While ceremonial mikvah immersion may most often be thought of as a private and solitary sacred ritual, more women, and even men, are choosing to share their pre-wedding mikvah ritual with a group of family and friends to mark their very special life transition.
At The Soul Center at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave., managing director Rachel Siegal said the community mikvah has seen an uptick in brides and grooms choosing to have group gatherings to mark their wedding and mikvah ritual.
Traditionally, a bride and/or groom will visit a mikvah within the four days before the wedding, but many set their celebration for the night before the wedding.
Beth El’s mikvah was renovated in 2016 as part of the construction of The Alvin & Lois Lapidus Center for Healing and Spirituality, also known as the Soul Center at Beth El Congregation. The mikvah now includes a gathering area/ritual space for people who want to include others in their ceremony. Soul Center founder Rabbi Dana Saroken told the JT last year that the ritual bath was in high demand from those wanting to mark important events and transitions, from weddings and conversions to emerging from difficult challenges such as cancer treatment or divorce.
“We say that the waters go back to the Garden of Eden,” Saroken said. “So it’s a beautiful thing to be able to bring yourself down into those waters, to feel held by God and to recognize the potential for change and growth and a new beginning — that process of emerging again.”
The center has a dozen mikvah guides from many walks of life to help people develop the pre-wedding ritual that best fits their needs.
For brides and grooms, Siegal said there are more pre-wedding mikvah ritual gatherings, but they range in size from intimate to larger groups.
“That’s really a particular that’s up to the individual bride or groom. Some of them want their entire bridal party and some just want their mom; some want a sister and some just want to come by themselves,” Siegal said. “That’s really just a personal preference.”
Brides and grooms can also personalize their celebration according to their own family or cultural traditions, with food and drink, while the center’s smart TV can play music and videos. Beyond the immediate mikvah gathering area, The Soul Center offers a comfy living-room type setting and a large dining/activity area with a kitchen.
“We can even offer catering options, if you wanted to have a small celebration afterward,” Siegal said. “In the Sephardic Jewish tradition there are actually specific foods that you eat when you go to the mikvah the night before your wedding, such as almonds and raisins, which are supposed to symbolize sweetness. And there is a specific type of cookie, too. So there are a lot of symbolic foods and there is also a tradition of having challah at that time.”
Siegal said The Soul Center can accommodate those kinds of requests for a mikvah ritual celebration, and “really make it festive.”
“Some people bring champagne and celebrate,” she said. “So there are catering options as well as just the comfort of having an expanded space to sit in while the bride or groom is using the mikvah. It’s a warm and welcoming space.”
The Baltimore-Washington area offers a number of mikvahs, including many in the Park Heights corridor, such as Agudath Israel Mikvah (for Keilim), Machzikei Torah Congregation, Mei Menachem Community Mikvah, Mikvah of Baltimore, Inc. and at Shearith Israel.
At Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington, D.C., 2850 Quebec St. NW, mikvah director Naomi Malka said there has been a long tradition of brides coming to the mikvah with female family members and grooms going with male family members, but larger gatherings are becoming more common.
“We have a waiting area outside the mikvah itself, where somebody can choose whatever kind of gathering feels appropriate for them,” Malka said. “Sometimes the bride will come with her mother and her sisters, or cousins, or aunts, grandmothers.”
As at The Soul Center, the gathering may include food and drink, music, readings and blessings.
“Sometimes they’ll bring juice or champagne or wine to make a l’chaim. Sometimes they’ll bring some sweets,” Malka said. “Sometimes they’ll throw candy at her when she comes out again. I’ve also seen very meaningful conversation where the older family members are giving advice about marriage and the wedding itself to the bride, which is really lovely. Likewise, for grooms, groups will come with brothers or cousins, dads, fathers-in-law, grandfathers, uncles, where they have even brought drums and made like a little drumming circle in the outer room and made l’chaims.”
Meanwhile, women and men are marking other transitional moments in their lives with a mikvah immersion gathering. But, be it pre-wedding mikvah rituals or marking other events, taking time to mark an important life transition with a mikvah gathering can be meaningful for everyone involved.
“Taking a little time to focus on the past and setting an intention toward the future can be really powerful,” Malka said. “I think this Jewish ritual, in lots and lots of transitional moments, is a really powerful one.”
For a directory of mikvahs, visit mikvah.org/directory.