In Winter 2020, I focused five intensive weeks on producing a 52-page report (38 pages report, 14 pages appendices) for the director of a national mikvah organization whom I met through my 2018 pilot survey of menstrual practices and attitudes among Jewish women in the Greater Phoenix Valley. This initial connection set up the potential for possible collaboration in developing the community centered goals and strategies for my full dissertation research project. This winter 2020 report unpacked various aspects of that 2018 pilot survey data that could be useful to their mikvah organization in both explaining certain patterns they had observed but not understood well and for promoting of mikvah immersion beyond Orthodox Jewish communities in the USA and Canada.
I sent this report and emerged from my hyper-focus on March 4th 2020 only to discover the rest of the world had started metaphorically “losing their shit” and trying to ritually ameliorate their intuition of this spiritual state by hoarding toilet paper: the Great Toilet Paper Run was revving up. Ten days later, on the Sunday night ending Spring Break we got the text notification that my son’s school was staying closed and switching over to online crisis-education that would last a full year. (My daughter’s elementary section of her school stayed open throughout 2020 & 2021 except for Arizona’s five-week stay-at-home-order…with less 5 cases, all contracted outside the school.)
As I worked to finalize my prospectus (dissertation research plan), communication with my contact at this mikvah organization fell off as she was navigating the impacts of municipal and state lockdown and stay-at-home orders on mikvaot across the USA, generating massive confusion, disarray, and anxiety. Should a mikvah close or stay open? What safety measures could ensure mikvaot could stay open? This latter question was especially urgent in communities with high rates of Niddah observance where closure also meant an indefinite suspension of marital sex lives…an excruciating situation for couples working through fertility treatments at this time. Conversely, mikvaot which saw their services as optional such as for conversions, b’nei mitzvot, pre/post-surgery, etc… saw indefinite full closure as more viable, less impactful choice for their communities. Additionally, crowded metro areas where a substantial number of mikvaot are located, tended toward advocating their models -safety measures and closures- as the norm for all mikvaot nationwide, regardless of population density, means of traveling to mikvaot, and attendance rates. National mikvah organizations became the nexus of these questions, decision-making, and cross-community power-struggles. No surprise that the director of this organization had no time to continue developing the dissertation research project we had been working on for months prior.
But I also had my own time pressures, and my prospectus could not wait. So, I did my best to finalize a contingent research plan around the key questions and methods we had previously discussed. I defended my prospectus April 22, a month before the annual fundraiser for the mikvah organization’s umbrella organization. Due to continued lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and the early phases of transferring major life events to Zoom, this annual fundraiser was canceled.
I did not learn this until the summer when I felt things might have settled down enough to reconnect with my contact and get the research underway. This cancelled fundraiser apparently had sent this umbrella organization into serious restructuring including the organization I had designed my dissertation research around. Among other things, my contact had left the organization and a new director was in place. I do not know how much this change of leadership reflected the restructuring, fallout over different approaches to COVID and mikvah, and how much it was the former director’s personal circumstances. Ultimately, this question became irrelevant.
The new director was familiar with my proposed research from her work with the umbrella organization but was still in the process of onboarding and building new relationships with the organization’s member mikvaot. So we agreed to reconnect in the fall of 2020 to see if the dust had settled enough to return attention to the research. By October, it hadn’t. With the changing circumstances as the first COVID waves had ended and new COVID waves were beginning to rise, member mikvaot were proving very difficult to connect with. Bandwidth for this research would not become available anytime in the foreseeable future. We agreed I would continue my research without this organization, but I would try to keep the research designed such that the organization could reenter at a later time if circumstances became more favorable. I have recently learned that there is yet another new (3rd) director.
I tried to embrace this break-up as freeing. The prospectus had centered on this organization’s key questions which had been very different from the questions that most interested me from my pilot study. So, 6-months after my prospectus defense, I set about the work of redesigning my project, with a clear set of questions but a more ambiguously defined direction. I adapted my 2018 pilot study to amplify my key question of interest.
