During my first congregational rabbinate, in Union, N.J., from 1987-1991, I was permitted to oversee a conversion to Judaism at a nearby mikvah, which was housed in an Orthodox girls’ yeshiva. The rabbi of the yeshiva easily allowed me to oversee a conversion there as long as I did not reference his name on the conversion documents. Later on, from 1991-2000, I served a congregation in Wantagh, N.Y., where the nearest community mikvahs from where I lived were a 45-minute drive away. Rabbis from all the major streams of Judaism were allowed to oversee conversions there.
Around that time, an Orthodox rabbi from the next town over came to me with a vision. He wanted to establish a local community mikvah. I asked him how he felt about Conservative and Reform rabbis being permitted to oversee conversions in the same place as the Orthodox community. He was more than fine with the idea – his only concern was with the tangible kashrut of the ritual bath itself – and agreed that a mikvah should be for the entire community, including the diversity of the rabbinate.
‘Will community organizers planning the new community centre on Bathurst Street near Sheppard Avenue consider adding a mikvah for all Jews to use?’
Mikvahs are used by women on a monthly basis, pious men before Sabbaths and holy days, and men and women – as well as boys and girls – when they convert to Judaism. More recently, the mikvah has also evolved to become a spiritual place of healing for those who have suffered various forms of personal abuse. In Jewish law, the mikvah is the very first institution any Jewish community is tasked to establish.
When I came to the Greater Toronto Area in 2000 to serve at Beth Emeth, a traditional Conservative synagogue, I marveled at the number of mikvahs located in such a small proximity. But at the same time, I also lament the fact that, when it comes to mikvahs, the community spirit I witnessed in the Wantagh area that allowed various denominations to share the use of one mikvah with each other, appears to be lacking in Toronto.
A few years ago, I was disappointed when the Jewish community centre in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto and home to a sizeable number of Jewish families, did not consider building a mikvah for the community on its premises. Now, with the recent announcement that the Leo Baeck Day School will be moving from its current home – in a building that houses a community mikvah used by local Reform and Conservative rabbis to oversee conversions to Judaism – my concern for our community has reached a new level. Where will we oversee conversions if the mikvah is forced to vacate the premises? Will community organizers planning the new midtown Toronto community centre on Bathurst Street near Sheppard Avenue consider adding a mikvah for all Jews to use?
As a child, I watched as my father, an architect and construction engineer, designed and oversaw the building of a mikvah used to this very day by the Jewish community in Boston, Mass., and the nearby Jewish communities in Brookline and Brighton. Later on, as a rabbi, I had the occasion to oversee a Jewish conversion ceremony at the very same mikvah. I am proud to say that the rabbinate of each major stream of Judaism has always been allowed to oversee its conversions at the mikvah my father helped to establish.
So I challenge and implore Toronto’s established mikvahs to expand their horizons to the diversity of rabbinates here. It’s time for us to have a true community mikvah. Let’s make it happen.
Rabbi Howard Morrison is the senior rabbi at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue in Toronto.