As Jews, our tradition tells us we are all b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of G’d. But under the influence of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism and other forms of hatred, many forget to see the Divine in all bodies. Queer Mikveh Project wants all humans to feel sacred, and their new JoC leaders are expanding on the mission of QMP to create inclusive spaces for engaging in traditional ritual.
Rebecca Maria Goldschmidt and Kat Johnston have recently come into their roles as leaders of Queer Mikveh Project (QMP), joining Rebekah Erev ha Kohenet (the title for a Kohenet Priestess/Priestexx), who began the work in 2015 as a combination participatory event and documentary film project. Queer Mikveh Project embraces the earth-based water ritual of mikveh. Traditionally, mikveh is the immersion in water for purification used for significant life transitions such as conversion and for purification following menstruation and childbirth.
“QMP grew out of a desire to reawaken the practice of mikveh for Queer Jews,” Kat Johnston said, “especially for Jews who may not have access to this practice due to exclusion, isolation, and inaccessibility. They continued by discussing how QMP “aims to make these practices accessible to connect queer Jews to themselves, water, and each other through collective ritual and meaning-making. QMP is unique in that it doesn’t assume what attendees know or what mikveh should look like.”
While many American Jews, particularly those outside of the Orthodox movement, previously dismissed mikveh, it has seen a small but vibrant revival in recent years. Earlier critiques of mikveh claimed it was “outdated”—despite its continued relevance to Orthodox Jews—or based on assumptions of the impurity of female bodies. But as Jewish feminism evolved, interpretations became less black and white. Jews across movements found ways of embracing and reclaiming mikveh.
“Working with the ancient ritual of mikveh…obviously it’s traditionally about purification and cleansing of the body, but we can also see it as liberating the body from whatever our bodies need to be liberated from.” Goldschmidt said that this could include the feelings of shame that some queer people, people of color, and those at their intersection develop about how their bodies are perceived and treated by society.
When Rebekah Erev started QMP in 2015, it began as small groups of friends gathering “in a ritual way to honor water using the practice of mikveh.” From the start, its purpose was “to include people who maybe previously didn’t feel comfortable in that kind of Jewish space because of their body, their sexuality, or the color of their skin,” Goldschmidt explained. QMP was also developed with an intentionality of “utilizing Jewish rituals in support of Native struggles for land and water sovereignty.” In other words, QMP was always about using mikveh gatherings for a larger purpose.
As QMP continued to develop and Goldschmidt came into her leadership role alongside Kat Johnston and in continued collaboration with Rebekah Erev ha Kohenet, they realized the virtual gatherings taking place during the pandemic offered them the opportunity to do even broader scale events. QMP held a major event in September 2020 called “Preparing our Bodies for the Days of Awe.” The event, which brought together over 150 attendees, honored the period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The pandemic also put the work of QMP into perspective for the leaders. Although mikveh gatherings with QMP have always centered supporting larger purposes, Goldschmidt said with a tinge of humor, “we can’t just be getting nude on a beach when people are working at Walmart and working at hospitals…we realized we could figure out a way to channel funds to organizations we wanted to support.” QMP used their events as fundraising opportunities that could support social justice issues, including working to end the Dakota Access Pipeline, and supporting the Black Mycelium Project, a collective of Black queer farmers and others involved in land stewardship, which QMP intends to support in future fundraising as well.
Rather than viewing these fundraising opportunities through the lens of “savior,” the Queer Mikveh Project saw their role as supporting communal support that has been a lost history among Jewish communities. “I know how my ancestors, whether my Jewish ancestors or my Filipino ancestors, we always pooled money to help each other do stuff. And the history of collective use of money, we forget that’s something we’ve been doing for a long time.” Ultimately, QMP views fundraising as a chance to redistribute wealth among the community, supporting those of us who are struggling the most at a given moment, simultaneously continuing the QMP lineage of indigenous solidarity.
From the beginning, it was clear to the leaders of QMP that their liberatory approach to mikveh for the queer Jewish community needed to center Jews of Color, who have always been collaborators, leaders, and participants with QMP. “It’s an important thing for both of those identities to come together and for the community to recognize the way that we have been seen or treated or felt in the past and how we can work toward more open spaces and more equitable spaces for everyone, because everyone’s experience is valid.”
For Goldschmidt, serving as a leader for QMP further demonstrates that Jews of Color need to be centered in Jewish spaces. Making JoC experiences “a centered point of view instead of like, ‘well there’s Jews, and then these Brown people who are also Jews,’” helps the entire Jewish community move toward a more equitable and multiracial future. Goldschmidt asserted that Jews need to be recognized as the erev rav, the mixed multitude, we’ve always been.
“Our history is a global history, an international history,” Goldschmidt said of the Jewish People. Connecting to her Jewish identity has been informed by her simultaneous process of learning about her Filipina identity. Goldschmidt has spent the past couple of years in Hawai’i studying her grandmother’s language from the northern Philippines.
“For [exploring Filipina identity] to come up for me during the pandemic and have a reconnection to my Jewish history at this time has been so important,” Goldschmidt said. She added that seeing points of connection between the two histories has grounded her in this process; she finds meaning in “how our Earth-based practices [in Judaism] weave into the history of my mother’s [Filipino] family too.”
Kat Johnston finds points of connection in the way they build community belonging through QMP programming. “Part of what I know is that rituals become more powerful when communities and individuals can play an active role in building what they need. I also know what it’s like to feel isolated, as someone new to Jewish life and as a chronically ill, disabled, non-Black JoC and how meaningful it is to feel genuinely connected to your peers and community.”
This sense of community connectedness fuels every aspect of Queer Mikveh Project. “It’s exciting to think that we are a part of building a framework in which communities can explore mikveh and create ritual spaces that speak to their own needs and experiences,” Johnston said. “Jewish ritual and culture give us a recipe for how to be in community with each other. As Jews of Color, we can take this recipe and adapt it according to our individual and collective needs.”
This article was updated on March 11, 2021 following additional conversations with the leaders of Queer Mikveh Project.