Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Conversion Mikvah Visit in a Nutshell

Every conservative and orthodox convert (and an exponentially increasing number of reform converts) will go to the mikvah (also spelled mikveh) to complete the conversion.

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:
  • Towel
  • Shampoo/conditioner
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Soap
  • Floss
  • Q-tips
  • Contact supplies, if that applies to you
  • Hairbrush
  • 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.
  • Floss.
  • 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.

25 comments:

  1. I don't think you can fit 40 seah of water in a nutshell.

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  2. Oh and LOL - the captcha for my previous comment was noods.

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  3. A good mikveh attendant will read off of you what you need and will never be pushy. At least that's how I was trained :)

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  4. I have heard issues about using conditioner right before the mikvah as some don't fully wash out and leave essentially a "film" on your hair, making it a barrier. I guess this is something to ask your Rabbi, because I don't remember any real source beyond anecdotal evidence and hearsay. There's a lot of that about the rules of niddah and mikvah, so take it with a grain of salt!

    It also should be common sense but maybe should be said anyway, but you are also supposed to use the restroom before the mikvah. I don't believe you're supposed to dip if you are holding something in. I think it probably is related to the same concept when it comes to praying, one is supposed to relieve oneself before praying, or immediately during praying, and not hold it in.

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  5. Leah Sarah, your always helpful additions have been included!

    And Gana, you just hush :P You work at the most ridiculously helpful mikvah on earth! Also, with liberal conversions in small communities, this may be someone who doesn't regularly (or ever before) assist with the mikvah. In particular, I've seen reform conversions who allow you to "pick a friend" to act as your mikvah attendant.

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  6. So if when you leave the mikvah is when you become Jewish, and you went through a Conservative conversion, did you think you were Jewish when you emerged that time? And do you still think you're Jewish even though you haven't completed your Orthodox conversion?

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  7. Fantastic questions, Susan! I'm going to break it down into the objective discussion and then a discussion of myself.

    a) Are people "Jewish" when they leave the mikvah during a non-orthodox conversion? According to their movement and maybe more, yes, they are "legally" Jewish for the purposes of that movement. Coming from the law school background, California is a trendsetter with laws. Nevada tends to follow CA's lead and will basically adopt some of CA's laws as its own. However, CA isn't going to enforce those NV laws, even though NV may choose to adopt CA laws. There's only a one-way reciprocity of legal theories. Why would one movement not accept the conversion of another movement? It's rarely the kosherness of the mikvah. The mikvah is the conclusion of a series of steps, most notably the beit din. These steps are a threshold to get to the mikvah. Therefore, when there are problems with the other steps, the convert shouldn't have reached the point of the mikvah, so it doesn't have the effect it should. Does that make sense?

    b) Now the personal. Yes, I believe I'm Jewish, but I'm not legally Jewish. I'm one of the camp who believes that a convert is born with a Jewish soul, but just needs the beit din to "verify" that. The analogy I use (that is normally a complete failure in Jewish conversations) is that I'm a Golden Retriever without my AKC papers. So now I'm going through this process so that they can be sure I'm a Golden Retriever and then they'll issue my papers and I can participate in all the dog shows I want! Since most of the Jewish world doesn't have dogs (gee, thanks, Holocaust), the analogy doesn't make sense to a lot of people.

    But why do I say that since I did have that conservative conversion? Without getting into too many details, we'll just say that the "What to do if you question the validity of your conversion" post didn't appear out of thin air. I believe that my conversion would not be held as "legal" even by the conservative movement because so many very basic things were wrong. And because of this, I had a terrible experience and never went back to that shul. However, my converting rabbi was actually someone I'd never met who got called in about a week before my conversion date because of an emergency with the original rabbi. That said, and despite the awfulness I described above about my own mikvah experience, I believe the mikvah part was totally kosher for conversion purposes. But since everything before that immersion had basically been meaningless, I don't believe that the mikvah immersion made me Jewish even to conservative standards.

    In some ways, that's good, and in some ways that's bad. I certainly feel less torn than many people do who felt "Jewish enough" after one conversion and then felt differently later and decided to seek a second conversion. For them, it can be really painful to be suddenly thrust back into the "non-Jew" category (since that can affect laws like handling wine, counting a minyan, etc). Me, I've never been bothered by that.

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    1. Who cares? Does Adonai accept a Reform or Conservative Jew as a Jew? - probably...and it gives the person the Right of Return...that' all that matters.

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  8. Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful answer to my question! I'm sorry your first conversion experience was so bad. I certainly hope your Orthodox one is much better.

    I can't say I love the analogy of comparing yourself to a dog, but I do follow your line of reasoning.

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  9. Susan, hahahah about the dog comment. I own two dogs who are AKC, and we don't tend to give people papers for their existence in American society :D I definitely don't see anything negative in the dog comparison :) After all, it means other Jews are dogs as well, but they came with papers at birth, lol...

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  10. Also: When I came out of the mikvah, after getting dressed, they gave me a piece of candy so I could properly say my first bracha in front of the bet din. I was so worried about screwing it up :)

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  11. Ha, at least your're not (I assume) diabetic.

    I wonder, is it okay to say the bracha but not eat the candy? I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to answer the next few questions with candy in my mouth, either.

