The Eden Center was founded with the goal of enhancing the mikveh experience and connecting it to women’s health and intimacy education. A Jerusalem-based initiative, Eden is working to infuse mikveh with relevance to the lives and challenges of couples today, and to connect women to resources for health and support within the Jewish community. The following is an interview with its founder and director, Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet.
Naomi, how did this organization get started?
The Eden Center was started as a result of 20 years of research in which I interviewed hundreds of women about their experiences with mikveh and taharat hamishpacha. I learned that in the private and vulnerable moments in the mikveh a woman is confronted by issues that arise in the course of life: hopes and challenges with regard to fertility and miscarriage, illness, issues in intimacy or changes in her body that affect her self-image or her marital relationship. Over and over I heard women’s pleas that the mikveh (or mikveh attendants) be able to hold those moments. It was obvious that if we were able to recognize and address those concerns, the mikveh could be an empowering resource, rather than just a place to go out of necessity. I am proud that The Eden Center has become an organization playing a pivotal role in elevating the mikveh experience worldwide.
How are you transforming mikveh?
In the short term, our educational programming is aimed at allowing mikveh immersion to be a positive and sensitive experience for all women, raising awareness to abuse and crisis interventions, and increasing knowledge about intimacy and women’s health. Our long-term goal is to build a mikveh-women’s center in Jerusalem in this paradigm as a model for communities around the world.
Eden’s flagship program is a training program for mikveh attendants. We recognize that a well-trained attendant can make all the difference in a woman’s immersion. Our goal is to help them support and better relate to women coming to the mikveh. Be it women struggling with illness, OCD, fear of water, abuse, or just a regular woman who needs to immerse. In our courses, attendants learn to recognize red lights and to refer women to local resources. Mikveh is a very vulnerable moment and when an attendant has the right training, the experience can be transformative, spiritual and positive.
We also educate chatan and kallah teachers in a very holistic manner so couples are equipped from a young age with tools for a healthy intimate and mikveh life. Additionally, we do a lot of community programming for different life stages—early marriage, birth or infertility, after surgeries, divorce and at menopause, speaking to children about intimacy, and so on—so that the mikveh can be a source of knowledge, healing or joy. We have courses in Israel and publish blogs weekly on our website that resonate with women worldwide.
Our vision to build a Jerusalem mikveh that doubles as a women’s health and education center will serve as a model for communities worldwide. Mikveh can be more than a place to simply immerse—it can also be a wonderful way for women to connect to their bodies, souls and spouses.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your work?
Thus far, we have trained 200 mikveh attendants in nine cities in Israel and in Los Angeles. They reach over 60,000 women. But, obviously, the numbers don’t feel as strong as the stories from mikveh attendants and individual women who feel that their experience has been elevated. There are women with OCD who have gotten help so that their preparation doesn’t take them six hours; there are women who realized they have a chlorine allergy and are now able to go without feeling sick for days after; brides who have been helped overcome their fear of water. There are women who feel supported in an immersion post mastectomy or in their immersion in the midst of fertility treatments—making the experience literally transformative. We have changed the way mikveh night is experienced by so many women whom I spoke to in my research—so that it can be a night where so many more women feel that it is special and uplifting.
There was debate about mikveh in the Israeli Knesset last year. What was that about?
Some women want to immerse without an attendant; some have been harassed by attendants and some simply want that spiritual moment completely to themselves. The religious councils weren’t allowing them to immerse alone, but the Supreme Court ruled that the public mikvaot cannot enforce any one religious ruling or insist upon “forced” supervision. The idea that a woman’s mikveh experience is her own and she should be able to mold it in accordance with her wishes is one that I identify with.
What are some practical suggestions you have for women to make their mikveh experience better?
Firstly, be present. Besides the traditional physical preparations, take some time to reflect on yourself, your marriage and your connection with God. The more you are “there,” the more you can enjoy and personalize your immersion. On our website we have tefillot and practical guides that can help you direct your thoughts before or during immersion. Secondly, find someone with whom you feel comfortable to ask questions and talk. While I value the privacy of mikveh, dialogue can be important in enhancing not only your own experience but also knowing how to share the important aspects of mikveh with the next generation.
Thirdly, work with other women in the community to think about what can be done to enhance mikveh for everyone. Make a list of what you like and don’t about your experience and see which of those are practically alterable—the physical mikveh, ways the attendant can help women, resources that are available in your community, classes you would like, etc. Broadening your discussion creates a healthy dialogue so that the mikveh can serve different women more fully.
The Eden Center is excited to invite those visiting Israel on January 26 to join us for a half day of hiking, cave-crawling and Torah. Experience the excitement of exploring the Land of Israel, re-enacting Biblical scenes where David and Goliath fought, and learn the historical significance of mikveh at an ancient archaeological mikveh site. This family-geared day will include age-appropriate activities for children/teens, fun and touring with licensed guide Esti Herskowitz, and a shiur for adults by Shani Taragin. Email [email protected] for more information on the hike.