Before the conference begins, there are open tours of Mayyim Hayyim. It's housed in a refurbished house which dates back to the 1860s. Our guide takes us first through the public spaces (rooms for gathering, for education, and for celebration) and then through the private spaces. First, the public spaces, which are filled with art. The art rotates a few times a year; the center has become a kind of contemporary gallery for art which is sometimes (though not always) water-themed.
Mayyim Hayyim is both a mikvah and a community education center, so we learn about the education work they do, both with adults and with kids. Our guide talks about the people who use the mikvah: women who come monthly for "family reasons," (because they have practices around niddah, ritual immersion after the conclusion of one's menstrual cycle), people celebrating lifecycle moments (before weddings, before giving birth), those who are immersing for the purposes of conversion, and also those who come to begin or to continue healing from trauma or illness or sexual assault, among other things. Though some of the mikvah's users are Orthodox, most are not, and many have never before included mikvah as part of their spiritual practice.
The bor (well/cistern) in which natural waters collect.
Then we move into the private spaces. First we enter a central atrium lit by several skylights, and by glass light fixtures which look (to me) modeled after flowing water. Around that atrium are four different preparation rooms, each with a different theme, two of which are handicapped-accessible. That's where someone would go to prepare themselves (both physically and spiritually) for immersion: clean under their fingernails, brush their teeth, bathe or shower (and the mikvah provides all of the materials which one might need), and perhaps also do some praying or meditation or contemplation. When they're ready to move on, they call the front desk, and their mikvah attendant will meet them in the mikvah room itself.
One of the mikva'ot.
Standing in a cluster around one of the mikva'ot, we learn about the bor, the cistern outside the building which collects rainwater, and how each day water must be released from that cistern into the (heated, beautiful) pools in order for the mikvah to be kosher. The waters here are treated with chlorine and so forth to keep them hygienic, but they also need a bit of rainwater in order to qualify halakhically as living waters. The first person to immerse in each pool each day has the special task of getting to turn a red handle, while standing inside the pool, until they can feel a trickle of cool water coming in from outside. (Then they turn the handle back; it doesn't have to be a lot of water, but the waters have to "kiss" each day to keep the mikvah kosher.) The trained mikvah guide is there to pronounce the immersion kosher and to help as needed. Sometimes, our guide tells us, family and friends will gather in the central atrium; through the open window high above the door, they can hear the sound of the splash, and can break into song.
Each mikvah is a beautiful round well at the bottom of seven spiraling steps. It looks to me like stepping into this mikvah might feel like entering, with solemnity and sanctity, into a womb, into the very earth. I'm already looking forward to the first time I bring someone here for the purposes of conversion -- and I'm wondering whether I can find a way to visit for an immersion sometime in my own future, too, because this place is beautiful, and I would love to find a way to experience it in that way.
Coming up next: notes from, and reflections on, the opening session. Roughly 3000 words about why we're talking about mikvah, and why now, and what this all means, and how it fits into historical Jewish context -- awesome stuff; stay tuned!