Madison Slobin wrote a guide on the Jewish ritual of mikvah because she wants to help people navigate and change our world.
Madison Slobin appeared in the pages of the Jewish Independent a few months ago for two projects she helped create: YVR Yenta and Shivah Delivers. These initiatives take Jewish rituals, such as matchmaking, in the first instance, and how we comfort mourners, in the second, and put a modern twist on them. Her latest project is another such endeavour: the writing and compiling of Rebirthing Ourselves to Rebuild Our World: A Feminist Mikvah Guide.
The guide begins by answering the question, what is a mikvah? “Mikvah is an ancient Jewish cleansing ritual performed in a sacred bath or in a natural body of water,” she writes. “We can participate in a mikvah ceremony to mark moments of transition, to make our souls and bodies feel holy, and to metaphorically rebirth ourselves and start anew.”
The Jewish Independent spoke to her about the project.
JI: What motivated you to write this guide?
MS: I was motivated to write this guide for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I saw a lot of friends and loved ones struggling to go through the transition from summer to fall due to COVID-19. It seemed like everyone’s plans for school, for work and in their lives generally had been altered or put on hold. I wanted to create a ritual space for people to process their grief, feelings of being stuck and lack of transition. To me, mikvah is a Jewish technology, which means it is an ancient tradition that is relevant to our context today and provides us with a useful blueprint for how to navigate our world. Mikvah can help us to create a forced transition in the absence of one, where we ask ourselves questions about where we have come from, where we are going and who we want to be when we get there.
The second reason I wanted to write this guide and title it Rebirthing Ourselves to Rebuild Our World is because we are collectively living in a moment of reckoning, where violent systems are being exposed and revolutionary change feels possible. I don’t want the world to “return to normal” after the pandemic has ended. I want us to create new systems, where our society is organized according to human value and dignity as opposed to being centred around capital. I wanted a forum to ask together: what work do we need to do internally to prepare ourselves to fight for the new world to come?
JI: Can you share a bit about your background, as it is relevant to your being able to write the guide and to guide others in the process?
MS: I had never guided a mikvah before this year but I am often engaged in thinking and learning about Jewish rituals, as I feel they keep me grounded and connect me to my history and ancestors. I was a Hebrew school teacher for quite a few years and grew up going to Camp Miriam, which led me down a path of working for Habonim Dror in a number of different capacities over the years. Through coordinating educational activities and building curricula, I saw firsthand the ways that Jewish ritual was a hugely helpful tool for young folks in guiding them to work towards social justice and liberation. Mikvah stood out to me as something that I wanted to learn more about, and the more I learned the different ways mikvah is being reclaimed and repurposed, the more I wanted to be a part of the movement of people doing so.
JI: How long have you practised the ritual? In what circumstances were you introduced to it?
MS: A couple of years ago, while working for Habonim Dror in New York City, my team and I went through a tough time. We were all feeling the weight of leading a Jewish organization through some very complicated situations and, ultimately, were feeling collectively burnt out. We drove to upstate New York and one of our team members led a beautiful mikvah for us. That experience helped me to understand the myriad ways that Jewish ritual can be repurposed to fit our daily needs and struggles. It was my first mikvah and it successfully allowed us to let go of experiences that had been weighing heavily on us.
I always thought mikvah was something that was reserved for Orthodox women and that it was to be strictly used for niddah, weddings or conversion. Experiencing a mikvah that was being led for me outside of these confines really opened my eyes to the ways that mikvah could be used as a modern technology, as opposed to an unchanging tradition.
JI: What are some of the benefits you’ve personally gained from participating in a mikvah? Do you do it regularly?
MS: Throughout the end of summer into fall, in preparation for the Jewish New Year, I was leading mikvah about once a week. I felt strongly that I didn’t want to be paid for this work, as I am one of the few people among my peers who has a steady job and income right now. That being said, I benefited greatly in other ways from leading this ritual for folks. It allowed me to meet amazing people who are also passionate about their Judaism or Jewishly curious folks who wanted to learn more. It allowed me to build community, the kind of Jewish community that I want to exist in Vancouver, centred around young Jews passionate about social justice. It allowed me space to continually ask myself how I want to be reborn and who I want to be, as I facilitated others asking themselves these questions.
I also led a couple special mikva’ot that included Indigenous folks, who brought and shared their own ceremonies and teachings around water and cleansing. I learned a lot from those individuals and am thankful for spaces where we can come together and share traditions and teachings with one another.
Lastly, leading all of these mikva’ot meant that I got to go swimming more often!
JI: There are three kosher (indoor) mikva’ot in Metro Vancouver, I think. It’s easier to see, perhaps, how a religious person would find meaning in the ritual. In what ways do you see the experience being meaningful for less religious women?
MS: Before every mikvah we would sit down and participate in a circle. Together, we would do some learning around mikvah, its ancient uses and how it is being reclaimed today. We would share and reflect together what purpose we wanted the mikvah to serve each one of us personally. We asked ourselves the question: what am I trying to work through that today’s ritual could help me with?
I found that, when the ritual becomes personalized and the individual chooses exactly how they want mikvah to be used, it is more likely to have a positive and lasting effect. Ultimately, mikvah gave people the opportunity to meet and connect with other like-minded people safely, so, if anything, it can just be an opportunity to do some learning, then have fun and go swimming with new friends.
JI: In what ways is your approach feminist, or different from more traditional approaches?
MS: I think the way I approach mikvah (and all Jewish ritual) is that traditions have to change and work for us in our contemporary context. It doesn’t make sense to practise Judaism in exactly the same ways that our ancestors did 2,000 years ago because our reality and our society does not look the same. I want my ancestors to recognize the rituals I am doing, but I also want to make sure that the rituals serve a function for me and the people around me, and that may mean expanding what they look like and who can participate. Jewish people continue to change and evolve, so I want our rituals and practices adapt and reflect that. I want to cultivate a living and ever-changing tradition.
JI: As winter approaches, how do you see your guiding working?
MS: I would be excited to lead a polar mikvah or two but my guess is that most likely folks will want to participate in the ritual when things warm up a little bit come spring.
JI: If there is anything else you’d like to add, please do.
MS: I was super-excited to see the guide being picked up and used across North America. There were people writing to me that I had never met, saying that they used the guide and found the ritual to be extremely meaningful.
I wrote the guide to be general enough so that Jews of any gender/race/sexuality in any location could use it to lead themselves through the ritual. I found the positive responses overwhelming and they helped me to feel connected to Jewry outside of Vancouver, who were going through many of the same hardships we were also experiencing. In writing the guide, I wanted to position myself in community with a wider movement of young Jews, demonstrating how Jewish ritual can be expanded to work for us and provide deep meaning throughout our lives.