As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and social distancing remains in effect here in New York City, we are still faced with many rituals we cannot complete in person. One of these rituals is the Beit Din/Immersion process for our conversion students, which we usually would convene at the mikvah. Given that our community had a number of students who were ready to complete their conversion studies, but no solid estimate as to when we could safely return to the mikvah, we wanted to give these students an option to ritualize their conversions virtually. (It should be noted that all of our students will have the opportunity to go to mikvah in the future, should they wish.)
Clearly, we could conduct the Beit Din via Zoom, but what ritual could we employ to mark the moment? I had two basic criteria: 1.) The ritual must be comfortably completed while in quarantine. 2) It must incorporate water, thereby echoing the mikvah though not necessarily approximating it. As such, I created this handwashing ceremony to accompany the virtual Beit Din. The bonus with this ritual is that the handwashing blessing can be woven quite seamlessly into these students’ lives going forward. Please feel free to use this ritual and/or adapt as you see fit.
-Ritual Hand Washer or Pitcher or Cup
- Take a moment to consider this water ritual. Think about the waters that have flowed through the history of Judaism, and continue to flow through us still. God created the earth by separating the waters. God remade the Earth with the flood generations later in the time of Noah. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery and ushered them to freedom, as they moved through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs often met at the well. Relationships were initiated by the water, marriages made in its reflection. Isaac dug wells to connect to the memory of his father. Jacob discovered his inner strength at the well. It is said that Miriam was accompanied by a well of water, and it is said that water sustained our people through those long days and nights in the desert. Water renews. Water revives. Water nourishes the body, mind and soul. Today, this water bridges past to present, as you immerse your hands in its flowing stream.
- Take the ritual washer in your hands. Think about its significance for this moment, and then reflect on a time when you might use it again. How are the two connected? How will this washer tell part of your unique Jewish story?
- Fill up the washer with water. (Ensure you have a clean towel nearby).
- Close your eyes. Breathe in this moment. Honor the work, the time, and the energy you have expended to reach this milestone. Honor your agency in this process. Recall your journey. Let the memories flood your mind as you think of those who have joined you on this path, those who have supported you, and those who have served as your guides. Acknowledge them in your heart.
- Now, as you prepare to wash, recite these words from Ruth (Ruth 1:16, 17): “Ruth said: Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you.”
- Lift up the washer in your right hand. As you pour from right to left, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:
-Pour 1: “For wherever you go”
-Pour 2: “I will go”
-Pour 3: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”
- Now move the washer to your left hand. As you pour from left to right, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:
-Pour 1: “Your people will be my people”
-Pour 2: “And your God my God.”
-Pour 3: “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”
- With your hands wet, lift them up and allow the water to drip freely from them. (Our prayer is called “n’tilat yadayim” for the lifting of the hands). One way our handwashing prayer has been interpreted over the years is through the lens of action; we wash to remind ourselves that the work of our hands is essential to the work of repairing the world. Our hands have the power to do good. Our hands have the power to build bridges. Our hands have the power to help and heal and comfort.
With your hands raised before you:
-Reflect on the power and capability of your own hands.
-Reflect on your evolving identity and how your Jewish identity will impact the work of your hands.
-Reflect on the tradition and heritage you now officially carry. How will your acceptance of Judaism inform your choices, your priorities, and your perspective?
- Recite N’tilat Yadayim:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו
וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם.
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al n’tilat yadayim.
Blessed are Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.
10. Dry your hands and rejoice in the moment!
Together we will offer the Shehecheyanu, our prayer of gratitude for having reached this milestone:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin is a rabbi and mother of four. Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an associate rabbi. She is a contributor to The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press).