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Mikvahs abound in area

The Teaneck Mikvah, on Windsor Road, serves 35 to 40 women every day. Photos courtesy Teaneck Mikvah Association

Shevi Yudin always hands out kosher Dunkin’ Donuts to local yeshiva high school girls after leading them on tours of the Fair Lawn mikvah. “Get the joke?” asked the Cong. Shomrei Torah rebbetzin with a hearty laugh. “Dunk-in’ Donuts? I want their first encounter with a mikvah to be a sweet experience.”

Immersing – “dunking” – in a ritual bath is a biblically mandated cornerstone of Jewish family life. (See sidebar.) Women are required to make their first visit just before marriage and continue through their childbearing years – which is why Yudin aims to present mikvah in a memorably positive light.

In Teaneck and Englewood, volunteer committees are working to raise funds for expanded facilities to serve a growing Jewish population. Rabbinic tradition teaches that building a mikvah takes precedence over building a shul, and mandates that the entire community is obligated to contribute toward its construction and upkeep.

Though none of those interviewed for this article specified dollar amounts, a modern mikvah costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct and incurs considerable ongoing maintenance expenses. A typical mikvah structure includes a reception area; preparation rooms with shower/bath fixtures; one or more ritual baths holding a heated mixture of rainwater and treated tap water; and a “finishing” area where women dry their hair. Prep rooms are wired with buttons that users press to signal the attendant that they are ready to immerse themselves. Most mikvah buildings also include a separate pool for immersing new cooking utensils, in keeping with Jewish law.

The first stage of Teaneck’s new mikvah opened in March. Serving 35 to 40 women daily from Teaneck, Bergenfield, and New Milford, it has 10 preparation rooms and two ritual baths.

The mikvah in Tenafly on Piermont Road uses water from a spring. Jerry Szubin

Miriam Greenspan, president of the Teaneck Mikvah Association, explained that the old building will soon be demolished to make way for stage two of the project. This will add another 10 prep rooms and two ritual baths, including accommodations for people with physical disabilities and a specially appointed bridal prep room.

The project is a long time in coming; initial variances were granted for the new structure by the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2003. The board approved the final plans in 2006, after the Mikvah Association bought the house next door for maximum expansion. In the meantime, the old facility was operating with only six preparation rooms, leading to long wait times.

“Everything about the facility has been upgraded,” Greenspan said. “There is real excitement and gratitude from the community.” The association is still seeking donations, which may be made at www.teaneckmikvah.com.

The Englewood Mikva Association has been soliciting donations for the past few years to complete its new, larger facility. It recently hosted a dessert reception at Cong. Ahavath Torah featuring a keynote address by noted author/psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski.

Medinah Popper, president of the association, moved to town 30 years ago. At that time, Englewood and other Bergen County women were using the just-opened Teaneck mikvah. In the late 1980s, Cong. Shomrei Emunah included a small mikvah in its new building on Huguenot Avenue, intended for use on Friday nights and other times Orthodox women could not drive to Teaneck.

“But as soon as it was finished, there was a request to use it every day,” Popper said. Since 1989, this facility has been administered by the Mikva Association, an independent group. Last year, an average of 11 women used it daily. Though greater Englewood has five Orthodox synagogues and about 1,000 Orthodox and traditionally observant Jewish families, many women opt to use the larger Tenafly mikvah at Lubavitch on the Palisades.

Shevi Yudin carries Dunkin’ Donuts for yeshiva high school girls touring the Fair Lawn mikvah. She stands at the mikvah’s memorial wall. Jerry Szubin

“As our population has been increasing exponentially, we’ve outgrown the size of the current mikvah,” Popper acknowledged. When Ahavath Torah finalized its plans for a new building about five years ago, unallocated space was offered to the association to build a new mikvah.

“The shul project was enhanced by having the [planned] mikvah inside of it, and we were happy to have a larger central location. But although we both benefit from it, we are financially independent of the shul,” said Popper, who expressed gratitude for the cooperation and support of all area synagogues and rabbis.

Because the infrastructure was installed simultaneously with the synagogue’s by the same architect, designers, and contractors, the shul laid out the money while the Mikva Association began fund-raising to reimburse all expenses. Two years ago, it became apparent that the costs would be higher than expected, necessitating a delay and a renewed round of solicitations. Once sufficient funds are secured, Popper expects the area could be completed within four months. At that time, it will become the community’s main mikvah.

Popper said the Mikva Association aimed for an aesthetically pleasing design “so a woman should feel pampered. At the same time, we have been cognizant that money should not be spent lavishly, so it will be attractive without being overly luxurious.” The design calls for two ritual baths and seven preparation rooms, including one especially for brides. Access will be available for the disabled.

“You really want to be very appealing to young people,” said Popper. “We get a lot of young women from non-Orthodox backgrounds who would like to use the mikvah, and of course we’ve always accommodated them.”

Shevi Yudin – like many other area rebbetzins – holds classes for prospective brides to learn the laws and customs surrounding the mikvah. Her students often include women who took her tour when they were in high school.

When she and her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, came to lead the nascent Cong. Shomrei Torah 40 years ago, building a mikvah was a priority. It was not until 1990, however, that the small mikvah was completed; it was refurbished five years ago. About 75 to 100 women use it each month, according to Doris Brandstatter of the Fair Lawn Mikvah Committee.

Though the Fair Lawn mikvah has paid attendants on weeknights, Yudin accompanies women on Friday and holiday nights, as well as at off hours. She also accompanies female converts and older married women, often Russian immigrants, who have never used the mikvah before. Some are looking for a spiritual way to address marital or fertility issues.

But it is the bridal visits that mean the most to Yudin, whose own first immersion was less than pleasant. “I pride myself that kallahs [brides] here have a very special experience. I walk them down the steps of the mikvah, singing as if it’s the beginning of their wedding. If their mothers come with them, we all dance together afterward. I give every kallah [bride] a beautiful handbook, and I try to write a personal note inside with my phone number. I try to connect in a very personal way, and they know they can call me for advice any time.”

Her involvement in local domestic violence prevention has sensitized her to the fact that not every new marriage is happy. “I make a habit of checking with my kallahs six months later to find out how things are going,” Yudin said. “Every once in a while I uncover problems that way.”

Yudin related that a close friend died of cancer a week before her niece’s wedding. Before her passing, she had asked Yudin to accompany the young bride to the mikvah and also sent a beautiful robe to be designated for brides at the Fair Lawn mikvah.

On another occasion, Yudin got into the ritual bath with a bride who was terrified of water. Her fiancé, who had been afraid his future wife would be unable to complete the immersion, called Yudin afterward and suggested they all meet for coffee to celebrate.

“It’s never a routine kind of thing,” said Yudin, “because you’re involved with people.”

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