Just in case no one has spelled it out explicitly for you, emerging from the mikvah is when you actually become "Jewish." For a more mystical perspective, some say the immersion in the mikvah is when your "Jewish soul" descends into your body. Some disagree with that characterization (the most common being that converts are born with a Jewish soul in a non-Jewish body), but it's a nice idea/visual.
So...what's it like? Really, each and every one of you will have a different experience. Completely different. Every mikvah is different, but so is every mikvah attendant, every beit din's actions while you're in the mikvah, and every convert's perspective on the situation.
a) Prepare a mikvah bag beforehand.
Most mikvaot will not have all the supplies you'll need for your mikvah preparations. You will be expected to bring your own. And if you don't have your stuff and the mikvah doesn't have extras, you're going to be driving to the pharmacy or Wal-Mart.
Most men and some women: You're probably fine with travel-sized toiletries kept in a shopping bag.
Most women, particularly those who intend (now or eventually) to observe the laws of niddah and immerse in the mikvah monthly: Sooner or later, you'll want to invest a little money in your mikvah bag. A pretty bag with your favorite toiletries (though avoid perfumed items if you can - think clean) will go a long way towards making your mikvah experience even that much better. It's comparable to hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah), and is one more thing in your control during the mikvah experience. Besides, sharing personal items can be pretty gross.
What should be in the mikvah bag:
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Contact supplies, if that applies to you
- Comb (you may want to have two, with one being body hair-only)
- Nail clippers and any other nail-related things
- Bathrobe and flip flops/shower shoes (optional)
- Any items you will want to get ready to go back into the real world (make-up, lotions, perfume/cologne, deodorant, etc)
b) You go to the building that houses the mikvah.
In most communities, you'll want someone to drive you to the mikvah because so many of them are hidden away for privacy reasons. (Remember, the majority use for a mikvah is for women to ritually immerse themselves in order to resume "relations" with their husbands. Privacy is a pretty big deal, and people aren't supposed to know who is going when.) For instance, the mikvah I went to is an addition to the back of a residential house in a residential area. I never would have found it by myself! To this day, I still have a hard time figuring out which house it was.
When you arrive, you will meet your mikvah attendant, who will probably show you around and show you the mikvah itself. If you're male, a member of the beit din may serve as your mikvah attendant or they may just give you instructions and meet you in the mikvah room when you're ready. The mikvah attendant should also go over the "house rules" and procedure at this time. Most importantly, they should tell you:
- What you will be wearing to get from the preparation room to the mikvah.
- What to do with the thing you wore into the water (usually a towel or robe). Take it off, leave it on temporarily, where to place it, etc. Don't worry if you don't remember later.
- When you should say each blessing. There are two blessings and three dunks, and each group is slightly different with the timing of them. There is probably a sign posted with the blessings (probably a transliteration too, just in case), which the attendant should show you. And don't worry if you're blind as a bat like myself, that's pretty common.
- Some may not remember/volunteer this information, but you can ask if they don't: Where will the beit din be during the immersions? If female, you will likely have two other questions: will they enter the room at any point and if so, how will your modesty be maintained? Every group will answer these questions differently. If the beit din will be entering during a female conversion, sometimes they won't volunteer this information as a way of keeping you from worrying before it happens. The idea is that you'll be surprised, then get over it. Instead, it can turn a positive experience very negative in .3 seconds for a lot of women. Don't worry though; even if they enter, they will almost certainly be taking precautions to maintain your privacy. Most of the time, they can only see your head.
c) You get ready in a/the mikvah preparation room.
Don't rush. My overly-polite Southern self was very conscious of the fact that the three members of my beit din were waiting outside while I got ready. They tell me I was the fastest mikvah prep they'd ever seen! That's not a good thing. Speak to your mikvah attendant about what is required and for any advice. According to orthodox halacha, there is actually a prescribed minimum prep time, and it's pretty dang luxurious. (What I've seen is a minimum half hour soak in a bathtub!) You'll have a list of very particular things to do to prepare your body, and a list will probably be posted.
You should be alone during this time and should be given privacy. If you're not, ask for it. I knew my experience wasn't the most positive, but I was shocked by the amount of shock and horror from orthodox women because the mikvah lady stayed in the room for everything. Ev-ery-thing. She was a friend and I knew her to be knowledgeable, so I swallowed the embarrassment because I figured she must know what she's doing. I was especially loathe to question anything she said or did because she was the synagogue "mikvah lady" (but since it was a conservative synagogue, I don't know how much business she saw). To give you an idea of how awkward this was, the preparation room was a standard household bathroom, though a reasonably large one. There was a chair, and she just talked on her phone while I got ready.
