BY DEBORAH MOON
“I’m Jewish! I am here – Hineni!” Cheyenne McClain exclaimed these words happily a couple days after completing her delayed conversion by immersing in Rachel’s Well Community Mikvah.
Cheyenne was one of 15 people to immerse for their conversion since Rachel’s Well reopened July 14 under strict re-opening protocols following the guidelines set out by Governor Brown to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Rachel’s Well website has a link to the reopening protocols, including the need to prepare at home.
Owned by the Jewish Federation of Portland with ritual supervision provided by the Oregon Board of Rabbis, the community mikvah is open to all who self-identify as Jewish.
Of the 65 immersions between July 14 and Oct. 24, the majority (24) were Erev Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur visits. Another 20 immersions were by women who go monthly following their menstrual cycle as part of their observance of Taharat HaMishpacha, the laws of family purity. Four visits were for healing ceremonies and the rest were for other reasons.
“We accommodate the range of immersions from those that are traditional/mandated by Halacha (Jewish Law) – conversion and laws of family purity for married women – to any contemporary transition (happy and sad, Jewish and secular) that someone wants to mark with an immersive Jewish experience,” says mikvah manager Caron Blau Rothstein.
For Cheyenne, the immersion marked the end of a journey she started in 2013 when she began to study with Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman, then rabbi of Congregation Shaarie Torah. Three flair-ups of her epilepsy, Rabbi Zuckerman’s move to Mesquite, Nev., and other interruptions stretched out her study. So when COVID shut down the mikvah along with much of the state, it was just the latest pause in her journey.
“I know many others around the world have either held off indefinitely on their conversions or modified them greatly – hand-washing near the computer (while on a Zoom call with their rabbi), spring water over the head,” says Cheyenne. “I have been looking forward to this for a long time, and I am grateful our community mikvah reopened when it did and with community-minded procedures in place. I have looked forward to visiting Rachel’s Well since opening and knew I would want a visit there to be part of my conversion.”
On Oct. 19, Cheyenne arrived at the gate outside Rachel’s Well. She had followed the mikvah’s COVID guidelines and showered at home.
“It was a quiet evening, just me and the attendant who joined me at the gate in the darkness,” says Cheyenne. “She said she was filled with happiness for me. We were both trying to balance being close and slow together as the moment demanded – in contrast with the efficiency and distance I have gotten used to in these past few months.”
“My attendant and I both wore our now customary masks from the gate to the door to the edge of the pool. When she said “take it off,” my towel fell to the ground easily. ‘Your mask,’ she said. Oh… I fumbled around with it … not used to the prospect of taking off my mask inside, around another person, or even being outside the house much at all for that matter.”
The attendant was the witness required for an immersion for conversion, but the celebration that would in normal times follow the immersion was absent. Typically the new Jew would dress and join their clergy, family and friends to smiles, applause and the singing of Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov. For Cheyenne the immersion was followed by a quiet walk back to her car alone.
“It is hard to get that sense of finality,” says Cheyenne of the ways COVID has altered celebrations. “A lot of people have that feeling of ‘am I there yet?’ due to the coronavirus after graduation or conversion, etcetera.”
But after talking to Rabbi Zucky (as he is affectionately known) on the phone the next day and giving it time to sink in, she gleefully realized “hineni!”
She had planned to appear before a beit din in April before the shutdown interfered. Rabbi Zuckerman is organizing an online beit din, but Cheyenne does feel she is now part of the Jewish people. Her fiancé Aaron Cohen, whom she met while in the Judaic Studies program at Portland State University, currently lives in Philadelphia. She looks forward to eventually incorporating the mikvah into her new life after marriage.
Vanessa (Hebrew name Ruth Ilana) also visited Rachel’s Well to complete her conversion before her wedding. She says the mikvah was “the most mysterious and ultimately meaningful aspect of my conversion to Judaism.”
Though COVID complicated some aspects of her immersion experience, she says that “entering the mikvah room was calming and sacred.”
Vanessa invited her (then future) mother- and sister-in-law to accompany her to the grounds. Vanessa and her mikvah guide Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker went alone into the building, but Rabbi Dunsker had the door open so the two women standing outside could hear Vanessa as she shouted the blessings.
““Reading the pre-immersion declarations to the matriarchs whose family I was soon to join made the experience deeply meaningful. It felt like a promise was being made not only to G-d and the Jewish people, but also specifically to the women … who had welcomed me with open arms into their family and their religion.”
“After my initial immersion (for conversion) the rabbi left me alone to perform the pre-marriage blessings, which I did quietly smiling to myself knowing that as the blessings passed my lips I was a Jewish woman,” adds Vanessa.
For now, Rachel’s Well has COVID-related safety procedures in place and is safely welcoming people who want to immerse for a variety of reasons. Since all mikvah guides are volunteers, advance notice is required.
An appointment is required for all immersions; weekly drop-in men’s immersions on Erev Shabbat won’t resume until COVID restrictions are lifted.
“We are happy to work with anyone across the Jewish spectrum who wants to have a mikvah experience,” says Caron. “We pride ourselves on being a ‘mikvah for all.’”
To request an appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org. A minimum of 4-7 days in advance is required, and earlier notice is appreciated.