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A mikvah building boomlet as Jewish ritual baths open around the region

An increasing awareness that the ritual bath is about a larger quest for spiritual purity has helped cast the practice in a different light. The modern mikvah's spa-like ambiance helps.

Batel Shlain poses in the women’s mikvah at the recently opened Mayim Chaim CBS Community Mikvah in Somerton. Shlain designed the interior of the mikvah. The painting on the  wall is by well-known Philadelphia artist Michoel Muchnik.
Batel Shlain poses in the women’s mikvah at the recently opened Mayim Chaim CBS Community Mikvah in Somerton. Shlain designed the interior of the mikvah. The painting on the wall is by well-known Philadelphia artist Michoel Muchnik.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Each tile, light fixture, sink, and doorknob had been selected to give those who stepped down into the water a sense of spiritual renewal and a peacefulness evoking God.

The only thing missing was rain.

The new Mayim Chaim Congregation Beth Solomon Community Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath facility in Somerton, needed the heavens to let loose and supply at least some of the water in which members would immerse themselves to achieve religious purity.

For two months this past winter, "we were praying for rain," said one of the project leaders, Sofya Rabovetsky Tamarkin, of Huntingdon Valley.

Finally, in February, with the requisite 400 gallons collected, Mayim Chaim ("living waters" in Hebrew) opened amid pizza shops and day-care centers in a Northeast Philadelphia strip mall – the latest in a mikvah building boomlet in the region. Two other mikva'ot were completed in the last seven months, and at least two more are slated to break ground this year.

The surge in construction reflects the local growth of Orthodox communities, as well as Jewish service organizations, and their mission to provide nearby baths so members won't have to travel long distances – a hardship on the Sabbath, when observant Jews refrain from driving, said Rabbi Dov Brisman, of Young Israel of Elkins Park synagogue.

Rivkah Slonim, author of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, describes the proliferation of mikva'ot as an awakening inspired by one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century.

Immersion in the mikvah is commanded in the Torah. The bath is used mostly by Orthodox women, who go in deep enough to cover their heads seven days after their menstrual cycle ends, as a prerequisite for resuming sexual intimacy with their husbands. Orthodox men take the plunge, in a separate bath, in preparation for the Sabbath and holidays. Immersion is also a final step in conversion to Judaism. At Mayim Chaim, smaller pools are provided to immerse newly purchased plates, pots, and utensils that will be used for kosher food.

"A mikvah is the most important edifice in the Jewish community. Technically, the first thing a community should build is a mikvah, even before a synagogue," said Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein, rabbi of the Shul at Newtown, an Orthodox synagogue in Bucks County affiliated with the Chabad movement, which specializes in Jewish outreach. "In fact, if there is no mikvah in the community, we are encouraged to sell a Torah, the holiest item in the Jewish community, to build a mikvah."

Weinstein is part of a team planning a mikvah on State Street in Newtown; groundbreaking is expected within four months. In Society Hill, preparations are underway for new baths inside the Vilna Congregation synagogue. The Lower Merion Community Mikvah opened in Bala Cynwyd in December. Mikvah Ohel Leah at Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill and the Community Mikvah of Elkins Park were added within the last five years. There are currently about 20 in Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the website.

Although the practice is observed mostly among the Orthodox, Jews in other movements and those who are unaffiliated also immerse themselves in the mikvah.

"It's your time when you are close to God," said Batel Shlain, of Somerton, who designed the interiors of Mayim Chaim. "Each month, I can start a new chapter in my life. I feel renewed."

Jews once used natural bodies of water for their ritual baths. One of the earliest man-made structures dates back 2,000 years and was discovered atop Masada, an ancient stone fortress in Israel, above the Dead Sea. Built by King Herod, Masada was taken over by Jews in 66 A.D.

In America, newspaper articles from the late 19th century referred to a mikvah at a New York synagogue in the 1750s.

Early facilities were spartan, an aesthetic "turnoff" to anyone not staunchly committed, Slonim said. Jews who immigrated to the United States weren't necessarily schooled in the significance of the ritual, so they didn't pass it on to their descendants. And with the ease of taking a shower or bath, the need for a spiritual plunge in an uninviting setting was often disregarded.

The mikvah was further maligned in the 1960s, when it became a symbol of patriarchy. The issue was "why should women cleanse themselves after menstruation? It's a natural event," Slonim said.

But an increasing awareness that a mikvah bath isn't just about a woman's physical cleanliness for a man, but a deeper quest for spiritual purity, has helped cast the practice in a different light, Slonim said.

Modern mikvahs often could pass for spas, with a warm palette, soft lighting, and pre-immersion jacuzzis. In the end, though, they must conform to Jewish law, beginning with a specially engineered roof system to collect and channel rainwater typically into two reservoirs. The pool for immersion is filled with tap water. When the rainwater is commingled with it, it is rendered kosher and ready.

Costs can reach into the millions for large, elaborate mikva'ot. The Newtown project is expected to come in at nearly $1 million; organizers have raised about $450,000 and are offering naming rights to any potential large donor. The projected price of the Society Hill mikvah is about $700,000, most of which has been pledged.

At Mayim Chaim, a team of clergy and community members began planning the mikvah about five years ago with guidance from Mikvah USA, a New York-based nonprofit that has had a hand in building more than 60 other mikva'ot in this country since 2005. They envisioned a place where women could feel "holy and beautiful," project leader Tamarkin said.

The narrow space, a former art studio, is soothing beige, gray, pink, and white. The exterior walls and some inside are fortified with stone from Jerusalem. Clients pay $120 to $360 for an annual membership and $15 to $25 for an individual visit, though no one is turned away, Tamarkin said.

Attendants help them prepare for the ritual. "There should be no barrier between you and the creator," said general manager Yuliya Feldman. "No jewelry, no makeup, your hair is washed and brushed, no knots in the hair."

The neighborhood surrounding Mayim Chaim is populated largely by Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Tamarkin is one, having come here in 1989. She worked on the mikvah, she said, as a testament to her past and a gift to Jews in the future.

"Our families were oppressed. The mikvah is a sign of renewal," she said. "If only the whole world could be immersed in the mikvah."