Women inspired by author to build modern-day mikvah
In 2008, a group of women attending an event featuring Anita Diamant, author of "The Red Tent," were so inspired by the writer's portrayal of a modern-day mikvah in Boston that they began meeting less than a month later to begin envisioning a similar facility for the San Diego Jewish community.
They incorporated that same year to create Waters of Eden, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and creation of the San Diego Community Mikvah and Education Center, a facility that will not only allow Jews of all backgrounds to participate in the ritual of immersion, but provide a spiritual forum for celebration, education and learning.
As 2009 rolls over into 2010, the organization has announced the official launch of the fundraising and community education component of its plan with the presentation of "The Mikveh Monologues" at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.
"This is our coming out to the community," said Lisa Braun-Glazer, a psychologist who lives and works in La Jolla and serves as president of Waters of Eden's board of directors.
Understanding the mikvah tradition
Mikvah translates to "gathering of waters." It is a Jewish purification ritual that dates back thousands of years.
"Its primary purpose was to provide a gateway to intimacy between a husband and wife," said Lenore Bohm, a board member and rabbi for more than 25 years. Other traditional applications included brides preparing for their wedding ceremonies and men preparing themselves spiritually for Jewish holidays.
In the Orthodox community, there are strict requirements for who can participate and for what purposes the immersion may be applied, requirements in place at the three mikva'ot currently operating in San Diego.
For nontraditional immersions, local Jews must drive to a mikvah two hours away in Los Angeles or use the ocean, which affords little privacy. While the construction of the Waters of Eden mikvah will be completing in keeping with Jewish law, its uses are being expanded, Bohm said.
"Those of us who are involved in making this happen are doing so with a great sense of humility and awareness of the history and power of the mikvah and its place in Jewish life," Bohm said, "and with a great sense of hope for the opportunity that this will allow a whole new generation and new Jews to reclaim this ancient ritual in ways that can be very personally meaningful and Jewishly affirming in the 21st century."
Reinventing the mikvah tradition
"There are many ways to be Jewish not in conjunction with a synagogue or an organization," Bohm said. "But for most people, rituals take place within the context of a synagogue or Jewish institution. The idea of Waters of Eden is to open up the doors of understanding the mikvah as profoundly and authentically Jewish but useful and legitimate in other than the most traditional contexts.
"Waters of Eden will be a place for Jews who aren't necessary connected with a synagogue or established institution to reconnect or connect for the first time on a spiritual level, a level that has holiness as its prime value."
For many Jews, the transformation and rebirth associated with the ritual of immersion has taken on a broader spiritual significance. Waters of Eden will enable men and women of all ages and backgrounds to celebrate a wide variety of events and milestones, including celebration, recovery from any sort of loss such as abuse or divorce, healing, young adults preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs, the official end of the mourning period, and anything else related to a transition from one state of being to another.
"(This is) actually the best time in history to be Jewish," Braun-Glazer said. "In the past, Jews have often been identified by others. Jews now have the opportunity to define themselves and make meaning of that. It's a very rich heritage. In order to really get the richness of it, it's important that we bring back and reimagine some of the rituals so they speak to some of the diversity in the community."
Building a 21st century mikvah
While a single brick has yet to be laid, the cadre of Waters of Eden volunteers has made significant progress in bringing their dream to fruition.
After launching itself as a nonprofit, the organization commissioned San Diego State University grad students to prepare a Request for Proposal to house the mikvah, develop a five-year business plan and budget, and perform a local needs assessment survey that garnered more than 1,000 responses.
Waters of Eden also conducted two national surveys of Orthodox and mainstream mikva'ot for best practices, developed partnerships with local Jewish agencies and groups, and signed a lease with Tifereth Israel Synagogue to locate the institution at the base of Cowles Mountain. Taal Safdie of Safdie Rabines Architects won the architectural competition and has designed environmentally sustainable plans for the facility, which will include classroom settings, preparation rooms, indoor and outdoor immersion pools, meditation and celebration areas, and a garden.
Waters of Eden hopes to break ground in 2011 and dedicate the mikvah at Chanukah in 2012.
"We anticipate that it will be a gathering place," Braun-Glazer said. "It will serve as a way back for people to connect to a part of their identity that they're not connected to."
In an effort to bridge all faiths and denominations, the mikvah will also provide educational opportunities for the entire San Diego community. The model includes highly trained guides, not only to assist those making a mikvah journey, but those celebrating with and supporting these individuals.
"Through our programming, people will learn about the beauty and possibilities of this ritual, even if they never get wet," Braun-Glazer said.
A demographics study done six years ago indicated that there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews living in San Diego County, yet it is believed that less than 25 percent are affiliated with an institution, Braun-Glazer said, adding, "We believe that having an institution like this that speaks to the soul and speaks to a powerful ritual will enable people to perhaps return to a feeling of connection to their Jewishness."
On the Web
Waters of Eden: www.watersofedensd.org.
'The Mikveh Monologues'
- Presented by: Waters of Eden
- When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30
- Where: Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla
- Tickets: $25
- Contact: (858) 362-1348, www.lfjcc.org