5-year-old Rachel’s Well a jewel

PHOTO: Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah was designed through community collaboration with the architect. “The shape of the mikvah, and its outer appearance, are graceful and blend in beautifully with its secluded wooded location,” says Rabbi Ariel Stone, who chaired the mikvah subcommittee of the Oregon Board of Rabbis during the process. Photo by Josh Partee.

During five years of providing meaningful ritual immersions for diverse individuals marking traditional and contemporary transitions (see story below), Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah has become recognized as a jewel – both locally and nationally.
Rachel’s Well is owned and operated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland with ritual supervision provided by the Oregon Board of Rabbis. The Portland Kollel has been designated by the OBR to be the mikvah’s halachic supervisor.
“There is tremendous beauty having a community mikvah that is supported by all sections of the Jewish community and backed by the Jewish Federation,” says Rabbi Chanan Spivak, who provides the oversight as head of the Portland Kollel. “The community mikvah is a tremendous showpiece with the highest standards in halachic oversight and in its aesthetics.”
“When a mikvah meets halachic criteria, it opens it to all segments of the community,” he adds. “It allows the broadest use. It doesn’t bar anyone.”
Rachel’s Well Assistant Manager Sarah Evans says the community has gratefully embraced the resource.
“Over the past five years, many of our users have expressed deep gratitude to Rachel’s Well for creating a community mikvah where Jews of every stripe feel welcome – a place where many have come to assert and renew their connection to Judaism and achieve a spiritual shift,” says Sarah.  
National leaders of the open mikvah movement say Rachel’s Well is known as a community engagement tool and model of pluralism. Portland is the only mikvah in the 33-member network that was spearheaded by and is owned by a Jewish Federation.
“Rachel’s Well has been seen and celebrated as really meeting the full potential of pluralism,” says Lucy Marshall, director of operations for the Rising Tide Open Waters Mikveh network. 
“Just as Federations take on support of basic needs, mikvah is a place Federations can step up and recognize that meeting spiritual and emotional needs has the prospect to afford access to more of the Jewish community,” adds Carrie Bornstein, the executive director of Maayim Hayyim, the nation’s first open mikvah and home of Rising Tide. She says Jewish Federation ownership creates a “psychologically safe place for people to go to mark transitions – celebratory or painful.”
The two national leaders have called on Rachel’s Well Mikvah Manager Caron Blau Rothstein, JFGP chief Allocations and Engagement Officer, to address conferences and communities planning a community mikvah. 
“I did a conference talk about mikvah as a community engagement tool and spoke to a community trying to have their Federation involved,” says Caron. Caron commends JFGP President and CEO Marc Blattner for committing Federation staff time and fundraising resources, as well as convening stakeholders, to make Rachel’s Well a “really special place.”
Lucy calls Caron “an amazing leader in the Rising Tide network.” In addition to helping communities move from vision to reality, Caron recognized the potential to create a new resource to spread awareness of mikvah. “She identified there were not children’s books about mikvah, and she gathered creative Rising Tide members,” two of whom have written a book due for release in March. Caron is impressed by another manuscript by a local author that tells the story creatively from the point of view of the mikvah pool; she hopes it also finds a publisher soon. 
To further bring one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals to Jewish families, Caron co-facilitated a partnership between Rising Tide and PJ Library, which provides free Jewish children’s books to families who subscribe. 
“PJ Library has done a good job of introducing a lot of Jewish concepts, holidays and values,” says Caron. “They don’t have a mikvah book – yet. But it is online (pjlibrary.org/beyond-books/pjblog/may-2022/what-is-a-mikvah).” 
For more information about Rachel’s Well, visit jewishportland.org/mikvah. To book an appointment, email mikvahpdx@gmail.com.

Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah is celebrating its 5th anniversary as a ritual immersion pool serving the Greater Portland Jewish Community. 
WHEN: 1:30-3 pm, Nov. 13
             2:30-4 pm, Nov. 17
WHY: Visit us to learn more about this special, spiritual, welcoming communal space and help us celebrate.
RSVP and for location: email caron@jewishportland.org.

What is an “open mikvah”?

Lucy Marshall, director operations for the Rising Tide Open Waters Mikveh network:
When I think of an open mikvah, I think of it opening in two directions: (1) It honors all the traditional uses and also opens the ancient ritual to mark any meaningful life transition;
(2) It ensures mikvah is accessible to all genders, abilities, ages, sexual orientations … everyone.

Carrie Bornstein, the executive director of Maayim Hayyim, the nation’s first open mikvah:
An open mikvah places the visitor at the center of the experience and is open to the full diversity of the Jewish people. It looks at the person coming in and says, “What does this person need to make the experience meaningful?”

Above right, Chaplain Candi Wuhrman is a contemporary guide at Rachel's Well Community Mikvah, an open mikvah in Portland.

