When speaking about the new community mikveh project that she is spearheading in the Twin Cities, Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker gets two questions: Where is it going to be and how much is it going to cost? And while she has those two questions, also, they aren’t the first thing on her mind as this initiative has ramped up.
“Those are important questions. For me, it is really important to do some of the other leg work first,” said Spilker, the cantor of St. Paul’s Mount Zion Temple. “I’ve had lots of meetings with clergy, with organizational leaders, with lay people in the community – on both sides of the river – and now we’re planning some events. And I feel like that’s been a really important stage – for us to start with before we can even really start the next stage in earnest.”
There will be a community event on Sunday, Sept. 8, from 9-11 a.m. (email Cantor Spilker for more details); and Spilker will lead conversations after each performance of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s 25th season first show, the Mikveh Monologues, which runs from Aug. 21-25.
Spilker’s interest in bringing a community – or “liberal” as she referred to it – mikveh started when she had gone to with a friend who had a just suffered a miscarriage to a Boston mikveh.
“Most of us [clergy] take people to the mikveh for conversion, but also so that we can expand what we use the mikveh for,” Spilker said, who had taken a sabbatical to Boston three years ago and served as a scholar-in-residence at Mayyim Hayyim in suburban Boston. “I came back and thought this is something that would be really wonderful for us to have in the Twin Cities. I just find it compelling. I think people are seeking that kind of spirituality and that kind of spiritual experience that’s a little different, but also rooted in tradition.”
Spilker explaining that, traditionally, mikvaot are used for conversion, “family purity” – women going after their period or after giving birth, or before a wedding. She said men sometimes go before the High Holy Days or before Shabbat.
What all of these have in common is that they are some sort of life transition.
“We opened with the idea to empower the guest to connect with the ritual,” said Lisa Berman, the mikveh and education director at Mayyim Hayyim. “I’m not surprised that mikveh has become a ritual with a lot of energy behind it. In all these communities, and with work that Rachel is doing [in the Twin Cities], they are taking advantage of turning to greater ritual, and Mayyim Hayyim is doing some ground-breaking work in the area.”
During her sabbatical, Spilker said she wrote several ceremonies for the mikveh, including ones for gender transition, milestone birthdays, and for before rabbis and cantors are ordained.
“So maybe at the end of chemotherapy treatment, that’s marking a transition whether it was successful chemo [or not],” she said. “Any point which a person considers that to be their biggest transition moment, whether it’s surgery or identity or whatever. Really, it could run the gamut.”
Mayyim Hayyim started the Rising Tide Open Waters Mikveh Network as a way to bring these new, community mikvaot together. The network is comprised of 30 mikvaot in the categories of existing, emerging, or aspiring – the latter of which includes the Twin Cities Community Mikveh. Spilker said the network was created because Mayyim Hayyim was fielding more questions then they had the bandwidth to answer from organizations looking to start their own mikveh.
Last year, the network hosted its first national conference, in addition to other online resources and webinars.
“It’s everything from, how do you design a mikveh? How do you set up a budget? What scheduling system do you use? What ceremonies do you use?” Spilker said. “So if something comes up, there are people who have gone through the experience. And I can get a range of different opinions because every mikveh is different; not just the physical structure, but the organizational structure.”
Spilker said the process is still in the early exploratory period, which is why the summer events are important.
“I’ve sort of begun to lay the groundwork for some of it in terms of letting people know what I’m doing and inviting people into the process,” she said.
Berman said that the key – besides raising money – is to create the perception that the mikveh is necessary and desirable to the community.
“Awareness-building and fundraising are the barriers,” she said. “Communities have built a beautiful mikveh and still no one goes because they aren’t putting enough energy in getting the word out.”
The Twin Cities have three mikvaot presently – the Minneapolis Men’s Mikveh, the Minneapolis Women’s Mikveh, and The Mikveh in St. Paul. This new concept is needed, Spilker said, so that they have more access.
“The mikveh we currently use, we don’t have full, broad access in terms of scheduling,” she said. “Also, we couldn’t do some of these sorts of more contemporary, cutting edge kind of things. And to have more kinds of ceremonies, you need to have even more access.
“I also think we could help shape a mix of both in terms of structure physically, and sort of spiritually-centered, we could shape it more to a vision that lines up with what we want to do, rather than plopping into an existing structure.”
Spilker said that in talking with clergy and community leaders from across the Twin Cities, the overall feedback has been positive.
“I think the clergy in our community feels a need for it,” she said.
Berman said that one area where Mayyim Hayyim has seen an unexpected increase is children becoming b’nai mitzvah.
“I love the contrast between the celebratory, Friday or Saturday communal, performative, public events, and the kids who come beforehand to talk about the opposite,” she said. “It’s private, contemplative, individual, and feeling ready [for what’s to come]. The most frequently used phrase they’ve used is that they felt close to G-d in the water. What more can you ask?”