Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ritual bath to be adapted for disabled

A Hallandale Beach synangogue plans to open a 'mikvah' accessible to women with physical disabilities. It will be the first of its kind in Florida.

For years, Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus has wanted to bring an ancient Jewish cleansing tradition to his Hallandale Beach synagogue.

Now, his dream is coming true.

Plans to build three mikvahs -- or ritual baths -- at Chabad of South Broward are in the pipeline.

But one of the baths, which are used by some married Orthdox Jewish women after each menstrual period, is a little different from most.

It will be one of only a few mikvahs worldwide equipped with a hydraulic lift for use by women with physical disabilities, said Rivkah Slonim, a New York-based bestselling author of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology.

''Every mikvah is extremely important -- the single most important institution a Jewish community needs to have access to,'' she said. ``Since Miami has such a huge Jewish population, I can only imagine what a tremendous asset this will be.''

Other synagogues in Broward and Miami-Dade are equipped with mikvahs, including ones in Hollywood, Aventura, Weston and Miami Beach.

No existing mikvahs in Florida are handicapped-accessible, Tennenhaus said.

Under Orthodox Jewish law and tradition, the baths are primarily used by married women after the end of their menstrual cycle.

Some men also choose to take part in the ritual -- some every day, others once a year before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Tennenhaus said.

For a woman to take part in the tradition, she must be clean. No makeup, nail polish or perfume is allowed. Teeth must be flossed and brushed, and her hair must be down in its natural state, Tennenhaus said.

The women enter a back room of the synagogue and undress in a private dressing room.

An attendant is present during the spiritual cleansing, which takes place in a small pool filled with about 200 gallons of tap water and rain water.

During the short ritual, the woman enters the mikvah nude, says a blessing and then completely submerges the body under the water.

But doing so is often difficult for women with physical disabilities because they need assistance from someone, which makes the intimate moment much less private, Tennenhaus said.

''Mikvahs are a very symbolic part of Jewish history,'' Tennenhaus said. ``There are a lot of women who have some sort of paralysis who want to take part in the tradition but can't.''

''We're meeting a need that is out there,'' he said.

Hallandale Beach zoning officials have given preliminary approval for the addition of the mikvahs -- one with the hydraulic lift for women, one for men and a smaller one for new dishes -- at the Chabad center.

A room now used as a dining hall will be converted into the spa-like mikvah facility, which will include marble and granite tile and private dressing rooms.

Hollywood architect Joseph Kaller hopes work on the $500,000 project will start within the next few months and be complete by year's end.

Margie Szerer, a member of the Chabad of South Broward, is looking forward to the opening of the mikvahs.

Once a month for the past five years, Szerer has traveled from her home in Hollywood to Aventura to take part in the ancient tradition.

Having a new, luxurious facility so close to home will be nice, she says.

''It's a beautiful thing that makes a woman feel like she is in control of her body,'' Szerer said.

``I think it's wonderful that they are giving the opportunity to other women who would normally be unable to go because they are in a wheelchair.''

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