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After 10 years, Mikveh in Newton embracing new rituals

Steps lead down into the immersion pool at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, which marks its 10th anniversary in May.
Photos by Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe
Steps lead down into the immersion pool at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, which marks its 10th anniversary in May.

When Rabbi Emma Gottlieb immersed herself in a hot-tub-size pool in Auburndale this month, she may have made mikveh history.

Gottlieb took part in a ritual especially created by Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh to ready herself for going bald. Gottlieb, who leads Temple Beth David in Canton, will sacrifice her shoulder-length chestnut locks when she joins some 50 other Reform rabbis at a Shave for the Brave benefit next month to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

Gottlieb’s was the latest of more than 50 ceremonies Mayyim Hayyim has created for people to highlight milestones and transitions in their lives. Celebrating its 10th anniversary in May, the center seeks to expand the role of the mikveh and widen its appeal in the Jewish community.

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Building on rituals and prayers set down thousands of years ago in the Torah, Mayyim Hayyim has hosted more than 12,500 immersions. Most have been for the traditional purposes of women marking the end of their menstrual cycle and people of both sexes converting to Judaism, but others have ranged from celebrations for marriages, graduations, and retirements to immersions by people recovering from traumatic events such as divorce, cancer, and physical assault. The center is in the process of creating an immersion ceremony for gender transition. It may also develop one for Jews running the Boston Marathon, in light of last year’s tragedy.

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“As the liberal community has gotten more knowledgeable and comfortable with itself, there’s a real embrace of tradition, not for its own sake necessarily, but because it has been infused with meaning,” said Anita Diamant, who spearheaded the founding of the mikveh. Diamant, who formerly wrote a column for the Globe, is the author of the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” among numerous other fiction and nonfiction works.

The immersion ceremony compels people to do something that does not come naturally in today’s hectic world: that is, to stop and contemplate the emotional, mental, and spiritual implications of a transition in their lives.

“We’re always doing, doing. Mikveh carves out time and space to reflect on what’s going on,” said Carrie Bornstein, executive director of Mayyim Hayyim.

Mayyim Hayyim is located in a converted Victorian house on Washington Street. While access is through the parking lot of Temple Reyim, the center is not affiliated with any synagogue or particular denomination of Judaism.

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“It has had to overcome objections and preconceptions on both the liberal and Orthodox ends of Judaism,” said Diamant.

To many Jews the mikveh is mystifying, if not archaic. Traditional Jewish law calls for women to refrain from having sex during their menstrual period, known as niddah. While some Jews view the ritual immersion that marks the end of niddah as spiritually invigorating, others see it as demeaning women by suggesting a natural process is somehow impure.

Mayyim Hayyim’s philosophy is to leave religious interpretation to the individual and welcome any Jew or person converting to Judaism.

“Some places have a very specific definition of what they’re for. Ours is to be as expansive as we can be,” said Bornstein, who succeeded founding executive director Aliza Kline in 2012.

To make more traditional Jews feel more welcome, Mayyim Hayyim has engaged an Orthodox rabbi to ensure that the immersion pools are maintained according to traditional legal standards.

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As they enter Mayyim Hayyim, visitors walk through a garden and past a receptacle for rain water. After being buzzed inside, they are greeted by a mikveh guide and enter a living room-like space, with cozy couches and chairs.

“People feel at ease,” Diamant said. “It doesn’t read like a synagogue, and it doesn’t read feminine — some mikvehs are very pink, and this one is supposed to be for everybody.”

The mikveh is divided into “wet” and “dry” sides. The bath side is spa-like in décor, but its two small pools conform to specifications set down in the Bible. Natural stone tiles surround the two ritual baths, which are accessed by seven steps, as in seven steps in the creation. (A lift is available for people with disabilities.) Ceiling windows let in natural light. The water, which is heated to 95 degrees, consists of filtered municipal water. It is combined with the rainwater collected outside, making it kosher. Thus the name “living waters,” the translation of Mayyim Hayyim.

Before the immersion, the person prepares in a bathroom suite that includes a shower and tub. The ritual calls for removing all jewelry and makeup and then cleansing completely, from teeth to hair to nails. The idea is to enter the waters as you entered the world. Blessings accompany each step of the ritual, which lasts about 45 minutes, of which only five minutes are spent in the mikveh itself. Depending on the ceremony, a mikveh guide may be present. To respect modesty, the guide holds a sheet before her eyes, lowering it only to verify complete immersion.

The “dry” side is the Paula Brody & Family Education Center, which consists of several rooms and a small kitchen. It hosts art exhibits, which are not necessarily Jewish-themed or by Jewish artists. It can also be rented out for celebrations.

Mayyim Hayyim held some 110 programs, attracting 2,500 people last year. Many offer introductions to Jewish rituals and are offered for varied age groups.

Diamant began thinking about founding an independent mikveh about a dozen years ago, when she was writing a handbook on conversions, “Choosing a Jewish Life.” As part of her research, she frequently attended immersion ceremonies. She found the mikvehs to be cramped and utilitarian.

Meanwhile, she was reading about how people were using mikvehs in innovative ways to mark significant life changes. She wrote an essay about her ideal mikveh.

“And it’s all come true,” she said.

The Newton center has drawn inquiries from dozens of mikvehs from as far away as Israel, France, and Australia. In addition to training nearly 150 mikveh guides for its own ceremonies, Mayyim Hayyim sells a booklet containing its various mikveh ceremonies, offers videos about mikveh rituals, and has hosted a conference to train people from mikvehs nationwide.

The request for the Shave for the Brave mikveh ceremony came from a rabbi who had attended that conference.

“She knew we were the go-to resource, and she knew we would get it,” Bornstein said.

The mass shearing will take place Tuesday during the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Chicago.

Gottlieb said before deciding to participate in the benefit she wrestled with the question of whether she was willing to put a good cause above her own vanity.

“We talk a lot about rabbis as moral exemplars,” she said. The mikveh experience, she said, helped her “to let go of those surface concerns and focus on the more important things in life.”

It also helped her to recognize that while it was not in her power to save a child from cancer, she could promote efforts to conquer the disease. “During the immersion it was nice to focus on letting go of helpless feelings and trying to focus on the things we can do,” she said.

Gottlieb envisioned the ceremony being adapted for people who make, say, a bone marrow donation.

“We can use our health to benefit someone else’s illness,” she said. “That is a very profound idea.”

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By the numbers:

12,575 total immersions since opening

1,400 immersions per year

2,050 conversion ceremonies

25% of participants have been male

70% from Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist movements

20% unaffiliated

10% Orthodox

A typical mikveh blessing:

May this immersion help me move from what has been and may my heart be open to what is yet to come. When I emerge from these mayyim hayyim, these living waters, may I be filled with renewed energy and a sense of direction for my life’s journey May God grant me strength, courage, and peace. Amen.

For more on Mayyim Hayyim, visit www.mayyimhayyim.org. To donate to Shave for the Brave, visit www.stbaldricks.org/participants/rabbiemma.Steve Maas can be reached at steven.maas@comcast.net.