Diverse immersions

Since opening five years ago, Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah has welcomed guests from nearly every synagogue and every conceivable Jewish demographic to experience the ancient ritual.
“No matter how you affiliate, as long as you identify as Jewish, you are sensitively welcomed at Rachel’s Well, says Assistant Manager Sarah Evans, who oversees scheduling for the mikvah. “Because of that, Portland Jews know that they have a safe place to come when they need the embodied ritual of mikvah, for whatever reason they need it. Jews have used our mikvah to observe the mitzvah of taharat hamishpacha (family purity), for healing from illness or loss, for conversion, as part of preparation for Shabbat and Jewish holidays, to mark a significant personal achievement, to prepare for a wedding, after preparing a body for burial, preparing for becoming bat/bar mitzvah, for gender transition and more.” 
Over the past year, Sarah reports, “We have returned to pre-pandemic use statistics; in fact, we’ve exceeded them. This past fiscal year was our busiest yet, with 397 appointments.”  
Sarah also helps recruit and train volunteer guides and mentors people new to mikvah. 

Rabbi Ariel Stone chaired the mikvah subcommittee of the Oregon Board of Rabbis while Rachel’s Well was being developed. 
“I am most proud of the Oregon Board of Rabbis’ insistence on strict adherence to halachic guidelines in the mikvah’s construction and use,” says Rabbi Stone. “All who seek to use it are able to as a result.”
“I have been delighted and honored to guide the immersions of those with whom I study for conversion to Judaism, as well as many other transition moments in a person’s spiritual life. … Those with whom I’ve talked about it all express the feeling that this is a powerful ritual to support gender transition, transition from menstruating woman to menopausal woman, retirement, significant birthdays and recovery from trauma. I’m so pleased that our mikvah is truly a spiritual space for anyone who seeks to mark the turning of a page in their life.” 
Rabbi Eve Posen also attends women using the mikvah for formal life-cycle purposes. But she also relishes her own immersion experiences for healing and creating ritual.
“I went when I finished my year of mourning for my father, I went before my wedding, I went before my ordination,” she says. “I had wanted to go to mark the moment I weaned my last child, but, alas, Covid-19 changed that plan.  Recently, for my 40th birthday, a group of dear friends set up a mikvah visit for me to mark that transition. … The mikvah brings me a sense of calm and tranquility. It is a hug from the waters of life and a refreshing nourishment of my soul.”

While rabbis often serve as the guide for conversions, most guests are received by volunteer attendants.
Most of the male users visit the mikvah for pre-Shabbat or holiday immersions, but Neil Simon recently volunteered to guide men wanting to immerse for a contemporary transition. 
“I wanted to volunteer simply to make sure those men felt most welcome at the mikvah, knowing that Rachel’s Well is everyone’s,” says Neil. “As a guide, my goal is to make sure that the person feels comfortable and welcome to immerse themselves in the mikvah and find their own meaning from the immersion.”
Sarah Rohr volunteers as a contemporary guide for women’s immersions, including pre-wedding, bat mitzvah, conception and miscarriage, and Rosh Chodesh observance. Trained as a doula, Sarah says she sees her role as a guide as very similar: “I am present to the needs that the moment calls for to help create a ritual process that resonates. … Who would think a pool of water shared amongst community for sacred purpose could connect people to themselves and their kavanah/kavanot (intention/s)?”
While confidentiality is at the heart of mikvah use, requests sent to volunteer guides do indicate the general reason for visit, though not the person’s name. The volunteer guides come from diverse backgrounds to reflect and accommodate the diversity of users. For instance, when a transgender person requests a time, they are asked what kind of guide they are comfortable with.
As a chaplain who has worked in hospice, contemporary guide Chaplain Candi Wuhrman says she tries to sign up for people who schedule a visit for trauma, loss or grief. 
“I consider part of my chaplaincy to walk alongside people on their journey,” she says. 
“I believe these are holy waters and sacred experiences … a time of renewal,” says the chaplain. “When I take people through as a guide, I hold that sacred space – even if I don’t say it – whether the transition is health or celebratory.”  

Mikvah use is very personal for those following the family purity laws requiring a woman to immerse for spiritual cleansing after her period before resuming sexual relations with her husband.
“I am not of their peer group, I’m of a different generation, so they feel safe knowing I’ll be discrete and private,” says Devora Fleshler, who volunteers as a traditional guide for women using the mikvah each month. “Confidentiality and discretion are huge.”
Devora is a certified kallah (teacher) trained to meet with brides before their wedding day to teach them the laws of taharat hamishpacha. She is also a retired women’s health-care nurse practitioner. It is a combination that serves her well as a traditional guide.
“If they have women’s health concerns, I am able to talk to them about that as well as observance,” says Devora.
Though the experience is focused on the guest, Devora says she also benefits as a guide.
“I get to have a very moving and special interaction with the women in our community,” she says. “Since I retired, I have missed that interaction with women.”
To schedule an immersion, email mikvahpdx@gmail.com at least 1 week in advance of your desired immersion date.


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