By Ilan Preskovsky
So important is the establishment of a mikvah (a ritual bath) in Judaism that our great Sage, the Chofetz Chaim, said, “The building of a mikvah takes precedence over the building of a shul, the buying of a sefer Torah, and all other commandments” in any Jewish community. The laws of family purity, for which the mikvah plays a essential role, are rather complicated, but so elemental is the building of a mikvah that any Jewish community without one can be said to be lacking its very soul.
With this in mind, the not-for-profit organisation, Mikvah USA, has stepped up to ensure that every Jewish community in the United States that wants it, has its own mikvah – and, considering the sheer size of the US (by far the largest community outside of Israel at over five million) and diversity of American Jewry, that’s no small undertaking. The organization has, so far, helped with the construction of some fifty mikvaos throughout the US. Although they generally work with smaller Jewish communities, they have also helped with the construction of mikvaos in such major American cities as Philadelphia, which was in need of a mikvah in its North Eastern suburbs.
Founded by a group of like-minded Rabbis, who saw a lack in many Jewish communities and made it their mission to correct it, Mikvah USA boasts a very straightforward raison d’etre – though its work is often anything but simple. As Rabbi Baruch Cywiak, Director of Special Projects, puts it, “Once the Mikvah USA committee approves the plan for a mikvah [after being approached by the heads of the town’s Jewish community to help build one], we are part of the process right until the mikvah is up and running – including fund raising, overseeing construction, working with contractors, and ensuring that all halachic requirements are met.” Beyond the physical construction of the mikvah, the organization also takes on certain “spiritual” responsibilities, such as offering free classes to explain both the value and the intricate details of the laws of family purity and using a mikvah.
To get a good understanding of the work that Mikvah USA does, one need only look at one of their most recently completed projects for the up-and-coming Jewish community in the northwest Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. In conjunction with his establishing the only Torah day school in the area, Rabbi Shimon Zehnwirth sought to build a mikvah to service Buffalo Grove and the surrounding suburbs. To actualise this dream and get things off the ground, he reached out to Mikvah USA to help with the massive financial, practical, and halachic requirements involved.
Over the past five years, Mikvah USA had to deal with a number of issues that cropped up and made this particular mikvah even more of a challenge to establish than usual. First, as the community was also establishing a school, their funds were significantly strained, so along with the typical funds that Mikvah USA would supply, they also had to help the community with fund raisers to ensure that the community’s portion of the cost would be covered. Meanwhile, the actual construction was something of a logistical nightmare in part due to difficulties that arose with the contractor (as often occurs with building projects). Enter Mikvah USA, in the form of Rabbi Cywiak, who flew in from New York to renegotiate with the contractor and get the project moving again. It’s because of that kind of commitment that Buffalo Grove now has its very own state-of-the-art mikvah.
Rabbi Cywiak, though, sees such successes as more than just the creation of the mikvaos themselves, but about what can be achieved through the will and generosity of ordinary people. After all, Mikvah USA is run purely off donations and relies on word-of-mouth for its outreach and on the communities themselves helping out to reach their goals. It’s a fine lesson about goal-reaching that can be applied anywhere.
For more information, visit www.mikvahusa.org