Reflections on Hillel, the High Holidays, and (not) Hoping

Mayyim HayyimBy Leah Wittenberg

Last Monday, I woke up startled, breathing quickly and heavily. I had just experienced the oddest nightmare: Tufts Hillel was being shut down.

I couldn’t tell you the exact reason why Hillel was closing, but I remember my panic clearly. I felt anxious and I was in tears as I cried, “I need Hillel!” to anyone who would listen.

Hillel has essentially facilitated my Jewish journey these past few years – it’s given me incredible leadership opportunities including my position as Religious VP this upcoming year, a trip to Israel that challenged my views about Judaism, a strong support network of peers, mentors who have helped me grow, and most recently, it led me to my internship at Mayyim Hayyim.

As this summer comes to a close, so does my internship, and I have now known about the organization for over a year, yet I have never immersed. I’ve been waiting for the right moment. I don’t want to immerse for no reason and regret the decision.

After my “nightmare,” I simultaneously came to two conclusions:

  1. I yearned for an opportunity to share my experience this summer with my fellow executive board members at Hillel.
  2. What better way to prepare myself spiritually and immerse for the first time than in preparation for the High Holidays?

So in September, the student executive board of Hillel (four of my peers as deeply committed to Judaism and Hillel as I am) will travel to Mayyim Hayyim together. Not everyone will immerse, but we will all be given the opportunity.

I’m nervous about my own immersion. I know I shouldn’t be – I’m well acquainted with Mayyim Hayyim and in theory I know literally every step I will take in the process of immersion; yet it still terrifies me. I’ll be completely unguarded in the water. I’ll be naked! And even aside from the vulnerability of the experience, I have other qualms…

I’ve imagined myself immersing over and over in my head. I feel so much pressure – I’m scared that I won’t feel as connected to the ritual as I’ve been imagining.

However, my attitude about immersion changed after I ran into Leeann, a Mikveh Guide, in the parking lot of Mayyim Hayyim last week. She asked me if I’d ever immersed, and I immediately explained my upcoming plans and my anxiety surrounding it. She countered with two insightful comments:

  1. Don’t set any expectations. If you’re not expecting anything, then you can’t be disappointed after.
  2. I immerse just because I can. We have this amazing resource right here and we’re so lucky for that. When I immerse, I simply take time for myself.

It occurred to me that even after an entire summer spent at Mayyim Hayyim, my definition of mikveh was still too narrow. “It’s about all life transitions, not just conversions and niddah, monthly immersion,” I would always say when I explained it to others. Yet this definition was still starkly lacking. There is no reason why mikveh can’t also be a sacred time to be alone, to simply have the opportunity to slow down and take a breath.

After our conversation, I decided that maybe I shouldn’t be so nervous. I’m still planning to immerse in preparation for the High Holidays, and I will still have the opportunity to teach my friends from Hillel about Mayyim Hayyim. But now, I will be entering the water with an open mind. Above all else, this seems to be the logical next step on my Jewish journey, and I’m sure there will be many, many more.

Leah Wittenberg participated in the Aliza Kline Internship for Jewish Professional Leadership at Mayyim Hayyim through the JVS/CJP Emerging Jewish Leaders Internship in Memory of Bradley M. Jacobs. This fall, she will be moving from strength to strength as she takes on the position of Vice President of Religious Programming at Tufts Hillel. Her musings on Judaism can also be found at

cross-posted on the Mayyim Hayyim Blog