Illinois soon to get its first mikveh for non-Orthodox men, women

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

CHICAGO (JTA) — Illinois will soon get its first non-Orthodox mikveh, partly funded by an anonymous donation from a miffed Conservative Jew.

Unhappy with a family member's treatment at an Orthodox mikveh in Chicago, the donor pledged a major contribution for construction of a new mikveh to ensure that non-Orthodox Jews would no longer have to rely on Orthodox officials for ritual immersion purposes.

With this donation, plus $50,000 from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and anticipated contributions from other Conservative synagogues, the mikveh is being built at Beth Hillel Congregation in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill.

It is expected to open later this year, and will be one of only about a dozen Conservative mikvehs in the country.

Chicago's 20-year-old Orthodox mikveh, commonly known as the Touhy Mikveh, was also built with a $50,000 grant from the federation. It is open to any Jewish woman for ritual immersion, to men who wish to use it and to Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis performing conversions.

For Conservative rabbis, according to Rabbi Carl Wolkin of Congregation Beth Shalom, the conversion issue was the main impetus to build another mikveh.

He said discussions about the possible construction of a Conservative mikveh began in the 1980s, but were put aside.

"Then, as the discomfort level at the Touhy Mikvah increased, we dusted off the plans."

What particularly troubles the rabbis is a sign in the mikveh building warning that immersion in the mikveh does not necessarily mean a conversion is considered valid according to halachah, Jewish law.

"We should have our own facilities, and not have to rely on those of others," Wolkin said.

Rabbi Jay Stein, associate rabbi at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., said Conservative rabbis "want to be able to do halachic conversions without being hassled."

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler of Beth Hillel agreed.

"The Conservative movement has to take care of its needs. We are not dependent on other movements."

Larry Feder, president of the Chicago Mikvah Association, which oversees the Touhy Mikveh, estimated that about 600 women a month use the mikveh, straining the facility's three pools and 12 rooms. He did not know how many people use it for conversions.