Runs on Dunkin’

Coming full circle, Mayyim Hayyim CEO returns to mikveh where she immersed to convert

Boston-area ritual bath and resource center looks to adapt and reimagine Jewish concepts of purity, transformation

Julie Childers started her work as CEO of the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, the pluralistic ritual bath outside of Boston, in early July. But her history with the mikveh goes back to 2006, when she herself immersed there during her conversion to Judaism. The experience was “transformative,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“After my first immersion, I had a feeling of wholeness, holiness, a sense of completion and that I’m enough. It was very gentle, whole and fulfilling,” she said of the moment, which marked her formal entry into the Jewish community. 

Childers takes the helm as the organization approaches its 20th year and expands its offerings. In 2019, Mayyim Hayyim celebrated its 20,000th immersion and 3,000th conversion, and as of this week — after a pandemic slowdown in 2020 and a burst pipe in February 2023 — the organization has been home to a total of 3,702 conversions or affirmation ceremonies and 23,513 immersions.

She estimates that in the days leading up to the High Holy Days, Mayyim Hayyim — which has an annual budget of $1.3 million and 10 staff members — will probably do between 200-250 immersions for people who are looking for spiritual cleansing.

The mikveh has its origins in biblical concepts of purity, in which people who become tameh (roughly translated to impure in English) through certain bodily functions, encounters with dead bodies or after performing certain priestly rituals immerse themselves in “living water,” a natural spring of some kind. After the destruction of the temples, mikvehs became primarily used by women around their menstrual cycles, including brides going to the mikveh before their wedding, and for conversions to Judaism. In some communities, men also continued to go to a mikveh before significant events – their wedding, the brit milah of their son, major holidays or before visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – and in some Hasidic communities, men go to the mikveh every day or every week before Shabbat. 

Mayyim Hayyim emerged from a need in the Boston Jewish community, Childers explains. In 2001, the only local option for people who were converting to Judaism was an Orthodox mikveh with minimal capacity for non-Orthodox conversions. Writer Anita Diamant, author of the novel The Red Tent, had the idea to create a beautiful, vibrant, inclusive mikveh space, Childers said. Diamant assembled a small, dynamic founding board and hired Aliza Kline as Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. In raising funds for its launch, the mikveh’s board and executive director launched a campaign to educate as well as to fundraise; in 2004, the facility opened in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass., with two mikva’ot – immersion pools – four preparation suites, and a reception area. The facility is also home to the Paula Brody & Family Education Center, which contains an event hall and art gallery.

Mayyim Hayyim mikveh and education center in Newton, Mass.

The education center — also attached to the mikveh — enables Mayyim Hayyim to work with clergy and scholars to consider other ritual practices that can be incorporated with mikveh. Childers said these rituals include emerging programs for girls and gender expansive people who are approaching the age of mitzvot that might include learning with the parents and then an immersion at the end of that. “It’s taking things that are already part of Jewish practice, and adding another ritual element that deepens and enhances meaning for them,” she said.

Funding for the mikveh today comes from a variety of sources, a combination of individual donors, foundations and fees-for-service. Additional support comes from a matching grant from Project Accelerate and a significant grant from Upstart, as well as significant institutional funders including Aviv Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the Miriam Fund and an anonymous major donor.

Kline served until 2012, when she left to found Shabbat dinner initiative OneTable and Carrie Bornstein became executive director. In 2013, a small group of existing and new supporters came together to “evaporate” the existing mortgage — a slang term for paying off a mortgage that is particularly apt in the context of a community mikveh — in favor of community ownership. In 2021, Bornstein became CEO and Mayyim Hayyim became a national organization. 

Childers succeeds Bornstein after local community roles including executive director at Our Bodies Ourselves and assistant director at UCLA’s Streisand Center for the Study of Women, as well as a stint at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

“Julie brings an impressive set of skills and a growth-mindset to Mayyim Hayyim, along with unique perspectives as a Jew-by-choice and a lesbian,” Jordan Namerow, who co-chaired Mayyim Hayyim’s CEO search committee and serves on its board of directors, told eJP. “Representation matters, especially in relation to rituals that have been historically oppressive to people on the margins of Jewish life. Mayyim Hayyim has always stretched the boundaries of what’s possible, with a posture of openness, inclusivity, and joy.”

Jewish pluralism is central to Mayyim Hayyim’s work, Childers said. “We’re here for the entire Jewish community of Boston,” she said “We’re reaching out to grandparents and parents of kids who are in preschool and early elementary school to come and learn about mikveh in a totally age-appropriate way. I love that this generation of people and progressive Jewish communities will grow up with a knowledge of what mikveh is. And I hope it inspires them to deeper and more meaningful connections and the Jewish community.”

A new project with PJ Library centers on a book reading, song session, play and introduction to the mikveh centering on Yonah and the Mikveh Fish, a children’s book by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David. 

Mayyim Hayyim has also collaborated on projects with queer yeshiva Svara and worked with Keshet to welcome and celebrate Jews who are going through gender transition. Childers called such rituals, which incorporate naming as integral to the transition, “a beautiful moment for trans Jews.”

Mayyim Hayyim is also in year two of “Let Justice Well Up,” an initiative by and for Jewish women of color including education, storytelling and ritual creation, to provide a sense of welcome, empowerment, connection, healing and support within the Jewish community.

Like many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic provided Mayyim Hayyim with an opportunity to develop robust online offerings: the organization offers sessions for Jewish professionals, partnerships with educators and training Jewish clergy about “how to integrate mikveh and other other water rituals, like handwashing, into their rabbinic practice,” Childers added.

Yet she said that in-person experiences were more needed than ever. “We’re still emerging from this trauma of COVID,” the new CEO said. “People need real, in-person, lived bodily experiences. Mikveh brings you to a particular kind of focus, and awareness of the moments that we don’t get in so many places. It’s a way for people to reconnect Jewishly to themselves and to community… renewing this practice for people can help them feel connected, and find places where they belong.”