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Toronto’s Reform mikvah gets a decorative facelift

Mural by Sara Bates
The Reform Mikvah of Greater Toronto was redecorated with murals by artist Sara Bates.

Many non-Orthodox Jews think that immersion in the mikvah is an old-fashioned or misogynistic ritual, but they’re increasingly using it in non-traditional spiritual ways, says Robin Leszner, an educator at Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El and co-chair of the Reform Mikvah of Greater Toronto.

The mikvah, which for roughly 20 years has been the only one in the city accessible to the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other liberal Jewish communities, recently underwent what the non-profit facility’s governing board is calling an “artistic beautification.”

In July, the walls of the mikvah, which is housed at the Thornhill campus of Leo Baeck Day School, were painted with colourful murals created by Newmarket-based artist Sara Bates.

“We felt our room was a little sterile-looking before… and we thought it would be nice to have something on the walls,” explained Leszner, who has also acted as a mikvah shomeret, or guide, for the past 15 years, explained.

In addition to the murals’ symbolic meanings – one wall bears a painting of a window overlooking the sea, a nod to water’s transformative powers, and a pomegranate tree, traditionally a symbol of fertility, blooming in the foreground – the art is part of an effort to make the space more welcoming.

“I would say there are more people seeking a Jewish and/or spiritual way to mark the transitions in their lives, and over the past decades, we’ve been able to meet those needs through personalized [immersion] services,” Leszner said.

The not-for-profit mikvah receives financial support from all the Reform synagogues in the Greater Toronto Area. It was originally established to facilitate non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

While in Orthodox Judaism the mikvah is commonly used to mark a conversion or by married women after their menstrual cycles in keeping with the laws of ritual purity, the Reform mikvah has been reimagined as a place for women and men to celebrate different life-cycle events, to seek comfort after the death of a loved one, or simply to have a meaningful spiritual experience.

Leszner said she often accompanies people to the mikvah to mark occasions such as weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs, recovery from an illness or in the aftermath of a traumatic event, such as a divorce, miscarriage or other personal loss.

But she also noted that some non-Orthodox men and women choose to immerse themselves for the more traditional purpose of abiding by the rules of family purity.

She and the other eight guides – all but one are women – ensure that the immersion is kosher, but they also make an effort to create a personalized service.

“We might read poetry, play music or sing… When we do the immersion, we’ll often turn off the lights and light candles.”

The decorative murals are meant to reflect that “we are very much rooted in Jewish tradition and connected to the land of Israel, but also very open and inclusive,” Leszner added, explaining that the walls are painted to look like Jerusalem stone and one wall depicts a fresh spring –  “kind of an Anne Geddes look” – that’s painted to look like it’s emptying into the mikvah itself.

Another wall shows a tallit, which represents tradition as well as a sense of safety and envelopment. “Also, the tallit is gender-neutral,” Leszner said, noting that same-sex couples and people who identify as LGBTQ are welcome to mark their life-cycle events at the mikvah.

“The Reform mikvah has always welcomed creative uses of the mikvah. Through the years, that has not changed,” said Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, spiritual leader at City Shul and the rabbinical consultant to the board that governs the facility.

A large part of its appeal is that it lets people across the religious spectrum bring Judaism into their lives in different ways, Leszner said. “There seems to be an increased awareness of a need for spirituality, for healing through different modes. We’re seeing that people are looking for alternative ways of marking their Jewish selves.”