Affirmation Mikvah: A Ritual for Anyone

Growing up, there was little I hated more than being told I was “half” Jewish. True, I had one Jewish parent. My mom was raised Lutheran and never converted, but was committed to creating a Jewish home with my dad. Religiously I had no other “half”.  The four of us (my mom, brother and I) went to services and had Shabbat dinner every week, often with my Jewish grandparents. My mom drove me to Hebrew school and baked challah and was for all intents and purposes an excellent Jewish mother (perhaps with a little less inherited trauma).

Sure, being from an interfaith marriage had its tensions — Christmas was the main time of year that my Norwegian Lutheran family gathered, and I struggled for many years to relate to it without shame or resentment. There were things my mom didn’t understand, and she didn’t share the need I had for Shabbat ritual when we traveled. But she listened, she loved me, and she supported my Jewish life in every way. And Judaism was, as my parents hoped, of the deepest importance to me.

When I was fourteen, I felt closer to Judaism than ever. I had spent three summers at a Conservative Jewish summer camp and found the level of connection to tradition and the amount of Hebrew in prayer deeply nourishing. Many of my camp friends participated in the Conservative youth group, and I eagerly applied to join them at a weekend retreat that fall. Where the application asked for my parents’ Hebrew names, I answered without a second thought: Father - Pinchas. Mother - Not Jewish.

A week or two later I received a letter in the mail, but it was not the acceptance and retreat details I hoped for. Instead, the letter explained that if I wanted to attend the retreat, I would need to visit the mikvah to become a halakhic Jew. I stared at the letter in disbelief. What was a mikvah? And wasn’t I already a Jew? 

That was the first moment I learned that, because my mother wasn’t officially Jewish, my Judaism was not recognized by a large portion of my community. I was devastated. I felt betrayed both by the Jewish people and by my parents who never prepared me for this situation. I decided I didn’t want to be part of a community that didn’t think I was enough as I was.

The irony of it all is that my parents did take my older brother to the Orthodox mikvah (ritual bath) as a baby, and he has been a Jew according to halakha since that day. And while he wants little to nothing to do with Judaism, even at the age of fourteen my congregation recognized my passion and leadership and speculated that I would become a rabbi. Why did I have to prove myself to be included?

Years passed before I could share about the experience without tears, but it inspired me to seek out different movements of Judaism that could offer both the depth of connection to tradition as well as the inclusive nature of my Reform upbringing.

All that seeking eventually led me to the Jewish Renewal movement, and to California to immerse in it. It was there in Northern California that I experienced my first mikvah — in a waterfall with my friends and mentor in feminist, earth-based Jewish ritual leadership. It had nothing to do with conversion. It had everything to do with the power of water and ritual to cleanse and renew, and mikvah quickly became a regular part of my life as I marked big and small moments in rivers, lakes and the ocean.

A couple years later, I had been ordained as a feminist Jewish ritual leader through Kohenet and I found myself teaching at a Conservative synagogue. My supervisor suggested that I read from the Torah at Shabbat services as a way to relearn the trope I would teach the b’nai mitzvah students. The Torah portion was Beshallach, the crossing of the sea — my brother’s and my dad’s Bar Mitzvah portions. I had my verses down and loved the way they felt on my tongue. But as beautiful as my chanting sounded, was I sneaking into a place I didn’t belong? 

I hoped that things might be different here in California, over a decade after my first experience of rejection. They weren’t: the policy remained “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Because I had divulged the information, the rabbi could not let me read Torah at her congregation even as an educator in their b’nai mitzvah program. But she sat with me and told me what the mikvah ritual could look like — not a conversion to Judaism, but an affirmation of it. It didn’t have to be at an official indoor mikvah — all I needed were three Jewish witnesses with no blood relation, natural flowing waters that support full immersion, and an intention to affirm my Judaism.

I had been so clear as a teenager that I would refuse to entertain the idea that I was “impure” or “less than” and needed to make myself acceptable through this ritual, but now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe there was a way to do this with dignity. After some wrestling, I put it out of my mind and six months later it just… happened. I was at the Pacific Ocean for a mikvah during the Days of Awe / yamim nora’im with three Jewish friends I wasn’t related to. I had a bouquet of roses* as an offering, and as we began sharing our intentions with one another, I realized this was my opportunity.

I waded into the cool water and one by one I offered a rose for each of my 4 lineages and spoke as many ancestors’ names as I could recall, thanking them for being part of my story. I didn’t want to erase anyone in order to claim another part. All of them made me; I am because of each of them. When I finished, I affirmed in front of my witnesses, “I am committed to queer diasporist Jewish futures!” I immersed three times, said the bracha/blessing for immersion, and my friends poured the fallen rose petals over my body as they mirrored back my intention. I shuddered with laughter and cold and power. I felt whole.

I believe that an affirmation ritual is something all Jewish adults should consider. In a time where many young people drop off from Jewish life after their b’nai mitzvah, or choose to return to an ancestral tradition they were raised without, it is a choice to be Jewish even if we were born into it. This can be a powerful ritual for anyone ready to say, “Hineini/Here I am” and claim their place in the ever-changing, deeply-rooted Jewish tradition. 

And my hope and blessing to all those who take this path? You don’t need to erase anything about yourself to claim it.

*Note: My intention with offering roses was to honor the land, the waters, and spirit with a plant that was meaningful for me. I understand now that spreading flower petals from non-native plants, often sprayed with pesticides, is not in the interest of ecosystem health. I would encourage those crafting this ritual to consider what offerings would be both meaningful for them to make and in the interest of the surrounding environment. Examples include burning sacred plants with care and supervision, offering native plants and seeds, arranging found objects such as stones and fallen leaves into an art offering, or offering song.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Affirmation Mikvah: A Ritual for Anyone
Riv Shapiro
Riv Shapiro

Riv Shapiro (they/them) is a queer mixed-lineage Ashkenazi multi-modal artist, educator and Kohenet. They delight in birds, being in water, and building rad community. Riv makes home as a 5th generation guest on Dakota land, where they serve as the Minnesota JCC's Arts & Culture Producer. Learn more and connect at rivshapiro.com and @kohenet.riv.

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