Groundbreaking set for community mikvah in Louisiana

After years of planning, the board of the Louisiana Community Mikvah announced that a groundbreaking will take place on Dec. 16 at noon.

The Oscar J. Tolmas Community Mikvah will be a free-standing building located behind Shir Chadash in Metairie. It is a joint project of all 10 synagogues in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas, from Reform to Chabad.

Bobby Garon, who is the president of the mikvah’s board, said Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who was rabbi at Beth Israel from 2007 to 2013, was really the one who launched the project through the Rabbinic Council.

There was a community mikvah at Beth Israel’s Lakeview building before Katrina. When the levees broke, Beth Israel had over 10 feet of water, rendering the building unusable.

After the storm, those needing a mikvah for conversion or other purposes traveled to Houston, which Topolosky pointed out was “impractical in the long run.”

Beth Israel’s new building in Metairie did not include a mikvah, so members of the community approached the Rabbinic Council to spearhead the project, but it was put on the back burner during an economic downturn and with other community needs taking priority.

In 2010, Chabad of Louisiana opened Mikvah Chaya Mushka, a women’s mikvah that replaced a smaller facility that dated back to 1989.

Around 2014, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans was approached to help the community mikvah project reach “critical mass,” and in 2017 the proposal moved forward as the Oscar J. Tolmas Trust provided a “significant gift” as seed money for the project, and additional fundraising was held.

The mikvah is a ritual purification pool that is filled from natural water, such as stored rain water. Women traditionally use it for purification each month, and many men and women use it prior to a wedding or any other time they desire a spiritual boost. Among the non-Orthodox, the most common use is for conversion to Judaism, though more women are rediscovering the mikvah. The Conservative movement requires mikvah as part of conversion, and in 2001 it was recommended by the Reform movement.

The community mikvah will also be open for “new and creative uses,” and Topolosky gave examples including “to mark a year of cancer remission; each month of sobriety; the end of a relationship; a move to a new home; the transition of a Hospice worker after a client dies; a year of mourning; the start of a new job; a divorce settlement; a birthday; or a personal prayer during the ninth month of pregnancy.”

A mikvah facility includes private changing rooms and bathing facilities, as one submerges entirely in the mikvah with no clothing, makeup or anything else that gets between the body and the water.

Additional funds for the project are being raised, with giving levels corresponding to the colors of yarns donated in Exodus 25:3, from a gold level at $10,000 and above, through silver, copper, blue and purple, with a crimson level starting at $18. Donations to the mikvah project go through the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Greater New Orleans.

When completed, the mikvah will be available for anyone affiliated with any of the participating congregations, but Rabbi Robert Loewy, vice president of the mikvah board, added, “we see ourselves as serving this whole section of the South.”