PORTLAND – Members of southern Maine’s Jewish community gathered Sunday afternoon in Portland to celebrate the reopening of a ceremonial bath they hope will unite all the diverse branches of their faith.

The only mikvah in southern Maine — located at Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh on Noyes Street — is officially open, according to the nonprofit organization formed to run it.

Mikvat Shalom said the mikvah will allow people undergoing life transitions, such as conversion to Judaism, brides-to-be, people celebrating milestone birthdays, and those attempting to heal from physical and spiritual distress, to be sanctified by a ritual immersion in water.

Any Jewish denomination may use the kosher mikvah, which had been owned and overseen since 1904 by Shaarey Tphiloh, a Modern Orthodox synagogue.

Mikvat Shalom’s board of directors includes members of Chabad, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and nondenominational congregations — each of which is responsible for maintaining the mikvah.

“We wanted this mikvah to be a uniting force for our community. This mikvah is a product of that belief,” said Ellen Froncek, the president of Mikvat Shalom.

The Noyes Street mikvah was closed about two years ago after problems with mold were detected. The mold issue has been corrected and the facility remodeled. Sunday’s ceremony marked its official reopening.

“I think of mikvah as transformation,” said Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Portland. “We’re one thing when we come in, and we’re another thing when we come out.”

The operation of a mikvah is considered one of the basic needs of a Jewish community.

It is traditionally the first building constructed within a new community, even before the synagogue.

Ritual immersion in water is an ancient part of Jewish tradition, noted in the Torah and in Rabbinic commentaries.

There used to be a mikvah at the former Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh on Newbury Street in Portland. The mikvah on Noyes Street was built in the mid-1950s.

It is located in a red-brick building beside Shaarey Tphiloh. The facility can be reached by walking up a set of stairs into a changing area. Underneath the wood floors of the changing area are pools of rainwater that have been collected from the roof.

Those pools provide the water for the mikvah, which is at the rear of the building. A shower can be taken before entering the mikvah.

Susan Cummings-Lawrence, a member of Mikvat Shalom’s board of directors, said a person must remove all jewelry and makeup before immersing themselves in the mikvah.

The Portland mikvah is a tiled tub of water accessed by walking down a set of stairs from a platform.

“It’s cheerier than before — it looks like a place you would want to use. It’s the only mikvah like this for hundreds of miles,” said Rori Lockman of North Gorham and president of Shaarey Tphiloh’s board.

There is only one other mikvah in use in Maine. It is in Bangor, said Judy Gatchell, a member of Temple Beth El’s board of directors. Gatchell, who lives in Brunswick, said a mikvah that once existed at Beth Israel Congregation in Bath was sealed over years ago.

“It’s so important to maintain a thriving Jewish community in southern Maine,”said Emily Chaleff, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance. “Without a mikvah, we don’t have that.”

Using the mikvah requires a reservation. A fee is charged, depending on the type of use.

Mikvat Shalom plans to set aside 5 percent of the money it raises to maintain the mikvah.

For more information, go to www.MikvatShalom.org.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]