I went to the mikveh seeking lightness at a time when I was heavy with stories.
I am the director of Camp Kesem at Stanford, a free, student-run summer camp for children whose parents have or had cancer. At the end of my first year with Camp Kesem, after the joy and excitement of camp had worn off, I was left with a heaviness that I couldn’t shake. The children’s stories stayed with me, as well as the stories of counselors, many of whom also have personal cancer experience. I could feel them in my bones, I could hear their voices in my head, and even when I wasn’t thinking about it directly, I couldn’t lift the weight from my chest.
I have rituals for letting go of each loss: I tie a row of knots into a white friendship bracelet, and I wash my hands afterward, saying the blessing for hand-washing. Friendship bracelets are an important symbol for Camp Kesem, and hand-washing is a wonderful Jewish ritual. But no amount of al netilat yadayim seemed to help. The heaviness grew after I attended the memorial for another camper’s parent that September. We are in our campers’ lives all the time, and I felt like I was around so much death that I was constantly in a state of tamei (ritual un-readiness), unable to fully participate in my life because I couldn’t let go of their stories. My mentor reminded me that Judaism has a ritual that can help us transition from tamei to tahor, to a space where we can return to life after an encounter with death.
As a secular, but practicing Jew, I had never been to a mikveh before and I was curious to see if it would be the cleansing experience that I desperately needed. I wrote a mikveh ritual for caregivers, exploring issues that had come up for me: the need to acknowledge moments of blessing in every story of suffering, the courage to ask others for help in my own healing and the strength to set boundaries on my empathy so I could protect myself while supporting others. I needed a way to acknowledge the pain and loss before I could re-enter the world of the living.
The mikveh experience was a powerful and important reminder that everything I teach others about Kesem also holds true for me. We all need a safe space to acknowledge our pain if we ever hope to grow from it. I have returned to the mikveh each year since then—it’s a time that I can count on, a time when I can honor my own journey before I prepare for another year of camp. Weightless within the living waters, I am able to let go of death’s heaviness, so I can return to the rest of my life, enlightened.
Heather Paul is the Camp Kesem Director and Director of Student Engagement at Hillel at Stanford. You can find more of Heather’s musings on her website: www.scatteredleaves.net.
Related: Mikveh Ritual for Caregivers