Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Whole Omaha Mikvah Saga - Beginning to End


At the beginning of the summer, the Jewish community of Omaha suffered a mikvah crisis.  Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, the chaplain at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home - the location of our mikvah - wrote up the whole story.  Enjoy!

The Omaha Mikvah Story
By Guest Blogger Rabbi Yaakov Weiss

Below is a complete account of all that took place to fill the Omaha mikvah during the drought of 2012.  I hope that this document serves as a historical record for the Omaha Jewish Community as well as one which can inform others of the process involved in filling a mikvah with ice.

A mikvah is a central component of a Jewish community.  Whether it is used for family purity, conversions, preparation for an upcoming holiday, or for purifying our utensils, the mikvah allows us to take our selves or our belongings into a womb-like environment to effectively hit the “reset button” and start anew.  While a mikvah being out of order in a community is never something desired, what has transpired in Omaha in the past two months detailed below has been an opportunity for many people to learn about what a mikvah is, how it functions and why it is important.

When about 2 months ago the Omaha Mikvah was accidentally put out of commission, Rabbi Jonathan Gross immediately contacted Rabbi Mendel Senderovic who lives in Milwaukee, but oversees the kashrut of the Omaha Mikvah.  Rabbi Senderovic gave Rabbi Gross instructions of how to make sure that the mikvah was prepared to collect rainwater at the earliest onset of precipitation.   Unfortunately, with the Bor Z'riah (pool where rainwater collects) being empty and drought conditions preventing it from being easily refilled, a useable mikvah would not likely be available in Omaha for many more months.  So in early August, Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi wanted to consider using ice to fill the Mikvah.  Rabbi Mizrahi asked me to use my connections at Yeshiva University to speak with Rabbi Hershel Schachter about this possibility. (Rabbi Schachter is one of the most prominent Roshei Yeshiva at YU and an expert in Jewish Law.)  I called Rabbi Schachter, discussed the scenario, and he referred me further to Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, another Rosh Yeshiva at YU with encyclopedic knowledge and who has been involved more directly with mikvah construction and law.

Rabbi Sabolofsky provided me with much insight and guidance to the requirements for using ice as an alternate method of filling the mikvah.  He had never been directly involved with this process, however, since it is a very rare occurrence, so he directed me to Rabbi Yirmiyahu Katz who not only wrote the book on modern mikvahs (literally), but who has also had first-hand experience at filling a mikvah with ice.  I called Rabbi Katz, and he was incredibly responsive, helpful and cautious while outlining the requirements and parameters of Jewish law needed to fill a mikvah with ice.  Through discussion with Rabbi Katz, sending him pictures of our mikvah (via snail mail as he does not use the internet), and research into how our mikvah normally functions, I developed a plan with Rabbi Katz involving the placement of 250 10-pound blocks of ice into the mikvah.  While I had a handle on the requirements of doing this from the standpoint of Jewish Law, there were still many logistics to work out.  For example, can 250 blocks of ice realistically fit into our mikvah?  Can I get them in there before they all melt as any melting would invalidate the process?  I spent days on the phone with Rabbi Katz, Matt Chadek, the Facilities Manager at the JCC, and any distributor of ice within 100 miles of Omaha.  (As a side note, did you know that while there are many ice companies - Arctic Ice, Omaha Ice, Glacier Ice - they are all actually the very same place?)

Finally, after speaking with a local ice distributor, going over the process with him letting him know that it was imperative that the solid blocks of ice stay frozen during the entire process, I arranged a team of 11 volunteers on a Friday morning to work as an assembly line to get ice from the delivery truck into the mikvah as quickly as possible.  On that morning, we were all lined up and ready to work.  I gave instructions and provided diagrams to volunteers.  Finally, the ice truck arrived.  I got onto the truck, lifted up the first ice block only to find that the block of ice was not a block at all; it was crushed ice in the shape of a block pooling with water.  There was an audible sigh from all of the volunteers.  The delivery man looked baffled stating, "It's Ice. Ice Melts."  Unfortunately for us, we could not make use of any ice that had already begun to melt, and we needed to scratch the plan.  Despite speaking with the manager at the ice company numerous times and discussing our exact needs, apparently his idea of frozen solid blocks of ice was different than mine.  We sent the ice back, and we all left the mikvah a little disappointed.  We were not, however, deterred.  Everyone was optimistic that we would meet again with a new plan to fill the mikvah with ice.

