BOSTON — Before she got married last fall, Naomi Hachen immersed in a mikvah, embracing the ancient religious practice of ritual bathing in her contemporary Jewish life.
A few years ago, the just-turned 29-year-old Somerville resident participated in an educational program at Mayyim Hayyim, a nationally known mikvah in Newton. As Hachen approached her wedding, Mayyim Hayyim seemed liked a natural choice. “I am very compelled by Jewish tradition,” she said. “It adds a lot of meaning to my life.”
Then, four months later, the mikvah closed its doors due to the pandemic. Hachen was at a loss. “Oh my God, what will I do?” she wondered. Nevertheless, she thinks the mikvah made the right choice because at the time, so little was known about the virus.
While Jewish institutions and synagogues were forced to shutter their doors under state and local regulations to guard against threats to public health, mikvahs were not included among those required to close.
“There was no category for mikvah,” said Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. Figuring out how to proceed safely was the biggest challenge, she told The Jewish Journal in a phone conversation.
In traditional Jewish law, a woman immerses in a mikvah before marriage and at the end of the menstrual cycle, to resume intimate sexual relations. They are also used for conversions. Some Orthodox men visit mikvahs before Shabbat or in advance of Yom Kippur.
Since its founding, in 2004, Mayyim Hayyim has broadened accessibility of the mikvah to a more diverse Jewish population, including same-sex couples. It is now widely used, by some 1,500 people annually, for marking Jewish lifecycles and personal milestones.
Initially, Mayyim Hayyim’s ritual bath remained open with new safety protocols. But at the beginning of April, as COVID-19 spiked, the mikvah’s board of directors voted to close, out of an abundance of caution. It was one of the hardest decisions they’ve had to make, Bornstein acknowledged.
“Should one person be exposed, in our house, that would be too much,” she said.
On August 24, Mayyim Hayyim reopened its doors for immersions, following extensive consultation with health, religious and other experts and after upgrades to its ventilation system. New protocols limit the number of visitors and volunteer guides, and visitors shower at home and bring their own towels.
Since reopening, some 45 people have visited for immersion and the mikvah has welcomed nine new people into the Jewish community, according to Rachel Eisen, the mikvah’s director of development. Through donor support and a federal pandemic loan, the nonprofit has maintained its staff.
Greater Boston boasts several mikvahs, including in Boston, Brookline, Lexington, Sharon and Mikvah Mayanei Tovah, operated by Congregation Beth Israel in Malden. That mikvah has remained open, adhering to strict safety guidelines, according to Matthew Garland, the Orthodox synagogue’s executive director.
Almost two years ago, Chabad of the North Shore opened a new mikvah in Swampscott.
“The mikvah has remained open the entire time,” Rabbi Yossi Lipsker told The Journal. Keeping the Swampscott mikvah open during the pandemic, following strict safety protocols, meets an important need for people who observe the religious laws between husbands and wives, Rabbi Lipsker noted.
“It’s an integral part of their lives,” he said. “That is why it was and is so important to keep it going.”
People from all walks of life use the Swampscott mikvah, he said. “They were grateful … that we created an environment they felt is totally safe,” he said.
“First and foremost, we have to be concerned about health and wellness,” said Rabbi Lila Kagedan, a bioethicist and internationally recognized expert on mikvahs who has developed a set of COVID-19-specific guidelines used by mikvahs in the Boston area and around the globe.
“There is risk in everything, but medical specialists have consistently found that immersing in mikvahs is reasonable, so long as they adhere to strict health and safety guidelines,” said Kagedan, the former senior rabbi at Chelsea’s Walnut Street Synagogue and current director of bioethics at New York Medical College.
“There is no evidence that water is an effective medium for transmission of the virus,” stated Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
“Most individuals can attend the mikvah with very little risk,” she wrote in an email.
Doron and Kageden reinforced safety protocols including symptom self-screening, keeping at least 6 feet of distance from the mikvah attendant and disinfection of surfaces.
Lipsker and Bornstein both said having the mikvahs open is a rare opportunity of normalcy and respite during the pandemic.
“It’s a place of meditation and solitude and peace. That was particularly appreciated during these tumultuous times,” Lipsker said.
“This time helped people realize what the community would look like if Mayyim Hayyim didn’t exist,” Bornstein said about its pause in operations.
While Mayyim Hayyim was closed, Hachen used the Malden mikvah once and immersed in outdoor bodies of water a few times this summer. She shared her feelings about returning to Mayyim Hayyim, where she began her mikvah journey, in the mikvah’s guest book.
“It felt like coming home,” she wrote.