by Lisa Berman
(Lisa first delivered this on May 29, 2014 as her address at the Mayyim Hayyim’s celebration, Ripple Effect. Lisa was honored that evening for her leadership at the mikveh.)
You know that woman who grew up, went to college nearby, got married, bought a house in her hometown, and still lives there? That woman had 100 friends at her Memorial Day barbeque last weekend. She has a sense of belonging to a place that defines her. I have never been that person.
I was a quirky wallflower in high school and a Yankee in a southern college. I am a Jew in a Protestant family, and a convert in a Jewish family. There is a part of me right now that is saying, “How did I get mixed up with a mikveh for Heaven’s sake? Do I really belong here?”
But, maybe it all actually started with the mikveh. Maybe it started in the mikveh.
The truth is, I did not have a good time in the mikveh when I converted. I was 22 years old and I arrived at the mikveh in the basement of the Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, New Jersey without a clue about what a mikveh was or what you did in it. The mikveh lady spoke mostly Yiddish to me, and the black-hatted, white-bearded rabbis stood outside a louvered door that seemed to provide seriously insufficient privacy.
I used to say that what was most important was that I came out of the mikveh a Jew, but to be honest, I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and I got the same impression from my Jewish friends who were with me. We definitely didn’t feel as if we belonged.
There were many challenges in my years as a single, unattached newly Jewish young woman. Rosh Hashanah services in basements of synagogues with piped-in sound from the sanctuary upstairs; long walks to shuls that offered inexpensive guest tickets, Yom Kippur break-fasts alone in my apartment. I invited myself to Seders with people I hardly knew. One year I went as the date of a not-yet-out-of-the-closet guy I worked with; boy, was his mom nice to me.
I think back on those experiences as a test of whether I was really meant to be Jewish, whether my Jewish soul, my neshama, was really present and strong. It turns out it was, but I needed help.
My biggest help came from my beshert, my husband Jeff. He was a disillusioned Jew seeking meaning in the question “why be Jewish?” I was a Jew looking for someone to be Jewish with. We have created our own personal Judaism together, and watched our kids Sarah Ze’eva and David do the same.
And then there was Mayyim Hayyim. I had been Jewish for 23 years the day I attended the first mikveh guide information session. The building was still under construction but the fledgling education center was packed – and it seemed as if everyone was a social worker from Temple Beth Zion or Beth El Sudbury except me. Later that winter I attended the guide training, feeling a little lonely and very insecure about my Jewish knowledge.
But I was there the day we opened and the first two months were pretty wild. There were only two staff members – Programming Director Kathy Bloomfield and the office manager, Dori Berman (no relation). It was clear right away how important the mikveh guides were going to be, and it was thrilling. We learned how to work alongside the clergy during conversions. We learned how to hold the space for those who were emotionally fragile. We donned bathing suits to help brides afraid of the water, and sat on the steps to touch the water with toddlers. We made mistakes and learned how to fix them. We radiated in the glow of our guests’ contentment.
It was in those early days of guiding that I found the kol d’mamah dakah, the still, small voice inside me that I yearned to hear. I came to belong. I knew I was needed and I realize now how much I needed Mayyim Hayyim to anchor my place in the Jewish community. It provided amazing colleagues to learn with, opened the door to my love of teaching and my love of students. Mayyim Hayyim has given me a window through which to see the face of American Judaism and the opportunity to be of service — to guide, to teach, to shepherd, to hold, to care for, to enlighten, to learn from the thousands of people who have walked through our doors in the last ten years.
The Zionist writer Ahad Ha’am said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” I would say, much more than I helped Mayyim Hayyim grow and flourish, Mayyim Hayyim has made me a Jew. And, today, a very happy one.