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The Mikveh: Jews Immersing Themselves in Ancient Tradition
David O'Reilley
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA - Diane Reibel might have wallowed in self-pity or fled on a cruise when she learned she had breast cancer.

Instead, she chose to put the bad news behind her - and mark the start of her healing - with a plunge into "sacred water."

In the company of two friends, and surrounded by photos of family living and dead, Reibel, then 51, stepped naked into a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath.

She said a prayer, took a deep breath, and slipped down into a place outside ordinary time.

Birth, divorce, conversion, the onset of infertility treatment, a new job, a miscarriage, an imminent wedding, illness, sexual assault, a birthday - these moments and more are bringing Jewish women and men to reinvent the ancient tradition of mikveh at this quiet, tiled pool on Remington Road in Wynnewood, Pa.

"Judaism is about boundaries," Lori Cooper, the mikveh's director, said the other day. "This gives people an opportunity to deal with an issue and, if necessary, wash it away. So there's a common thread of transition and renewal."

Eight years ago, when Cooper first urged her husband, Rabbi Neil Cooper, to make the space and raise the money for a new mikveh, she "never imagined" the ways the area's Jewish community would respond.

She and her husband had created it out of practical necessity.

Converts to Judaism are required to immerse themselves first in a kosher mikveh, but eight years ago, the only mikvehs in the Philadelphia area were Orthodox - and closed to Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist conversions.

"Everybody had to go to Allentown, (Pa.,) which was a schlepp," she said. "And it was very perfunctory: in and out."

500 IMMERSIONS A YEAR

To their delight, this nondenominational mikveh, which opened in February 2002, now has more than 500 immersions a year, thanks in part to the converts from about 50 Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations in the Philadelphia area.

It also draws brides and grooms, who must use the facility separately; men and women do not share a mikveh.

There are those who use it just before shabbat and the religious holidays. And there is a steady parade of monthly users - women who immerse after their periods, although "we're careful not to use the word unclean," Cooper said.

"We discovered that if you build it, they will come," joked Cooper, who said the facility is self-sustaining - but hardly a business. "We opened our doors for conversion, and what happened was mystical."

Reibel, director of the stress-reduction program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, agreed.

"I wanted to let go of some things that were very difficult, including my anxiety about the disease," Reibel said recently of her cancer. "So we created a sacred space in a mikveh space that is already sacred."

After surrounding herself with photos of family, her friends read poems. "Then when I felt the time was right to go into the sacred water, I stepped in."

She said a prayer, immersed herself entirely, and repeated the process twice more.

Then, standing on one of the pool's seven steps, she took her first Tamoxifen pill, an estrogen-inhibiting medicine used in the treatment of breast cancer.

"It was a very powerful moment," said Reibel, who is now in good health. "I was entering a new phase, and that's what the mikveh is all about: transition."

`BLESSINGS OF MY LIFE'

Sima Radovitz marked a very different transition at the mikveh six years ago.

Hers had not been an easy life, she said recently. Born in the Soviet Union, she and her husband and small children were "lucky to get out" in 1957, but they "had nothing" when they arrived in Israel.

They were still poor when they arrived in the United States in 1960, and still struggling when her husband died in 1969, leaving her to raise four children alone.

And yet, she said, "I have had so many blessings in my life" - particularly her children - that when the Coopers began to raise money for the mikveh, she not only donated to it, she also celebrated her 75th birthday in it.

"It washes off the bad things that have happened," she said.

When Cooper asked, "What were you able to take" from the experience, Radovitz replied: "It's not what I took, it's what I am leaving: the blessings of my life."

The next day, Cooper said, a woman in her early 40s arrived, saying she had never used a mikveh but was distraught because her husband had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"She started to cry," Cooper said, "and so I told her about Sima. I said, `She left a blessing for you.'"

Such stories have also helped Cooper in her own long struggle with depression. "They have touched so many places in my being," she said.

They have also become part of her family. When their grown son, Yonatan, calls from Israel on Fridays for his parents' shabbat blessing, "He says: `Ima, (Hebrew for "Mom") tell me a mikveh story.'"

One story she loves is about the Jewish couple who adopted an infant girl and later discovered, to their annoyance, that she had to be immersed for her conversion.

"Why?" asked the father. "We've been raising her as Jewish."

But after he and his wife had plunged their baby girl three times into the water and lifted her out, the man was overwhelmed with emotion.

"It was like watching her being born," he told Cooper. "We were able to witness her birth into the world - the Jewish world."

Such stories don't surprise the Coopers anymore, but they do touch them deeply.

"With the mikveh, you have to be willing to give yourself over to God," Cooper said. "There's no such thing as just putting your toe in the water."

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(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.