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A clean start

Page full of 3 -- NEWTON -- At first glance, the new ritual bath looks like a spa, with its earth-toned stone floor, skylit atrium, private changing suites with showers and assorted toiletries, and two small pools of lukewarm water, each entered via a gently curving flight of seven steps.

So when Rachel Zar-Kessler arrives two days before her wedding, a visitor might well think she's simply taking the waters before her busy weekend. But Zar-Kessler is not just stealing a moment to relax. She is partaking in the ancient Jewish tradition of immersing herself in the mikveh pool as a bride. To what has historically been a practice associated with Orthodox Judaism, this Reform Jew adds the modern twist of bringing along her mother, her two sisters, and three of her mother's closest friends to the innovative Mayyim Hayyim, or "Living Waters," mikveh and education center, the first in the area built and operated by the liberal Jewish community.

Mayyim Hayyim, which holds its grand opening celebration tomorrow, is the brainchild of Anita Diamant, author of the best-selling novel "The Red Tent." It seeks to merge age-old uses of the mikveh -- by married women after their monthly menstruation, by brides, by non-Jews converting to Judaism -- with new ones designed to add spiritual ritual to life transitions as varied as sending a child to college and ending che-

motherapy. It is yet another piece in a resurgence of interest in Jewish learning and practice that has also included the opening of new Jewish day schools, an increase in adult education, and the launching of a rabbinic training program at Hebrew College. "Historically it's the right moment for this to happen," says Diamant. "Mayyim Hayyim is for men and women. Most of the energy behind it is women. Jewish women are much more com-

fortable with all the traditions and inclined to engage with the parts of the tradition that were foreign and alien for a long time. You have a large community of learned and learning women who have the self-confidence to make things like this possible." "It's mining the tradition," says Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. "It represents all kinds of new energy in the liberal community."

On a rainy morning, Zar-Kessler's first trip to the mikveh begins as she and the women accompanying her follow a ceremony that her mother, Lorel Zar-Kessler, cantor at Temple Beth El in Sudbury and a longtime friend of Diamant, created for Mayyim Hayyim. Diamant, holding a box of tissues, is part of the group.

"I am now prepared," Rachel reads, "to leave behind that which I no longer choose to become one with another life."

The 25-year-old bride slips into a private suite to prepare for her immersion. In accordance with Jewish law dictating that nothing, not even a speck of dirt, come between her naked body and the mikveh water, she will shower and shampoo, brush her teeth and floss, clean under her fingernails, and remove her diamond ring and her earrings. If she were wearing nail polish, she would remove that, too.

When her mother wed three decades ago, she never thought to include a visit to the mikveh. "I don't even remember the question coming up," says Lorel Zar-Kessler, who is 53. Her first -- and only -- immersion came last fall, when she and Diamant visited an Orthodox bath in Sharon. "The leading up to it was as powerful as being in the water itself," Zar-Kessler recalls. "As a liberal Jew, I'm aware I'm choosing the obligations I want to take on. It fascinates me that what liberal Jews say more is `I can choose not to.' We're trying to look at the power of accepting these obligations."

The phone in the lobby rings, the signal that Rachel, calling from the preparation suite, is ready to immerse. In addition to being aware of her mother's involvement in Mayyim Hayyim, Rachel and her fiance, who live in Manhattan, learned about the mikveh in a course on Jewish weddings. She also remembers the episode of "Sex and the City" in which Charlotte goes to a mikveh to convert to Judaism.

Kathleen Bloomfield, Mayyim Hayyim's program director, is Rachel's mikveh guide, trained both to provide moral support and to ensure that the immersion complies with Jewish law. Bloomfield, who is 49, is herself a convert. Born and raised in a churchgoing Italian Catholic family, she married a Jew and converted when her two children, now 19 and 16, were in preschool. She remembers well the day she became a Jew.

"I was a nervous wreck. Just the fact that I had to be naked in front of a stranger was a big thing," Bloomfield says. "The mikveh lady made me very comfortable. It was a beautiful experience. You're basically stripped bare. Just the process of cleaning yourself so thoroughly. Just coming there wrapped in a sheet and you drop it. You're naked before God. That's how it feels."

