Third Reform mikvah in North America will open

WHIPPANY, N.J. (JTA) — The Reform movement soon will have its third mikvah operating in North America.

Groundbreaking has already taken place for the mikvah at Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pa., and the ritual cleansing bath is scheduled to open in November.

The mikvah will be used for both old and new traditions, said Elliot Strom, senior rabbi of Shir Ami. "It will serve all Jews in the community," said Strom, who points out that although any woman can use an Orthodox mikvah for observing the laws of "family purity," it is not available to Reform rabbis for conversion purposes.

"Along with conversions of adults and adopted children, the Reform mikvah will be used after a miscarriage, rape, sexual trauma or illness — for any reason a person may want to cleanse themselves spiritually," Strom said. "I also will encourage all grooms and brides to use it before they wed to mark a new chapter in their lives."

Having a mikvah in a Reform synagogue makes "perfectly good sense" to the rabbi, who notes that it will be a liberal, egalitarian facility. "After all, Reform Judaism — properly understood — has always meant respect for tradition by making it relevant and meaningful to us today," he said.

Strom notes there has been a transition in the movement during the past 25 years. At one time, Reform congregations had confirmations instead of b'nai mitzvah. Now, however, such ceremonies and other "old traditions" are no longer being discarded but are being performed in "new ways."

Shira Joseph, Shir Ami's associate rabbi, agrees with Strom that a liberal Jewish community should have a mikvah — whether for traditional reasons or for more contemporary ceremonies.

For more than 20 years, Strom has taken converts to a mikvah in Cherry Hill, N.J., which is 45 minutes away. When that facility stopped allowing female rabbis to use it for conversion rituals, both Shir Ami rabbis began using a mikvah in Allentown, Pa., which is more than an hour away from Newtown.

Joseph envisions using the mikvah for those recovering from mastectomies. She has heard reports, she said, claiming that the "living waters" of the mikvah have transformed people suffering from serious illnesses or psychological traumas resulting from sexual assault.

"People using the mikvah as a transformational experience claim it works," she said. "I feel the same way when I light Shabbas candles or when a groom breaks a glass under a chuppah. That's transformational to me. We need to educate people about the mikvah's many possibilities. It can be life-altering."

The mikvah will include showers and a waiting area. Other than occasions when a parent and child enter for conversion purposes, the facility will accommodate one person at a time. "The mikvah will be clean, pretty and airy," Strom said. "The entire tone will be uplifting."

The other Reform mikvot in North America are located at Temple Israel in suburban Detroit and at a synagogue in Toronto.