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The Mikvah: Modern Women Embracing Biblical Ritual

More than 3,000 years ago Jewish men and women went to mikvahs and immersed themselves in collected rain water - a ceremony they did to be pure for rituals. Today, this rite is mandated only for women. But for decades many women elected not to go to mikvahs, saying the ritual was degrading. But that has begun to change. A Central Ohio Jewish woman who goes every month explains what the experience means to her.

In Biblical times if a Jewish man wanted to offer a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem he had to be tahor, or ritually pure. So he would go to a mikvah and immerse himself in "living water", or rain water sent from God. Women also used mikvahs. Married women went each month following their menstrual cycles to be able to resume sexual contact with their husbands.

Today, without the Temple in Jerusalem, it is no longer a commandment for men to have to use mikvahs. It is merely a custom for them. But for women, mikvahs are still mandatory.

The mikvah in Columbus looks like a small square soaking tub one might see in an athletic club. It's filled mostly with tap water, but a pipe allows rain water to mingle with the tap water, making it what Jews call living water. Tova Hauser, an Orthodox Jew in Columbus, is a volunteer at the mikvah.

"When you go into the mikvah, there is a blessing, a brokhe, that you say. And almost every mikvah I've ever seen has that available to you, very large, so people who wear glasses can see it without their glasses. So you go in and you immerse yourself and then you say this brokhe which makes the whole experience, the experience it needs to be," Hauser said.

Before entering the mikvah, women go through a tedious process to get ready. They have to take a bath and a shower, wash and comb their hair, brush and floss their teeth and clip their nails.

Over the years many Jewish women, particularly more liberal ones, have rejected the ritual - saying it suggests women are dirty. But Hauser, who goes to the mikvah every month, disagrees.

"As women become more educated about the use they embrace it because it is really a way of life. And it doesn't degrade women, it doesn't say that women are unclean or clean, it has nothing to do with your physical state. It actually brings women up, it holds them to a higher standard," Hauser said.

Married women still in their child-bearing years go to the mikvah 12 to 14 days after the beginning of menstruation. But during those couple of weeks all physical contact is prohibited between husband and wife. Hauser said the separation brings the couple closer together.

"The relationship between them has to deepen; they have to have more than a physical relationship in order to sustain that time. It can be a very long 14 days. But at the end of that 14 days it's a honeymoon all over again. It brings the sexual relationship to a much higher level than a mere physical level," Hauser said.

Hauser calls the day she goes to the mikvah date night, and said her husband is at her beck and call.

"The day that I'm going to the mikvah there is nothing my husband won't do for me, in order to make it easier. So that I can be there on time, so that I can do everything I need to do. That's the night that he'll do the dishes and put the kids to bed," Hauser said.

The mikvah in Columbus was established thirty years ago. Thea Press has been running it since it first opened and asked that the location be kept private. Press said more women are coming to the mikvah since it moved from its old location.

"When the mikvah was on East Livingston Avenue there were maybe 20, 25 people coming. But now it's growing," Press said.

Press credits a growing population and increased education to more mikvah use.

"I think the population has grown, the Orthodox population has grown. And people have studied and become educated that it's a good thing." Press said.

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