When asked how long the Mai Shalva-Center City Community Mikvah has been in the works, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt’s answer is simple.
“Oy,” he said. “That gets an oy.”
Schmidt has tried to bring a mikvah to Center City for a decade. Technical challenges have stalled the project more than once. They’ve had to switch architects and change the design, but the mikvah’s contract has finally been signed and plans are moving forward.
“It’s a miracle we’ve made it this far,” Schmidt said, estimating completion within nine months. “We have some time, thank God. This should be a catalyst for a conversation, and we’re very open and hoping for the broadest involvement in the community.”
A mikvah is so central to Judaism, it traditionally should be built before anything else in a community, including a synagogue, Schmidt said. This mikvah will primarily be a women’s mikvah, which helps families observe the laws of family purity, known as taharat hamishpacha.
More money is needed for the mikvah, Schmidt said. They’ve raised most of what is needed — about $600,000 so far — but they need another $200,000.
When the renovations are done, 509 Pine St. — the rowhouse that is now solely the location of the historic Vilna Congregation — will also house three new mikvahs. On the ground floor, the main part of the building will house the women’s mikvah, which will have three preparation rooms. A second mikvah on the ground floor will be used to immerse vessels.
In the basement, there will be a men’s mikvah with a shower.
Upstairs, a flex space will serve as a space for Vilna’s services, a library and other community activities, such as lectures and meetings.
“My first choice was not to convert the shul,” Schmidt said. “I love the shul. This was a very, very important thing for the community.”
Schmidt said the first location he considered for the mikvah was B’nai Abraham Chabad, but there wasn’t enough room. He also looked into having it in Vilna’s basement, but that option would have cost at least an additional $200,000.
“This was the most economical plan that made the most sense,” Schmidt said.
In the next few weeks, Schmidt will form a committee to decide on decorations for the mikvah. Anyone is welcome to share their input, Schmidt said.
Until the mikvah is complete, Center City residents who observe taharat hamishpacha have had to make do with mikvahs that have cropped up in other parts of the Philadelphia area.
That was what motivated Yah-el Har-el, an assistant professor at Temple University, to get involved with the project about four years ago.
Har-el, who lives in South Philadelphia, usually goes to the Congregation Sons of Israel’s Mikvah Ohel Leah in Cherry Hill, N.J. It’s a drive that takes her about 25 minutes, on top of the toll. The fact that she has to drive there prohibits her from going during Shabbat and holidays.
“[This mikvah] will make things a lot easier,” Har-el said. “I’ll be able to travel less to get there, so it’ll be a less frustrating experience. There’s not as much traffic to get to Fifth and Pine, that’s the address. A lot easier to get there. It’ll take less time, so I don’t always have to worry about a babysitter.”
Over the years, Har-el has coordinated meeting contractors and reviewed different architectural and engineering plans.
“It’s been very much been a community effort to bring it to fruition,” she said.
The distance is especially an issue in Center City, where many don’t have cars.
Shevy Sputz, the co-director at Chabad of Fairmount, drives one hour and pays the toll to get to Chabad of Cherry Hill’s Mikvah Mei Shifrah.
She said that more women would perhaps be motivated to go if it was easier to get there. Sometimes she has allowed other women to borrow her family’s car to get to a mikvah.
“Mikvah is the heartbeat of a Jewish marriage,” Sputz said. “It is so important. To not have a mikvah of our own in the city that we can get to on times where there are snowstorms and Shabbat and holidays … is very difficult and it should not be that way.”
Reut Cohen, a student at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law who is originally from Israel, used to borrow Sputz’s car to go to the mikvah when she first moved to Philadelphia. Now, she has her own car, but said she can’t wait to have a mikvah in the city.
The distance isn’t just an inconvenience; it also prevents her from having a mikvah community.
“In Cherry Hill, they do a lot of women’s events and stuff about taharat hamishpacha, about that mitzvah,” Cohen said. “Since it’s not my community and I’m coming there only for the mikvah itself, it’s also hard to connect that community. This is what we also hope, that a mikvah in the city will also give us an opportunity to have that women’s community, a mikvah community in the city so we’re going to be familiar and meet other women.”
Schmidt said he plans to have educational programming at Mai Shalva.
Yoella Epstein, a lawyer who lives in Center City, currently goes to Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s mikvah in Wynnewood. The whole trip takes her about two hours, including the time it takes her to find a parking spot in Center City when she gets home — that alone can take 45 minutes.
With four kids and a full-time job, going to the mikvah is burdensome. Having a mikvah within walking distance would be “a huge enhancement” to her life.
“I’m excited to bring my little girls to see it, too,” Epstein added.