I immediately began to look for other options.  I was not the only one so eager to come up with alternate ideas.  I fielded many questions about the mikvah and the use of anything from ice machines and water boiling distillers as methods to fill the mikvah.  I have to say, there are many creative and innovative people in our community!  Everybody who knew about this feat was rooting for success.  Each time that we got some rain, people would approach me saying, "Rabbi, was it enough?"  But, the answer continued to be "No - the mikvah is still out of order."  

As I continued on a search for solid blocks of ice (and now knowing that some people have different definitions of solid blocks of ice), I called more and more companies to see what was out there.  Lots of Federation, JCC and RBJH employees suggested ice distributors to contact, but all of them confirmed that their ice was crushed rather than solid.  I visited every local supermarket, gas station and superstore looking for solid blocks.  The closest I came was at HyVee where they sold such cubes, but probably due to their lack of popularity (unless you want them to fill a mikvah), they were all broken up in their bags.  The manager special ordered a fresh case of the blocks for me to examine, but even the ones right off the truck were no more solid than what was in the store.

I moved on to my last option:  Muzzy Ice, a company specializing in 300-pound ice blocks used for ice sculptures.  These were actually solid ice blocks.  I talked with them to find out if it was at all possible to have the blocks made smaller so they would be easier to move.  One option was to hire an ice sculptor who would use a chainsaw.  Not only would our cost greatly increase, but the chainsaw would cause some of the ice to chip and melt and break apart in addition to adding grease from the chainsaw to our ice making it unsuitable for our needs.  The other option was for us to use a Flintstones-style ice pick to chip away at the huge blocks. I came to the conclusion, that we just had to go ahead and use the full size 300-pound blocks.  To achieve the amount of melted water necessary, we would need seven of them.  That is more than a ton of ice.

This time, I wasn't taking chances.  I went out to Muzzy Ice's warehouse to personally inspect the blocks of ice to make sure they were indeed solid and suitable for our needs.  As I looked them over, I found that they were definitely solid (and definitely big), but they also had some frost built up on them.  I was concerned that the frost build up could cause an issue of premature melting, so I again consulted with Rabbi Katz.  He assured me that the buildup would not be problematic as any miniscule drops of melted ice that might form would immediately freeze back, and since we were transporting the ice early in the morning while it was still cool outside, there would likely not be any melting at all.  I also took a look at the inside of the ice truck to make sure that it was kept at a cool enough temperature to keep the blocks frozen.  I was very happy to see that there was ice buildup on the sides of the truck indicating that it was freezing on the truck - something that I did not see on our first attempt a few weeks earlier.  Once I had confirmation from Rabbi Katz about the ability to use Muzzy Ice, I checked one last time with Matt Chadek to be reassured that we could make this happen.  Matt was confident that he and his team could successfully move ice from the truck into the mikvah's entrance one at a time, unwrap each cube and allow for inspection and then place them into the mikvah.  With that, I placed the order for the ice to be delivered 24 hours later.

Those 24 hours were pretty anxiety-ridden.  Any minor deviation from the expected plan could result in a failed effort, not to mention the loss of significant funds since Muzzy Ice could not provide us with a refund policy.  I wanted to be responsible with our community's resources and did not want a sizable amount of money to be spent on something that did not work out.  I enlisted Leon Shrago to assist me in the morning.  As he is recently retired, and always looking for ways to help the community and learn more, I knew he would be up for this challenge.

The time finally arrived for all members of our team to be in place and fill our mikvah with ice.  At 8:00 a.m., the Muzzy Ice truck arrived and we assembled the crew.  Muzzy Ice was kind enough to be extra careful in ensuring that the ice stayed frozen and filled the truck with 100 pounds of dry ice to keep the truck colder than usual.  We plugged in the freezer truck to an outlet as an additional measure to ensure that everything stayed frozen until the blocks of ice were safely placed in the mikvah.  

