Ritual Waters Jews Celebrate Womanhood and Spirituality by Immersing Themselves in a Pool Known as the Mikvah

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Byline: Lisa Friedman Miner Daily Herald Staff Writer

Growing up, Pamela Cohen had never heard of Jewish laws regarding immersion in the mikvah, a ritual bath. Her home wasn't a religious one, and many of the old traditions had long since been abandoned.

Years later, though, Cohen was heading a national organization working to free Soviet Jews. And she heard the inspiring story of Jews in Moscow who risked their freedom to rebuild a mikvah there.

Cohen was moved and curious at the same time.

"Mikvah for me was a very strong, powerful symbol of Jewish resistance, Jewish strength," she says.

"The first time I went to the mikvah, I went because I wanted to explore it," adds Cohen, of Deerfield. "I wanted to know what it was that was so important that people I knew were willing to sacrifice their freedom to explore it."

What she found, she says, was a deeply spiritual experience and a link to generations of Jewish women before her.

The North Shore Community Mikvah, the first in the suburbs, opened last September in the Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park. Until that time, women seeking immersion in a mikvah had to go into Chicago.

A mikvah is a Jewish ritual pool used to fulfill the commandments of "family purity," rules surrounding a woman's sexuality and her menstrual cycle. Immersion in the mikvah is a little-known tradition, one that many Jewish women see as belonging to another time and place.

But there's a growing interest in women's roles in Judaism. Over the last few months, attendance at the mikvah has grown. Now, 50 to 60 women a month come to pray and immerse in the mikvah's warm waters.

"It is a beautiful, beautiful experience," Cohen says. "In a sense, it's a rebirth."

Total immersion

By Jewish law, a husband and wife must abstain from sexual intimacy from the start of a woman's menstrual cycle until seven days after her period has ended. During that time, a woman is considered impure, for lack of a better word.

Most modern Jews do not abide by the guidelines of "family purity." Highly observant Jews, however, maintain a kind of separation for about two weeks out of a woman's cycle. Then, when the appropriate amount of time has passed, a woman is expected to go to the mikvah, says Michla Schanowitz, who runs the North Shore Community Mikvah.

The process is very detailed. First, a woman must remove all clothes, makeup and jewelry. She showers and washes her hair. Only then is she ready for the mikvah.

An attendant stands by while a woman submerges fully into the waters of the mikvah. The woman comes up, says a prayer and immerses twice more. …