Visiting the mikveh following father’s death

Woman finds connections to ancient traditions

(JTA) – Susan Esther Barnes had had a rough two years. Her father’s death in April 2011 came as a shock; she hadn’t even known he had been hospitalized. And his widow’s leaving town for a week complicated plans for his funeral and burial.

As executor of his will, Barnes discovered that the money in bank accounts that were to go to her and her sister had been transferred to someone else.

All in all, it was an extraordinarily difficult ordeal, said Barnes, who wrote about the experience on her Religious and Reform blog.

When she received a letter in May telling her that her duties as executor were completed, the Novato, Calif., resident was relieved.

“It felt like such a point of transition,” Barnes, a consultant for public agencies, told JTA. “When I got that letter, I wanted to mark the occasion.”

The mikveh sprang to mind.

The daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Barnes had converted to Judaism about two decades ago but had never dipped in the ritual waters. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t really something that came up in Reform conversions,” she says.

Nor had she visited the mikveh when her rabbi suggested it before her Jewish wedding in 2008 (she and her husband were married civilly in 2003).

“I don’t want some stranger seeing me naked,” Barnes, 49, remembers thinking.

But her rabbi, Michael Lezak of Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Calif., often encourages people who are facing a transition or a traumatic time to visit the mikveh. It helps them “to realize they’re not alone, that the Holy One walks them into the water,” Lezak said. “The water has transformational power.”

Lezak accompanied her to a mikveh in San Francisco on July 19. Standing behind a slightly ajar door, Lezak talked to her prior to each blessing that accompanied her three immersions into the water.

He reminded her of their congregational visit to Israel, where they saw the mikveh at Masada, telling her she was connected to thousands of years of history. He emphasized that she was doing the conversion blessing solely for herself, since she was “already unquestionably Jewish.” He also asked her “to look at the stairs leading out of the mikveh and to see them as stairs leading to the next chapter of my life.”

The mikvah attendant stood by, declaring “kasher” (kosher) after each dunk.

For Barnes, the immersion marked an end to dealing with the knowledge that she had missed her father’s final days and the ensuing difficulties involving his estate. “There’s definitely a clear line between then and now; I’m whole now.”

“I cried through the whole thing. I didn’t feel sad. It just felt powerful,” she said. “I felt connected to an ancient tradition.”

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