Jewish tradition gives us opportunities to mark certain transitions. We have ceremonies for youth to acknowledge their transition to Jewish adulthood. We mark the weekly distinction between the holiness of Shabbat and the rest of the week with wine, the scent of spices and a braided candle at Havdalah.
Several transitions are very important to me right now. Many of you are aware of my current health challenges. I am on a cancer journey that began just before Passover. The good news is that I am responding to the first phases of the treatments and as I write, I am entering the next phase. I have been anxiously awaiting the next phase; for me it offered an important “next step” in this journey. And with next steps, there is a feeling of accomplishment that you are moving beyond the first/prior step. So, for me – personally – moving to the next step of treatment (a series of surgeries) was important, both physically and mentally.
A few months ago I was moved by a presentation before the Jewish Federation Allocations Committee by Dr. Rachel Wilensky, the chairperson of the Lehigh Valley Community Mikvah. She spoke about the role of the mikvah in Jewish life, and noted that “even” men visited the mikvah. She highlighted that the mikvah offers an important distinction of time, a recognition of a before and an after. In addition to observance of laws relating to family purity, the mikvah is an element in conversions to Judaism, before weddings, and even in the “koshering” of dishes, pots and pans, and kitchen utensils – all having distinctions in time – a clear demarcation between before and after. Her presentation inspired me to consider a mikvah immersion for myself (a first for me). The surgeries were an important transition for me that I wanted (needed) a Jewish way to mark the before-and-after distinction.
We are fortunate in the Lehigh Valley to have a true community mikvah. It is formally owned and managed by the Hebrew Family League according to traditional Jewish laws. Equally important is its accessibility to all Jews; Jewish clergy from all denominations use the mikvah for religious purposes which they oversee (e.g. conversion).
Conversations with Rachel Wilensky and Rabbi David Wilensky helped me become more comfortable with my first mikvah immersion. Rabbi Wilensky and Mark Gurvis, a dear friend, both gave me readings and prayers to recite before and during the immersion. The readings helped me find the faith and spirituality that I was seeking. The actual immersion was a brief experience. The building is clean, beautiful and spa-like, adding to its serenity. Instead of the requisite single immersion, I opted for 6: one for myself and my health, one for my wife, one for my daughter, one for my son, one for Israel, and one for my community. The multiple immersions represented the whole of my life, a completeness, as I prepared for and marked the time between my treatment phases.
I have often described myself as a person of faith, but less so a person of spirituality. The visit to the mikvah might have changed that for me. The warmth of the room and the water, the solitude, and the calmness of the experience made me feel the closeness of God. While intellectually I don’t relate to healing powers of the water, the “mayim chayim” (waters of life) immensely impacted my mental and emotional outlook. Being emotionally prepared for the future, ready to move on in the life transition, is perhaps the waters’ healing powers.
This time of year also marks other transitions for our community.
The schools at the Jewish Day School and Jewish Community Center, as well as at synagogues with religious schools, are days or weeks away from the start of a new school year. A new fiscal and program year has all organizations preparing to implement their plans to improve Jewish life in the Lehigh Valley. And shortly, the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our individual and communal opportunities to mark the transition from the past (year) to the new year. And, at the Jewish Federation, we are preparing to roll out the 2018 Annual Campaign for Jewish Needs.
Individually and communally, we transition from the past to the future. Our goals and wishes are for strength, health and happiness. I trust we all join together in our hopes and efforts to enhance our Jewish community. Would that the mikvah was large enough for the entire community to find strength in the transition from the past to the future. Since it is not, we join together for the new year at our synagogues during the High Holidays. We join together for the new year by participating in the Federation’s Annual Campaign.
We mark the distinctions between the past and the future because we believe that tomorrow will be better than today.