One of my dissertation committee members represents the Women’s and Gender Studies aspect of my work. She has been urging (and I agree with her) that I make sure this research stays closely anchored to the real interests of lived communities. Because mikvah and Niddah are both so intensely private, there is a real risk of conducting research that is irrelevant or even harmful to these communities. It is essential for my work to work against this risk. The surest way to ensure this ethical integrity is to work collaboratively with a community or with an organization that is anchored to the interests and needs of one or more communities. My prospectus had been designed around this specifically. With the loss of this prior working relationship, I was adrift, looking for an organization that would find my knowledge set and the kind of research I can do useful and relevant.
Throughout this phase of reconstructing my research, I kept remembering my first conversation I had had with the mikvah organization’s former director back in 2018. At that time, she shared that she was particularly curious about the survey’s question about healing through mikvah immersion because one of their member mikvaot outside the U.S.A. had specifically asked if any hard data existed on healing through mikvah. I did not feel that I had much to offer this member mikvah since the pilot study findings were so small.
Among the respondents to the 2018 pilot survey who had immersed in mikvah (N=26), 18 (69.23%) reported experiencing some form of healing through mikvah (spiritual, emotional, psychological, and/or physical). While 13 (83.33%) of those who reported experiences of healing immersed for Niddah observance, 5 (27.78%) immersed for other reasons, without any Niddah observance. I would need to wait and see if the larger 2021 survey data would support building new organizational relationship in this direction.
Still searching for a research goal and set of questions, I reflected back on some other differences among these immersers who experienced healing in the pilot survey. Their responses as a sub-group, suggested that certain ideas about body, health, and healing might be correlated with these experiences. So, in addition to asking: Are these pilot study findings unique to my corner of the Southwest; or do they reflect a wider national pattern? I also asked how might the differences in attitudes about body, health, and healing observed in the pilot study also reflect patterns across North America? What might these patterns suggest about the potential for mikvah growth across North American Jewry? Because the mikvah organization had member mikvaot in Canada, I decided to include both the United States of America and Canada in the 2021 survey.
I launched an adapted version of the pilot survey on January 1, 2021, circulating the invitation to participate in Jewish identifying Facebook groups and snowballing emails through May 2021. Following a summer hiatus for my son’s bar mitzvah and wrestling with my HOA about how we were going to divide the costs of remediating mold found in two separate parts of our townhome, it wasn’t until fall 2021 that I finally had time to think through what the initial survey results suggested and what direction I could take my research. In this North American study (N=301), 103 (34.22%) respondents stated they had immersed in a mikvah at some point (65 (21.60%) more marked they hadn’t immersed ever but were curious or interested). Among the immersers, 56 (54.37%) marked that they had experienced some form of healing (spiritual, emotional, psychological, and/or physical). So the pilot study findings were part of a more widespread pattern.
I had already planned to conduct interviews among all volunteers from the 2021 survey, not only those who had reported experiences of healing (what do they mean by healed? What were these experiences like?) I need to hear from everyone, both immersers and non-immersers, to compare their views on religion, spirituality, the place of Jewish ritual in everyday life, and ideas about health and healing. So far, the number of survey volunteers -if they follow through with interviewing almost a year after they completed survey should be enough to get a sense of the diversity of views about religion, spirituality, the body, health, and healing, etc… across the US at least. The three major interview challenges currently are:
- Recruiting more Canadians who are proportionally represented among survey respondents, they are underrepresented among survey volunteers for follow-up interviews. If you are Canadian and would like to participate in both the survey and interview, please follow these links to complete the survey and schedule an interview.
- Too few people who answered that they had experienced healing through mikvah volunteered for follow-up interviews to have confidence that the diversity of healing immersion experiences will be represented in these stories of healing. So I am currently inviting new research participants who want to share their stories of healing through immersion with me. If you have experienced any kind of healing through mikvah and would like to share your story, I would love to hear from you. Please follow this link to schedule an interview in Calendly. Also, if you could please share think link with anyone you know who might be interested in sharing their story, please share either the scheduling link or this blog link with them.
