PHOTO: Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah sits in a natural setting. A separate dish mikvah, foreground, is available without an appointment for kashering kitchen utensils (access information available on request: firstname.lastname@example.org). Photo by Josh Partee.
BY DEBORAH MOON
When Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah turns 4 on Nov. 1, the ritual bath will have enabled more than 1,200 traditional and contemporary immersions (see box below).
Rachel’s Well is owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland with ritual supervision provided by the Oregon Board of Rabbis.
“Rachel’s Well is here for the most traditional and for everybody who self-identifies as Jewish for the most contemporary of reasons,” says Rachel’s Well Mikvah Manager Caron Blau Rothstein, who is also JFGP Director of Community Planning & Allocations.
Before COVID limited access to the mikvah, nearly 400 immersions took place annually. In the past 12 months, despite pandemic restrictions, more than 250 immersions took place. Numbers will likely increase as the mikvah resumes normal operations. This will include weekly drop-in erev Shabbat immersions for men, which were discontinued in March 2020.
“I am always so impressed and amazed when I see the stats,” says Rachel’s Well Advisory Board Chair Ronnie Malka, who led the visioning process and capital campaign for the mikvah.
Ronnie approached the OBR nearly a decade ago to urge them to plan for a new community mikvah to replace the aging mikvah built on Harrison Street in 1958. The JFGP had funded the operations for that mikvah and took the lead to build the new mikvah when the Portland Ritualarium was decommissioned in 2016.
“Jewish law awards precedence to the building of a mikvah over the building of any other institution, indicating the significance it has for communal life,” says Rabbi Chanan Spivak, CEO of the Portland Kollel. The Kollel has been designated by the OBR to be the mikvah’s halachic supervisor. “The Federation has done a tremendous service to the community by both the building of the mikvah as well as the professional oversight that provides a comfortable, efficient and safe environment for all those who use it. I see it as truly symbolic that an organization such as the Jewish Federation, which is situated at the center of the Portland Jewish community, has stood up to the responsibility to provide such an institution that is so central to Jewish life.”
Ronnie not only promoted the need for a community mikvah available for contemporary immersions, she has also used it. Before her daughter, Ellie, became a bat mitzvah at Congregation Neveh Shalom in 2019, Ronnie took her to Rachel’s Well to mark the transition.
“And I did the same to be prepared to be the mother of a bat mitzvah,” says Ronnie.
Since Rachel’s Well opened, the range of traditional and contemporary immersions has grown immensely over the old mikvah.
In a video for Federation, mikvah volunteer guide and user Toni Jaffe says that a mikvah open to all Jewish people for any reason really struck a chord with her.
“I think we need more ritual in our life to mark transitions, to mark ceremonies, to mark passages,” says Toni. “Rachel’s Well is an experience of immersion you can enter as one person and exit as another person who has gone through a particular time or situation or passage in your life.”
That sense of leaving as a different person was a factor in the design of Rachel’s Well. When about 20 people met with the architect to share their vision of a modern mikvah, Ronnie says one woman said she was moved by the way people left Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, by a different path than they entered.
Ronnie says that concept was adopted for Rachel’s Well: “If you choose to, after you immerse, you could leave through a door in back and take a path that curves around and feel uplifted into this new space.”
Also on video, Jake Sullivan says he was very excited when he learned Federation was building a mikvah he could use. Jake had learned the concept of mikvah at Portland Jewish Academy and immersed in Israel during a Birthright trip. But he says he has gone through many changes in his life during his 20s.
“I wanted a way to mark those transitions that was deeper and more intentional,” says Jake. “(Immersing) was an introspective and spiritual experience.”
That sense is exactly what the mikvah is meant to be.
“The mikvah … entails so many profound concepts of spiritual renewal and deep meaningful connection,” says Rabbi Spivak.
Portland may well have the only mikvah in the country that was built and owned by a Federation, according to Lucy Marshall, director of the Rising Tide Network, a group of open mikvaot that welcomes a spectrum of users for a breadth of purposes for immersion. Though many Federations provide financial support for mikvaot, Lucy says none of the 34 communities in six countries in the network have a Federation-owned mikvah.
“The leadership Federation has taken is inspiring,” says Carrie Bornstein, CEO of Mayyim Hayyim, one of five core mikvaot that launched the network. “Rachel’s Well is a model for other Federations.”
Rising Tide was founded so communities “wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel,” says Carrie.
Founded in 2018, Rising Tide arose out of the trend for communities to “open the experience of mikvah to the entire Jewish community to help create a vibrant, welcoming, inclusive American Jewish future.” The first such mikvah, Mayyim Hayyim, opened in 2004 and consulted with many communities before Rising Tide formed.
But Carrie says that was time intensive, and Mayyim Hayyim realized they could learn from the newer communities. “We had colleagues who could provide different perspectives and ideas. They had done it more recently. Our system was created in 2004 – pre-big internet. … There is a synergy when we learn from each other.”
Carrie and Lucy both praised Caron for her leadership of Rachel’s Well, with Lucy adding that Caron and Rachel’s Well have made many contributions to the Rising Tide Network.
To learn more about Rachel’s Well, visit jewishportland.org/mikvah or email email@example.com.
TRADITIONAL & CONTEMPORARY IMMERSIONS AT RACHEL’S WELL
Taharat HaMishpacha (Laws of Family Purity) monthly immersion
Conversion – babies, youth and adults
Pre-wedding – brides and grooms
Pre-holiday (Shabbat, High Holidays, Pesach, etc.)
Post Tahara for those who volunteer to prepare bodies for burial
9th month of pregnancy
Healing from a trauma (illness, abuse, divorce, etc.)
Milestone celebrations (birthday, new job, etc.)
Transitions not otherwise specified