Contemporary update for an ancient Jewish tradition

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PORTLAND — Whether in ancient Egypt or Portland, Maine, a mikvah is a mikvah.

The ritual bath – a tradition used to actualize significant transitions in people’s lives – is filled with “mayim chayim,” or “living waters,” stored in “barot” (tanks) and always has seven steps leading down to the waters.

While mikvahs have been used for thousands of years, Mikvah Shalom at Shaarey Tphiloh synagogue on Noyes Street has recently been renovated. Its overseers hope to attract more users to the ancient tradition.

Mikvah Shalom board member Susan Cummings-Lawrence said the city’s first mikvah was built in 1904 on Newbury Street, in conjunction with Shaarey Tphiloh, Portland’s oldest synagogue. In 1954 the congregation moved to its current home, bringing the mikvah with it.

Now the mikvah has become “95 percent independent” of the synagogue, Lawrence said, and is fully registered as a nonprofit. In 2007, members of the Jewish community realized the mikvah was falling into disrepair, unsuitible for use and wanted to revamp it, since it was the only remaining mikvah in Maine.

“The community needed to be healed,” Lawrence said. “One of the ways of doing that was to renovate the mikvah.”

This philosphy, centered around healing, heeded the name Mikvat Shalom.  Shalom is incorporated into the title of the mikvah because it means “wellness or wholeness,” she said.

While the mikvah is supervised by members of the Orthodox Jewish community to ensure the correct regulations are followed for a kosher mikvah, the bath is used by Jews across the spectrum of the religion.

Keeping the mikvah kosher allows Orthodox users to enjoy the bath while more liberal users may not care one way or the other, Lawrence said.

The spectrum of users is apparent in the reasons for making appointments at the mikvah. The most popular traditional uses, she said, include brides before marriage, for conversion, or for “tahara hamishpacha” or “purity for the family” – a controversial, traditional use for the mikvah in which the woman bathes following the end of her menstrual cycle before she can have sexual relations with her husband.

Non-traditional uses for Mikvat Shalom could be “finishing chemotherapy, or finalizing a divorce,” Lawrence said.

The process for someone coming to the mikvah begins with an appointment, which can be made through Mikvat Shalom’s website, mikvatshalom.org.

The particpant then comes to the mikvah with a guide. If he  or she hasn’t showered at home, there is a bathroom facility to do so at the mikvah.

Then the rituals begin as the user goes through several prayers and walks down the seven steps until completley submerged in the waters. A guide is there to ensure every body part is sumberged.

Traditionally this means no nail polish or jewlry in order to ensure every body part touches the water, but that level of strictness depends on the guide, Lawrence said.

The idea is for the mikvah to be a very relaxing place, which will happen more and more after the beautification process occurs, one of two major projects left for Mikvat Shalom.

The second, and more pressing project, is “bringing an understanding to how the mikvah can be used by the Jewish community,” Lawrence said.

The board hopes to achieve this education through local synagogue outreach events and a public, ceremonial opening July 25 from 3-5 p.m. at 76 Noyes St.

“We believe a mikvah opportunity can really enhance people’s lives,” Lawrence said. “When you are emersing in the mikvah you are marking a transition from one life status to another. The real purpose is sanctifying that moment of transition.”

Victoria Fischman is The Forecaster news intern. She can be reached at 781-3661.

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Ellen Froncek stands on the top step of the refurbished mikvah, or ritual bath, which is housed in a small building behind Shaarey Tphiloh synagogue at 76 Noyes St. in Portland.

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