- All these numbers and survey data, as yet without any interviews yet fill in the gaps of meaning within the survey questions… it all felt… amorphous and floating above the lived realities my survey tried to connect with. Time to reach out.
I laid out the basic numbers on healing through mikvah from both the 2018 pilot and larger 2021 surveys in my initial email to the director of the Wellspring Project UK. This is an aspiring mikvah organization based in London that is in the process of generating local investment and funding for their innovative mikvah. Their planned mikvah will expand and recenter the open, inclusive mikvah model established by Mayyim Hayyim in Boston. An open, inclusive mikvah is a halachically kosher mikvah open to all Jews regardless of age, marital status, gender, and sexuality for both traditional and new-traditional immersions. The Wellspring Project UK seeks to establish a complementary care center for wellbeing with mikvah at its heart. In addition to operating as an open, inclusive mikvah for the wider Jewish communities in the United Kingdom; mikvah immersion will also be offered alongside complementary therapies for supporting wellbeing such as acupuncture, massage, talk-therapy, etc… With a couple email replies back and forth and a Zoom meeting, our current partnership was born.
The main hurdle we discussed in that first Zoom meeting was the relevance of applying the findings from my North American survey to an aspiring mikvah in the United Kingdom: Will the findings translate from the USA & Canadian contexts to the context of the United Kingdom? To answer this question and build the bridge between these contexts, we are running an adapted version of the 2021 survey in the United Kingdom. From this, we will able to see to what extent and how deeply the patterns observed across communities in the USA and Canada might also be present across Jewish communities in the United Kingdom. This would tell us to what extent the data from the 2021 North American survey, and its subsequent interviews with both immersers and non-immersers may (or may not) translate -and hence be relevant- to the United Kingdom.
If you live in the United Kingdom or Ireland and identify as Jewish in some way or you are a non-Jewish intimate partner of a Jew and would like to learn more and/or participate in this fully anonymous survey, please read the informative consent information on the opening pages of the survey via this link: Survey of Jewish Ritual Living Today in the United Kingdom.
This brings us to where my research currently stands: conducting interviews, seeking new participants in the USA, Canada, and the UK. I welcome your concerns, questions, anxieties, and critiques (and encouragement!) in the comments below or by messaging me through my contact info. Your perspectives and concerns will help me improve my understanding of the information I am collecting and learning from and define boundaries within which I can interpret the data. “Two Jews, three opinions” takes on a whole new value with a research project seeking to keep anchored to the lived interests of diverse Jewish communities.
 Who knew that sitting 10-12+ hours a day hunched over a lap for five weeks could result in a series of visits to a sports medicine chiropractor?!? I do now.
 In case you’re curious about the big gap, my father died in mid-2018 and I had to make several cross-country trips in the following year to help with resettling my mother in new care arrangements while finishing my coursework, preparing for and completing my comprehensive exams. My dissertation committee advised me to focus only on my comps, no research, no writing for publication.
 We regularly get shipments of toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap. This company actually emailed us to see if we really needed our upcoming shipment in late March and if they could redirect out shipment to their new customers in order to meet demand. We took an inventory and sure enough, we could skip the next shipment or two (We don’t come close to using the amount their calculator figures a family of 4 would use!). So, if you were among those who joined Who Gives a Crap in March 2020: You’re welcome!
 Specifically, a groundswell of teachers and parents insisted that public schools be closed then expressed outrage that charter and private schools were allowed to stay open placing those students at an advantage over those whose dominant parents and teachers had insisted upon closure. This secondary anger with their own closure pushed the governor to extend the closure to charter schools but left private schools still in charge of themselves. Hence my son’s school closed for year and the elementary part of my daughter’s school stayed open all but 5 weeks. Their 6-months to 6-year-old classrooms never closed, much to relief of parents in the medical professions! Seriously, a dad who is a doctor at the Mayo clinic whose wife was also a doctor at another in-patient facility and had an 8-month old and an under 6-year-old said he did not know what he and his would have done if the school had fully closed.
 This latter aspect reflects the long-established bubble vision of metro areas being incapable of comprehending that life is radically different outside their own metro.