One by one, the delivery man wheeled the ice blocks which were wrapped in plastic and packed in boxes into the mikvah room.  The JCC and RBJH facilities staff unwrapped the ice blocks and got them ready to place in the mikvah at the top of the stairs.  Leon and I checked to see if there was any water pooling (there was not), we wiped off any piles of frost as a safeguard.  Matt did the hard part of supporting most of the weight of each block of ice carrying them down the stairs with ice tongs, bracing each one with his body as an additional crew member held on to the ice at the top with tongs.  After each cube was placed in the mikvah, Leon and I wiped down any residual water to make sure no contamination took place.  (The laws of ritual purity and water contamination are very complex and too wide a scope to delve into in this already long documentation.)  After the first block, Matt assured me that "It was pretty easy."  But the sweat on his brow told me that maybe it just wasn't as bad as he originally thought it would be.  I can't imagine that I will ever have even half as much strength as Matt does, and it's amazing how he did it all in such good spirits and with a smile.

Less than an hour later, all seven blocks were placed in the mikvah.  We all had a big sigh of relief.  Before we loaded the ice into the mikvah we bottomed out the thermostat to keep the room as cool as possible to prevent any melting.  Now that all the ice was inside the mikvah, we turned up the heat so that the ice would melt at a natural pace.  I locked the door, put a sign on it noting that no one should enter since any breach could result in a disqualification of the entire process.  Now, we wait for the ice to melt and for our mikvah to be functional once again.

This was quite a project - one that I did not necessarily anticipate.  While I personally spent many, many hours working to make sure that everything was done in accordance with Jewish Law and the laws of physics, none of this could have been done without the support of the Omaha Jewish community professionals and volunteers.  Jewish Federation of Omaha CEO Mike Silverman was extremely supportive as he understands the great importance of maintaining the mikvah as an integral part of our Jewish community.  Mike Schop of the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home and Julee Katzman of the Jewish Federation of Omaha also provided a keen administrative know-how that made putting all of the pieces together as seamless as possible.  Volunteers who came out on that first try spanned the whole community and were all extremely eager to help out.  They included:  Aaron Rosenfeld, Beth Cohen, Harry Berman, Rabbi Josh Brown, Emily Newman, Anna Kohll, Shoshy Shrago, Aviva Segall, Bob Goldberg, Mike Schop and Rabbi Jonathan Gross.

What makes the Omaha Jewish community so special is how so many people - whether they use the mikvah on a regular basis or were learning about it for the first time - rallied together to make sure that this staple of a Jewish community is maintained even when it is more of a challenge than it normally would be.  I'm proud to have worked with so many great people to make this happen.

Within 48 hours of completing the whole ice transfer nearly all of the ice had melted.  At that very same time, an act of God had brought a deluge of rain upon Omaha - a storm that was not only a rarity for the past 3 months of the drought, but rainfall that by all measures was above normal.  As it turns out, the Bor Z'riah - the place in which rainwater is collected - was naturally filled by the storm with the requisite amount for a kosher mikvah.  Jewish tradition teaches that however much we as humans attempt to bring God into our lives, God reflects back the same amount of involvement in this world.  I can see no-better manifestation of this teaching than in the story of the Omaha mikvah.  We as a community worked so hard together to ensure that a proper mikvah be available for our community.  At times, it seemed like it may not be worth the effort, or perhaps there was just no way to do it, but we persevered and made it happen.  While a mikvah filled with melted ice certainly would have been kosher for use and would have fulfilled the immediate needs of our community, it still would not have been a mikvah created in the ideal way - with rainwater.  An ice-filled mikvah requires many leniencies in Jewish law to be permitted for use that should only be employed in exceptional cases of great need.  (The drought of 2012 qualifies as such a case.)  So, I believe, that God responded in kind to our community's effort and provided for us a magnificent rainfall enabling Omaha to have a top-tier mikvah that meets the highest qualifications that Jewish law demands.
As we come upon the Yomim Noraim - High Holidays - I wish for the Omaha Jewish community that we continue to put the maximum effort into our relationship with God and that He continues to rain upon us with the blessings of success.

2 comments:

  1. What an inspiring story about the lengths you were willing to go to keep this most ancient of Jewish tranditions alive! Rain is said to be a sign of the Divine, as only God can grant it. May God always bless and respond to the community efforts as directly as with this story.

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  2. What an inspirational story! May you have much success in all of your endeavors!

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