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Tishrei 19-Cheshvan 19, 5768

Jewish Living

The Jewish Outlook

Mikvah offers Austinites opportunity to observe family purity laws

ccording to the Shulchan Aruch, a compendium of Jewish religious law, Jewish communities are traditionally required to build a mikvah, a ritual pool of about 200 gallons of natural water used to attain spiritual purity, before building a synagogue, even if it is necessary to sell a Torah scroll to do so. One mikvah exists in Austin. Mikve Taharah is owned by Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Austin and is available to brides and married women who wish to practice family purity laws as well as those who wish to kasher dishes and men who wish to immerse themselves in preparation for special events, such as their wedding night or Yom Kippur. Rochel Levertov, codirector of Austin's Chabad Center for Jewish Living and principal of its school, Bais Menachem Hebrew Academy, said about 20 women regularly use the organization's mikvah, which is open by appointment only. Women who observe family purity laws abstain from physical contact with their husbands each month during their menstrual cycle and the seven "clean" days that follow. After nightfall on the seventh day, the women visit a mikvah. Hazzan Neil Blumofe at Congregation Agudas Achim said family purity laws are more commonly practiced than many people think. "There is power in immersing oneself in living water with a sacred purpose," Blumofe said. "It's an important part of Jewish tradition. There's a high level of awareness among Conservative (movement) families in Austin." Before entering the mikvah, women thoroughly cleanse themselves in a shower so nothing comes between their bodies and the water in the mikvah. Once a woman enters the mikvah, the water must consume three-quarters of her body before she dunks herself three times and recites some blessings. Levertov said the act is about spiritual purity rather than cleanliness. "The body of water takes over, consumes her and lets spirituality take over. She becomes pure," Levertov said, adding that, while in the mikvah, women communicate with God and ask for anything they want. When a married couple does not touch each other for about half of each month, they build a different relationship since they have to talk to each other more, Levertov said. The separation also builds excitement. "God wanted to keep us in a state of honeymoon all the time. We all want what we cannot have. The night of the mikvah is like the night of a wedding," she said, noting that within Jewish tradition, sex is considered a mitzvah, or a holy act. A source who wished to remain anonymous explained that, although she was raised in a secular family in Israel, using

Story and Photos by Tonyia Cone Special to The Jewish Outlook

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At left, Rochel Levertov at Austin's only mikvah, the Mikve Taharah, which is located at Chabad House, near the University of Texas campus. Below is an overview view of where the part of the mikvah that people get into `kisses' the underground part containing natural water. At right, a photo shows how rainwater enters the storage tank at the mikvah.

Spiritual purity

the sea as a mikvah, she started observing family purity laws as part of a quest for spiritual growth. The practice has been good for her relationship with her husband, she said, because they appreciate each other more, talk more and take each other for granted less. "It gives a lot of beautiful things to the relationship," she said. When in the mikvah, she said, she meditates, taking the opportunity to let go of her negative thoughts and energy. "When you get out, you feel something else, like you're much cleaner," she said. "Water has a wonderful quality of helping you purify yourself, especially with the right consciousness." Though mikvaot also are used as part of the conversion process, the Mikve Taha-

rah in Austin is unavailable for that use. The community mikvah was built with donated funds, Levertov explained, and the decision was made not to allow it to be used for conversion because the practice is controversial. "Who says what proper conversion is?" Levertov asked.

ConverSion

Rabbi Steven Folberg, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform congregation, said his congregants primarily use mikvah as part of the conversion process, although occasionally some couples have gone to mikvah on the eve of their wedding. With Mikve Taharah unavailable for conversions, however, his congregants -- like most communities in

Austin -- typically use Barton Springs or Deep Eddy pools or another spring-fed swimming hole in the area to complete the conversion process. "There is, as well, a community-run and -maintained mikvah in San Antonio," Folberg said. "On occasion, I've had conversion students who really wanted the experience of finalizing their conversion at a `proper' mikvah travel down to San Antonio to make use of that one." Folberg noted that there are some modern, feminist reinterpretations of the mikvah ritual, to accompany such milestones as the onset of menstruation in an adolescent girl or menopause. Healing rituals involving the mikvah have also been developed around miscarriage, abortion and rape. In the early stages of planning the Dell Jewish Community Campus, some members of the community discussed building a community mikvah on the 40-acre site. Rabbi Eliezer Langer of the Orthodox synagogue Tiferet Israel said a modern, functional mikvah that is easily accessible to people for family purity and conversion purposes is a sign of a Jewish community. Folberg said, "Unfortunately, it's a fairly expensive proposition because of the Jewish legal requirements surrounding the dimensions, acceptable sources of fresh water, and so on, and as far as I know, not enough money was raised to bring that vision to reality. However, with the planned expansions of the Campus, perhaps a mikvah could still be built." Blumofe said he was personally disappointed when plans for a mikvah on the Campus fell through. If one were built, he said, it would be an opportunity to educate people about a practice that heightens awareness of God and creates intimacy between people. "It would have been another example of Austin being unique and special, sharing this resource together," he argued. "Still, hopefully this can happen, on Campus or somewhere else." Langer said, "It's a dream, but dreams are what create reality." ------ An Austin writer, Tonyia Cone is a regular contributor to The Jewish Outlook. Contact her at [email protected] or visit the Web site www.tonyiacone.com.

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