MS. REBECCA SHEIR
After the break, moving toward a new religion in Cleveland Park.
RABBI GIL STEINLAUF
The waters of the Mikvah are what we call Mayim Hayim. That means, living waters.
MR. ROB SACHS
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
MR. ROB SACHS
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rob Sachs.
And I'm Rebecca Sheir. And on today's show, we're talking about identity. Before the break, we heard about gender and sexual identity. And now we turn to religion and the process of changing your religious identity.
Now, converting to any faith requires a spiritual journey, but the actual requirements for conversion vary from faith to faith. And one religion with a rather involved conversion process is Judaism.
According to tradition, you have to ask three times. So in the ancient practice, in the -- and in a very, very traditional practice, I will actually ask people to leave.
That's Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, he's the senior Rabbi at Adas Israel in Cleveland Park. It's D.C.'s largest conservative Synagogue. And Rabbi Steinlauf says, he doesn't really ask people to leave his office, but he does say people converting Judaism go on a rather rigorous journey.
There is a conversion course that they go through which takes an entire year. And they have to have regular meetings with me, as well to go through the process. They have to commit themselves to exploring various aspects of Jewish observance and to garner a whole series of Jewish experiences so that they can truly see if this is the right thing for them.
But wait, there's more. After the year ends, the conversion candidate has to go before something called a Beth Din.
Beth Din is the Hebrew for a tribunal of three rabbis who then ask them questions about whether or not they have developed a real Jewish identity during this time of becoming Jewish. And only subject to the approval of the Beth Din, of the Rabbinic tribunal, can they then go to the next step.
Which is the Mikvah or ritual bath. It's a practice with roots similar to baptism, both use water to feel a connection with God.
The waters of the Mikvah are what we call Mayim Hayim. That means, living waters. So the act of immersing ourselves into the Mikvah is in a sense reconnecting to our source. It is the primordial waters. That's what the Mikvah becomes.
Adas Israel has what's known as a liberal Mikvah. It's open to all branches of Judaism, including conservative, reform and reconstructionists. This makes it somewhat rare.
MS. NAOMI MALKA
Our Mikvah here is the only liberal Mikvah between Baltimore, Md. and Richmond, Va.
Naomi Malka is Adas Israel's Mikvah coordinator or Mikvah Lady, as she likes to call herself. Malka says the Mikvah is used about 350 times a year. Half of those for conversions, the other half, it's used by members of the community during times of personal transformation, such as before a wedding or a funeral. Of all the conversions each year, Rabbi Steinlauf says he personally helps about 35 individuals through the process. And while some drop out, almost everyone who makes it to the Beth Din makes it through to the Mikvah in the lower level of the Synagogue.
It's warm and pleasant, but pretty Spartan. There's a changing room and shower down a short hallway to the left. The Mikvah is about the size of a large Jacuzzi. Ceramic tiles line the walls. It almost has the look of a spa, but Rabbi Steinlauf and Naomi Malka make it clear, you would never bring a bar of soap in here.
It's definitely not a bathtub. It's a ritual experience.
This is a fairly utilitarian Mikvah and I think that it allows people to have their own experience here, actually. And we're saying, what you bring to it is what you will get out of it.
Rabbi Steinlauf then shows me what makes this bath a Mikvah. The majority of the water comes from their everyday pipes. But then there's a second water source.
If you notice there is a pipe that runs down the wall that connects up to the roof. And on the roof, it collects some rainwater into a little reservoir right next to the Mikvah. And right before somebody immersing in the Mikvah, we remove the -- it's like a little cork, sort of. So the natural water comes in and that's actually what makes it into a Mikvah at that moment, that it contains these waters of creation.
Before entering the Mikvah, you're instructed to remove all articles of clothing and jewelry so you're completely connected to the waters.
Person enters the Mikvah by going down the seven steps and going into the deepest part, which is about four feet deep. Take a moment, think about what you're doing and why you're doing it and then immerse completely.
Men in the Mikvah are attended to by Rabbi while two others wait outside in a waiting room. When a woman goes in, Malka attends and then the three Rabbis listen through an air vent to insure the ritual is being conducted properly. This involves three separate immersions and the reciting of prayers.
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik, that is praising God for giving us the commandment of immersion.
After the third immersion, the act is complete. Malka says this moment can be joyous as well as a time for reflection. One woman told her that the Mikvah made the whole conversion feel more real.
She said it was as powerful physically as having given birth to her children.
It's ancient, it's visceral, it's powerful. It's something you have to physically do to experience it. And that's the nature of all great spiritual moments in life, are things that can't be really compared to anything else. You can't capture it in words. You have to actually go in and feel the experience.
Even though the Mikvah certifies people as being Jewish, Rabbi Steinlauf says, it still may take time for them to feel culturally Jewish, which could be a process in and of itself, who he says that one has no formal rules.
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