When Rabbi Benjamin Yudin and his wife, Shevi Yudin, came to Fair Lawn to lead Congregation Shomrei Torah some 50 years ago, building a mikvah — a ritual bath —was a priority for them.
“They actually had pre-planned the mikvah when they built the shul,” said Shira Teichman, president of the Fair Lawn Mikvah Association. “The congregation could not afford to build a mikvah at the time but carved out space in the basement and set up the plumbing, so a mikvah could be installed later.
“It was consistently a goal.”
The mikvah opened in 1990, and the community used it for more than 30 years. It was vitally important, because a woman’s immersion in a mikvah is a cornerstone mitzvah of Orthodox Jewish family life. Women traditionally begin using a mikvah before marriage and continue through their childbearing years.
“There was a small refurbishment about 15 years ago,” Ms. Teichman said. “But in the last few years, it became clear that the mikvah was in dire need of an upgrade on so many levels.”
There’s always a lot of moisture in a mikvah — it’s a pool and preparation rooms, so there’s always a high level of humidity. It was used extensively, so it underwent a lot of wear and tear over more than three decades. The HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems all needed an upgrade.
“Perhaps more importantly, we needed to expand a little bit, and to upgrade the aesthetic feel, to respond to the growing need of the Fair Lawn community,” Ms. Teichman said.
When Shomrei Torah was built, it was the only Orthodox synagogue in town. The Jewish community in Fair Lawn has grown significantly since then, and now there are a number of Orthodox synagogues.
For many years, the responsibility of maintaining the mikvah was born by Shomrei Torah members, since it is housed in the shul’s basement, Ms. Teichman continued. “The mikvah has always been a key focus of the Orthodox community, and, until recent years, the Orthodox community was synonymous with Shomrei Torah,” she said. But “at some point, as the Orthodox community grew, there was a desire to pass the baton, and to share the fiscal responsibility, with the larger Orthodox community.”
So the Fair Lawn Mikvah Association was formed in 2018. “Orthodox families were moving in, and joining the smaller synagogues that have sprung up,” Ms. Teichman said. “Forming the FLMA was a natural outgrowth of the mushrooming of our population.”
The FLMA board is made up of 10 women, two representatives from each of five local Orthodox synagogues — Shomrei Torah, Young Israel of Fair Lawn, Darchei Noam, Ahavat Achim, and Anshei Lubavitch. The community mikvah still is housed in the basement of Shomrei Torah, but the financial responsibility now is shared among the members of the local Orthodox synagogues, with members of each shul paying a $36 annual membership fee to the FLMA.
Nehama Cohen was the founding president of the FLMA. Ms. Teichman is the organization’s third president — she took over from Raizy Harris almost two years ago. She is a member of the Young Israel of Fair Lawn, a relatively small and new synagogue. The more established Shomrei Torah has a membership of approximately 300 families, according to its website.
One of the first orders of business for the FLMA was the much-needed renovation. “I think this upgrade is not just a necessity, but it really is a statement,” Ms. Teichman said. “It’s a statement that Fair Lawn is now a flourishing, vibrant, multifaceted, multi-synagogue Orthodox community. The Shomrei Torah community was always rich in terms of vibrancy and variety, but the Orthodox community has exploded in size, and we needed this expansion.”
In addition to HVAC, electrical, and plumbing upgrades, the renovation included a cosmetic overhaul, and the space, which had three preparation rooms, was reconfigured to allow for a fourth. Operating hours also have been increased to accommodate the growing community. “Women who use the mikvah often put emphasis on the beauty of the mitzvah, and want to feel that the mikvah is a relaxing, safe haven space,” Ms. Teichman said. “Chaya Birnbaum, our project manager, was so detailed, and so thorough, in thinking of everything to make this space a place to welcome people. The finished product is magnificent. It’s clean, it’s white, it’s pale grays, it evokes a sense of purity and holiness. In the basement of a shul, to have such bright white makes the space feel more expansive.
“The space will certainly feel welcoming to everyone — whether they are monthly mikvah goers, women who are hesitant to perform this mitzvah, or women who have never done it before and maybe are looking to begin accessing this arena in their life.
“Shevi poured her heart and soul into building the original mikvah, and it’s so beautiful that we’ve kept the exact same framework,” she continued. “The pool is the exact same concrete; we just gutted the preparation rooms and the areas external to the pool itself. But the pool, and all the holiness that it carries from 34 years of use, is still there, and it is still glowing with holiness. So I really think this project showcases what we have been, and catapults us into the future of Fair Lawn.
“A mikvah should not only be a source of spiritual centrality in the community, it should also be a real source of pride. So we are thrilled to welcome this endeavor.”
The mikvah was closed during the renovation, so the FLMA partnered with the nearby Paramus mikvah. “We are extremely grateful to the Paramus community,” Ms. Teichman said. “They added extra hours to accommodate our community and employed our attendants during those hours.”
Most of the necessary funds for the renovation were raised in 2020. The project took about a year to complete. Construction began last spring and is nearly complete.
The FLMA will host a celebration of the opening of the refurbished space, newly named Mikvah Chava Faiga, on May 31 at Shomrei Torah. (See box.)
Ms. Birnbaum now directs a preschool in Saddle Brook. She used to work in the building field, designing and overseeing interior construction. She spearheaded the renovation, and invested significant time, expertise, and financial resources in it. The project is in memory of her parents, Chaim and Faigy Gluck, who lived in Brooklyn, and the mikvah was named in memory of Ms. Birnbaum’s mother, Faigy Gluck (Chava Faiga in Hebrew).
“It was really important to me that the mikvah look beautiful, and it was 30 years old,” Ms. Birnbaum said. “Having an attractive, updated space makes the mitzvah joyful.
“My mother was a very exuberant and upbeat person. She taught me to imbue this mitzvah with joy — to focus on making it a happy, relaxing time. And my father was a very modest person; he devoted significant time to helping others, in small and large ways, without ever mentioning a word to anyone.
“For me, the joy of my mother and the modestly of my father, are a perfect complement to this project; mikvah is a mitzvah that is done quietly, privately, without fanfare, and we have carefully designed every detail of this space to evoke joy and serenity while engaged in this mitzvah.”