s managing director, Beth El’s mikvah was the scene of more than 140 immersions during the past two years. She says the Soul Center is seeking a grant to fund mikvah usage for victims of sexual assault or trauma.
“Because mikvah is such a vulnerable and sacred place, the water can envelop you and allow you to feel body acceptance and positivity,” says Siegal. “You can find a way to love and accept yourself. It feels like a true embodied transition.”
Last year, the Soul Center convened a mikvah committee and trained a dozen guides — two men and 10 women — to escort guests through the immersion process.
Randee Greenwald is both a guide and the mikvah committee chair. She said the Soul Center wants users to see “how beautiful mikvah is. We can tailor it especially for you. If you want music, poetry, prayer — whatever you want.”
After she was sexually assaulted as a child, Jill Solomon says, “I felt dirty for a long time, like no matter how much I showered or bathed, I couldn’t get the stain of it off me.”
Solomon, who recently moved from Baltimore to Florida, decided to honor her recovery from the traumatic experience with an immersion ceremony at Beth El that included a mixture of traditional prayers, music and poetry.
“It was extremely personal and reflective of my healing journey,” says Solomon. “As I descended the seven steps feeling the warm, living waters wrap me in comfort and light, I knew without a doubt that I was, and always had been, clean.”
Before their wedding last October, Lutherville residents Hillary and Joe McMullan went to the mikvah to mark different transitions. While Joe marked his conversion to Judaism, Hillary used the mikvah to celebrate their nuptials.
She describes the process of immersion as “a bit of an out-of-body experience. I felt like I was going through the motions, hovering over my body. … [Going to the mikvah] really jolted me awake to realize I was getting married.”
Stevenson resident Jennifer Millman wanted her daughter, Jessica, to experience the mikvah before becoming a bat mitzvah two years ago.
“I wanted to make sure there was a space for us to really be there,” says Millman, “to stop, breathe and be so grateful for the community in which we live.”
Initially, Jessica admits she was “confused. I wasn’t sure what a mikvah was. But once I heard more and learned the prayers, I thought it would be a really cool experience.”
During the immersion ceremony, Jessica’s grandparents, two aunts and three of her mother’s close friends were in the waiting area to listen.
“I asked everyone to come and bring advice for Jessica,” says Millman. “I started by talking about mikvah and then we went around and everyone gave advice. We all prayed together, and then Jess and I went into the mikvah room and we did prayers together.”
Jessica, who attends Pikesville High School, says the mikvah ritual was a profoundly moving experience.
“There are seven steps, and each step I went down was for a different person I thought about who had helped me become who I am today,” she says. “Each time I dunked, I said a different prayer. Afterward, I felt more connection to the people around me and more ready for the next chapter of my life.”