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  12. We got honey sticks! I couldn't eat it though :(

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  13. Susan, there's no more questions after the mikvah! Except maybe, "Does smiling that much make your face hurt?" LoL...

    But no, you'd have to eat the candy because you wouldn't want to make a bracha in vain. If you couldn't, I guess you'd go outside and find a flower to sniff or something. There are TONS of ways to find a reason to say a bracha!

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  14. This is good advice for kallot, brides before the wedding. Many mikvaot, at least in Israel, give a special mikva package to brides and usually there are appointments when there aren't others.
    Our local mikvah provides towels, etc. Maybe because in Israel many women walk to the mikvah, so the last thing we need is to advertise our destination with a special bag.
    Just ask the mikvah lady before hand what's needed. Some places charge for use of towels.

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  15. Although I converted through the conservative movemsnt, as far as I am aware, I went through every required step prior to my actual conversion. My Rabbi, who has subsequently joined an orthodox shul, even ensured that the men on my Bet Din were "Shomer Shabbat" so that there would never be a question as to the legitimacy of my conversion. Because he is also a Mohel, he perforned my Hatafat Dam Brit before my going to the mikveh and was my mikveh attendant. The other men of the Bet Din were present when I was in the mikveh and witnessed my 3 immersions and the blessings I said in Hebrew (which I had memorized beforehand and knew what I was saying). Following the mikveh, I went with him to our shul for the final statements and prayers and he introduced me to those I had invited, by my Hebrew Name. Going into the mikveh was a very beautiful experience to me and I followed his instructions to spread my fingers apart and my toes and open my eyes and mouth to ensure that all parts of my body were exposed to the water. The water was warm and seemed to have a pleasant scent to it. Each time I went completely under the water, I tried to stay under as long as possoble and, by the third time, I felt that I didn't want to come out, it was so beautiful. He told me prior to immersing to think of myself as being in the womb about to be born. Since that time, I have made an appointment to go into the mikveh just prior to Yom Kippur. Of course, on those occassions there would be no requirement for an attendant to stay with me.

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  16. Hi! I've recently found your blog - and it is so informative! I've just written a post on the mikveh, and have linked your blog to my post. Here's the link in case you are interested:
    http://coinlaundryblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/ten-questions-about-mikveh.html

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  17. With all due respect you forgot to mention - the most humiliating part of the conversion mikvah every convert should be prepared for:

    You will stand naked in the water with Beit Din observing your head from your back.
    Bein Din would ask around 30 questions for about 10-15 minutes, while you are still standing naked in the water. Same questions they already asked you previous five or six times, making sure to drive you feel completely HUMILIATED. Only after they feel that you are done with they will let you go.

    I'm speaking from my personal experience with Orthodox conversion.
    I have not experienced more humiliating thing in my life. If I could I would have UNCONVERTED.

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    1. I am sorry for the way you felt during your conversion. However, to feel that strongly about the mikvah visit, I suspect that the beit din must have felt humiliating long before then. You don't have a good experience with a beit din and then suddenly feel humiliated or abused on your last encounter with them. I don't know your mental state at the time, of course, but I would suspect it was the culmination of your experiences with them rather than an isolated experience.

      However, that said, the questions are not intended to humiliate, and they vary in the length of time required. I had answered all the of the questions in my beit din meeting, and they took maybe 5 minutes for me. I believe it was 10-15 questions. The questions are meant to impress upon you the seriousness of the obligation of taking on the yoke of mitzvot, but the questions are supposed to be perfunctory at that point. It is expected that you will give the "right" answer (because you previously have) and that the questioning in the mikvah is merely a procedural requirement.

      Your physical experience in the mikvah sounds normal, though your emotional experience of it was (hopefully) not. I'm sorry you felt that way, but I'm not inclined to assign that feeling to the process itself.

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    2. Thats' exactly the point - you have answered all questions on the Beit Din meeting. It would not be humiliating to me when asked normally face to face, as it was done on previous 5 meetings when I had to answer about 10 questions + written test that included about 500-600 questions (took about 15 hours to write all together) and after all that this "NAKED HUMILIATION"
      You have mentioned on your site that you just dunk and say two tfillot which is not correct - person have to be prepared to be humiliated first.

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    3. I'm sorry you found it to be humiliating, but that doesn't mean everyone else feels that way about it.

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    4. Susan - have you done orthodox conversion with same mikvah process i have described?

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    5. I second Susan's comment, and I've done that mikvah visit twice. As I said before, I would bet money the mikvah was not the first issue with your beit din. I do not believe the mikvah process is inherently "humiliating," as you argue. It can be with crappy rabbis, but the majority of people (I'd even feel comfortable saying overwhelming majority) do not feel as you do. That doesn't mean your feelings aren't valid, but that doesn't give you the right to try to ruin other people's anticipation of what is supposed to be a happy moment.

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    6. in what way I "try to ruin other people anticipation"?
      Every person has right to know what is the process and have proper expectations. Otherwise they will be caught by surprise. And do not "bet" - is not that improper for Jews?

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  18. Thanks for sharing your experiences with all of us. boo the dog The World's Cutest Dog

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