The mikveh Bloomfield describes was in Los Angeles at the Conservative movement's University of Judaism. Prior to the opening of Mayyim Hayyim, Reform and Conservative rabbis in Greater Boston brought their converts to Orthodox baths. While researching "Choosing a Jewish Life," her 1997 guide to conversion, Diamant, whose husband converted to Judaism, was disturbed to see a line of prospective converts waiting for immersion during the two hours a week that mikveh set aside for non-Orthodox conversions. "More people are converting than have in 2,000 years, and it's important to provide a welcoming setting," Diamant says. "They shouldn't feel rushed."

In 2000, Diamant, buoyed by the recognition garnered from "The Red Tent," started gathering support -- and raising money -- for a new community bath. In 2002 the group bought a Victorian home for $680,000 and, under rabbinic supervision, built an $800,000 addition to house the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim, which has raised almost $1.7 million toward its $3 million goal, joins some half-dozen Orthodox mikvehs in Greater Boston, including the new Western Well built by the Lubavitch community in Natick.

This rainy morning, Diamant is one of the women in Mayyim Hayyim's skylit atrium who watch Bloomfield slip into the mikveh room and close the pocket doors behind her. The waiting women know Bloomfield will now open the door to the preparation suite and welcome Rachel to the mikveh. Rachel will drop the white bathrobe Mayyim Hayyim provides for brides and begin her descent into the mikveh waters. Diamant whispers that they should be able to hear the water splash through the open transom above the closed doors.

Rachel will remove the cap on the spout to the bor, the outdoor pit that collects rainwater, so the natural water will "kiss" the treated tap water in the pool. According to Jewish law, she will let water flow under her feet, around her outstretched arms, over her entire head. Bloomfield will watch to make sure that every strand of hair is submerged.

If this sounds like Christian baptism, it's with good reason. Jesus and his disciples were Jews, living at a time when the mikveh was in widespread use. A number of the baths have been unearthed in the area where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, and many have been excavated in Jerusalem. "Baptism did not come out of thin air," says James Walters, a New Testament scholar at Boston University's School of Theology. "The use of water for ritual purposes was widespread in the ancient world. It was clearly used in Judaism for purification purposes."

As Rachel, praying, immerses three times, Bloomfield calls to the waiting women, who complete the ceremony by singing a traditional blessing of thanksgiving. Moments later, a smiling bride, clad again in the white bathrobe, slides open the mikveh doors. Her mother leads her and her sisters in a favorite round, the 23d Psalm, sung in Hebrew.

"I felt at peace," Rachel says. "The water feels very clean and very pure, which is how you're supposed to be feeling. It felt like a release, which was wonderful. You definitely feel like you're floating."

Although the mikveh is usually thought of as a female ritual, some men immerse to prepare for Shabbat, the Sabbath, or for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that is Judaism's holiest day. To build on that tradition, Mayyim Hayyim's Men's Initiative has trained a dozen male mikveh guides.

"Water for me is a very powerful symbol as well as a transformative experience," says Chaim Koritzinsky, a 30-year-old rabbinic student at Hebrew College and cochair of the men's effort. "Usually I'm moving from one state of mind to another, and the immersion is really the bridge. So when I prepare for Shabbat I concentrate on what I want to leave behind from the week as well as what I want to take on in moving into Shabbat. The mikveh becomes both the vessel for letting go as well as the vessel for taking on that intention."

On the last Sunday in May, Rachel Zar-Kessler and Adam Scott wed at Temple Beth El before more than 200 friends and relatives. Listening to her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law speak to each other about their ketubah, or wedding contract, Lorel Zar-Kessler wept. By the time the groom stepped on a glass, the traditional end of a Jewish wedding, she smiled, dry-eyed. "I felt there was something beyond crying which was complete joy," she says.

Now she plans to visit Mayyim Hayyim to mark this transition in her own life -- seeing her daughter enter marriage, gaining a son-in-law. Maybe she'll go at the next new moon, not only to commemorate her changed status but also to try to make the mikveh a monthly ritual.

"One thing this whole process has taught me is the need to mark time and the events of our lives. I can't hold onto this weekend forever," she says. "I think I need to learn to mark regular time and to feel gratefulness in the small daily events of my life. We can't just live for the major events in our lives, and there will be terrible times, too. We need to find a way to bless the regularity of our lives, too." 

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