A thorough cleaning:
- If you're planning to get a haircut around that time, get it before the mikvah immersion.
- If you regularly shave (men or women), you should do so the day of or the day before.
- Things that you need to ask a rabbi about beforehand: Prostheses that are not easily removable, piercings that are not easily removed (I lost a non-removable skin piercing once I knew I was going to the mikvah), permanent make-up, tattoos, manicures, fake nails, and temporary dental work. Permanent dental work should be fine.
- Remove any barriers between your skin and the water: clothing, make-up, contact lenses, jewelry (including body jewelry), bandages, removable prostheses (including dental ones), etc.
- Remove any dirt from under your fingernails and toenails and trim them.
- Clean your ears.
- Blow your nose and make sure there aren't any boogers left!
- Go to the bathroom. Try to fully empty anything that might be in there.
- Brush your teeth.
- You should both take a long soak in a bathtub and then take a quick shower, both with warm water. The soak is intended to soften any dirt that may be on your body so that a quick shower can easily wash it away.
- In the shower, shampoo (and condition if desired, but check with your rabbi first!) your hair. Body hair too, but you might use soap there.
- Clean your body with soap. So fresh and so clean clean.
- Don't forget the lint in your bellybutton! You'd be amazed what you find in there.
- After the shower, comb your hair. I guess people with crew-cuts get it easy here. Also comb your pubic and underarm hair. Yes, I mean that. Some say you can use your fingers to separate body hair. This is the instruction that is always lost in euphemistic translation and is made needlessly awkward.
d) You immerse three times.
But first, the mikvah attendant (or maybe a member of the beit din if you're male) will inspect you to make sure there is nothing that would render your immersion not kosher. Yes, you're going to stand naked in front of someone and that person is going to scrutinize your body. It's really not as bad as it sounds. It'll be more business-like than anything else. It's mostly a visual inspection, but there may be a touch, especially if you have loose hairs on your back. Because they're businesslike, most will forget to ask before removing that hair on your back. Some people inspect more than others, and I've known women who purposely go to the mikvah when they know a more stringent attendant will be working.
As stated above, there are three dips and two blessings. You will be instructed when and how. And if you forget (and you inevitably will), the mikvah attendant will help you. They can even say the blessing word for word to guide you through it. The water should be clean and warm. This isn't your community swimming pool!
BAM! You're Jewish!
e) You go back into the preparation room.
This is where you get ready to go home. Take as much time as you need; they're not going anywhere without you! There will almost certainly be a hairdryer. It is generally not recommended to shower after immersing, though that may be different in the conversion mikvah context (as opposed to the niddah mikvah experience). It is expected that you'll take a little bit of time (though the men may be in and out), and it's okay to put your makeup back on, etc.
f) Pay. It's probably a suggested donation, and some synagogues subsidize/waive the cost of the mikvah for a conversion. And just because they aren't making you pay the fee doesn't mean they'll remember to tell you that explicitly. In my case, a visiting rabbi handled my conversion, and he asked me to "leave the check" and I just stared at him like a deer in the headlights. In the end, they decided that if I hadn't been told anything about a fee, I was probably not expected to pay one. Awk-ward.
g) You go home and live your life!
Some people find this mikvah experience to be one of the most emotional experiences they ever have. Some...don't. It may even be anticlimactic. That's ok.
The things you cannot control:
- The mikvah attendant (or lack thereof if you're male). Some are chatty/friendly and some are silent/businesslike. Inevitably, everyone likes one personality type better than the other (and the disliked personality will have 101 ways to "ruin" your experience), but you're rarely going to know who you get. And even if you already know your mikvah attendant, you might be very surprised by his or her style in this new setting!
- The chlorine or other chemicals used to keep the water clean. Personally, the chlorine was so high in my mikvah that my eyes burned for a full three days.
- If you get a serious bodily wound (or a surprise menstrual cycle) the day before your immersion and it has to be rescheduled.
If you want to learn more about the mikvah, I recommend the websites of Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters, a progressive mikvah in Boston) and The Mikvah Project.