“How do you tell people about the importance of a mikvah and then tell them they have to drive 250 miles to get there?”
This is the dilemma plaguing Chabad emissary Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the few women who observe Judaism’s family purity laws face undue hardship. As a result, he has initiated a campaign to build a mikvah not only for the benefit of his wife and other local residents, but also for the sake of tens of thousands of tourists.
About 1,500 Jews live in Wyoming, including about 500 in Jackson Hole, a world-class ski destination and gateway to Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
“About a million people come each winter and an estimated 3 million visitors travel here each summer. We figure that 1 per cent – 40,000 – is Jewish,” Rabbi Mendelsohn said.
Chabad houses throughout the world are renowned for their willingness to assist Jewish travellers with their religious needs, even in the most remote areas. Rabbi Mendelsohn and his wife Raizy established Chabad-Lubavitch of Wyoming in Jackson Hole in the summer of 2007. It is the first and only Chabad house in the state.
Their job is made all the more challenging because there is no mikvah, which is a main staple of Jewish life. According to halacha (Jewish law), married women fully immerse in the mikvah at the end of seven clean days following each monthly menstrual cycle, in preparation for the resumption of marital relations.
As explained on Chabad of Wyoming’s website, “the critical importance that halacha applies to healthy family life is demonstrated by the cardinal emphasis it places on building a mikvah in every Jewish community.”
Shimon Ivgi, one of Jackson Hole’s few orthodox Jewish residents and chair of the Wyoming Mikvah Fund, referred to a well-known writing by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic authority of modern times, in which he stated that a new community must first and foremost construct a mikvah, even if it means selling the sacred Torah scroll to raise the necessary funds.
To date, about $120,000 has been collected, Ivgi said. The goal is to raise another $500,000.
His wife Dina explained the urgency of the matter.
“We have to drive more than five hours each way, either to Bozeman, Montana, or to Salt Lake City, Utah. Montana is a bit closer, but it’s usually just as quick to Salt Lake because it’s a straight drive. It’s scary driving at night to Montana; it’s mountainous and dark, and it’s difficult in the snow.”
She tried going to a warm spring three times, but “it didn’t work out well…. It was so cold and dark. I almost hyperventilated. You have to walk really far in to get to a deep-enough area. Another time there was a bison and it was too frightening to go out of the car.
“This is my second year living here,” she continued. Observing the family purity laws is “very difficult and expensive. I did manage once to get a babysitter. My husband and I drove there and back in one day. It was exhausting. We both had to take off work.”
Flying is not a reasonable solution, with a round-trip ticket ranging from $400 to $1,000.
“There aren’t many evening flights available, so often we have to stay overnight,” she said.
“Not everyone can do that,” her husband acknowledged.
Dr. Marlyn Cheng, an anesthesiologist in Monterey Park, CA, recently attended a medical conference in Jackson and has since decided to donate to the mikvah fund.
“At first I was hesitant to go to Jackson Hole because of the Sabbath,” she said. “I went because there was a synagogue and the rabbi lived near the hotel. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. A lot of Jewish people come through. I met so many people from all over the world at the rabbi’s. Building a mikvah is very important.”
Joyce Silverman of Brooklyn, NY, understands the pressing need.
“I travelled last year to Jackson Hole,” she said. “I had to use the mikvah. Raizy took me through woods and forest and deep snow, and we had to find a spring that was deep enough for me to immerse. It was pitch black outside and freezing. I lost my boot.”
Silverman is convinced that many unaffiliated Wyoming Jews and tourists could become attracted to a Torah lifestyle if there was a mikvah.
“I, for one, would travel to Jackson Hole every year, and I know others with the same issue.”
When they were there, the Silvermans celebrated the Sabbath with the Mendelsohns, who had also invited six local, single men to join them.
“If these men get married, they’ll need a mikvah,” Silverman noted. “Family purity laws are very important to an observant Jew.”
“You can’t teach family purity – the essence of Judaism – without a mikvah,” Rebbitzen Raizy Mendelsohn stated. “You can’t expect non-observant Jews to take it upon themselves to travel so far.”
Many tourists “either put it off for a week, which is not advisable, or experience what Joyce went through,” she said. “Often it doesn’t even work because it’s freezing here and you can’t always dig deep enough to immerse completely. The enormous bison and other large animals are intimidating….
“Going to a mikvah is a foreign concept for most people, and it’s made all the more difficult without a local mikvah. After Joyce’s ordeal, I promised her we would do this for the benefit of others.”
This past November, Mrs. Mendelsohn made good on her pledge when she helped kick start a distinctly Wild West Mikvah campaign on www.JewishWyoming.com/Mikvah.
“After getting married two years ago to a girl from South Africa, we decided to spend our first winter as a married couple in Jackson Hole,” said Danny Shapiro, a Florida-based donor to the mikvah fund who knew Rabbi Mendelsohn from his yeshiva days about 10 years ago.
“I reached out to Zalman, whom I hadn’t spoken to in years, and overnight he arranged phenomenal accommodations for us at a hotel lodge by the base of the mountain. He also arranged a refrigerator full of kosher food and everything we needed to enjoy a luxurious vacation as a young Jewish couple, without having to sacrifice any of our Jewish customs.
“I had the opportunity to spend time with the rabbi and his wife, and I got to see first-hand what these people are all about: self-sacrifice. This beautiful couple has picked their lives up from across the country and planted themselves in Jackson Hole, where they saw a need to service the Jewish community on a year-round, constant basis.”
According to Shapiro, building a mikvah wherever there is a need is of paramount importance to the future of Jews everywhere.
“One of the most critical Jewish rituals is the mikvah…. It is a ritual that our grandparents and ancestors had been doing for centuries. When the Mendelsohns succeed in finally building a mikvah, they will have effectively made it possible to continue this age-old ritual even in Jackson Hole. This is important because without a mikvah in Jackson Hole, Jewish women must either forgo this most awesome ritual due to inconvenience or travel five hours [each way]. This inconvenience is a real obstacle for Jewish observance. Building a mikvah is a critical, most holy and important project for the greater good of the Jewish community….
“This means so much to me that I have already contributed close to $5,000 and I don’t even live in Jackson Hole,” he declared.
No Jewish community, big or small, should be deprived of a mikvah, concurred donor Rabbi Mordechai Werde of Brooklyn, NY.