Update: The original article was corrected on January 26, 2020 to include information about Shir Ami.
Hedy Hoffman felt she didn’t get the opportunity to properly mourn her mother when she died in 2008.
But out of the blue, her husband, Neil, presented her with a gift — a $360,000 pledge ensuring that Bucks County’s newest mikvah would be named in her mother’s honor.
“It was so shocking to me that he would do this,” Hoffman said. “Absolute shock. I could not believe that this was happening.”
The Adele Mermelstein Community Mikvah has been in the works for years and is set to break ground at 11 a.m. on Feb. 9. The mikvah will be located a block away from Lubavitch of Bucks County’s Glazier Jewish Center in Newtown.
Spearheading the project are Rosie Weinstein, associate director of women’s programming at Lubavitch, and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein, the adult education director at Lubavitch and rabbi of The Shul at Newtown.
Rabbi Weinstein said Lubavitch originally intended to install a mikvah in the Glazier center, but scrapped the project after encountering some difficulties.
About five years ago, when an elderly neighbor offered to sell her property, more than 50 community members raised about $130,000 to make a down payment. Fundraising efforts have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the mikvah fund ever since. Mikvah USA also awarded a large grant toward the project.
Weinstein said it has been a long process to get a variance with the Newtown borough and design approval with the area’s historic board, but everything is coming together now.
“We always had a vision of making a mikvah in our community, and now we are excited that we’re about to break ground,” he said. “The community is very excited about this project. They understand the spiritual significance of this and how it’s going to bolster and strengthen Jewish married life and Jewish family life.
“We’ve been able to move forward completely because the community has stepped up and almost all of our funding has been local, and we’re proud of that because it’s a statement from our community of where their values are at and how they understand the importance of it.”
The Newtown mikvah will be a new 2,000-square-foot building. Weinstein said it will cost more than $1 million, and that Lubavitch is still raising money for it.
The project’s focal point is the women’s mikvah, which will have three preparation rooms. Weinstein estimated that 50 to 100 women will use it each month, with that number expected to increase over time. There will be a separate men’s mikvah and a Tevilas Keilim mikvah for utensils.
Weinstein said the hope is to have it finished in less than a year. Once completed, the new mikvah will be the third in Bucks County — the others being the Joseph and Martha Melohn Bucks County Mikvah in Bensalem and the Goldman-Strom Mikveh at Shir Ami in Newtown.
Rabbi Yudy Shemtov, Lubavitch senior rabbi and executive director, said the project’s aim is to make the idea of a mikvah more accessible and approachable to those unfamiliar with the concept. He hopes to tap into the broadest constituency, which is non-observant, to elevate the practice. He said the local Jewish community is growing, so it’s important to have a mikvah as close as possible to where people live.
“I am so super excited, you have no idea,” Shemtov said. “This was an important part of our dream, our vision. And to see it come true is absolutely amazing.”
Shemtov described mikvahs as “one of the great spiritual resources that Judaism offers and … is most misunderstood and underappreciated, and in our mission to present Jewish Done Joyfully, which is our motto. This is a major step forward.”
Mermelstein, who the mikvah honors, was a Holocaust survivor.
Hoffman said her mother was born in 1920 and grew up in a Hungarian-speaking village in Czechoslovakia. Mermelstein’s family was sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and two younger brothers were killed on arrival. Her father would later die in the camp, but she and her two sisters survived. After six weeks, the three were sent to a labor camp to dig trenches for a year. At the time of liberation, Mermelstein was severely ill and hospitalized for four months. Once released, she returned home with her sisters.
Seeking a new life, Mermelstein and one sister decided to come to the United States. The sisters wanted to reach out to their uncle to sponsor their immigration, but didn’t know his address except for the name of his town: Easton. So they simply addressed their letter to “Easton, United States” and it bounced around between every city with that name until arriving in Easton, Pennsylvania. A mailman happened to know their uncle and delivered the letter.
The uncle then sponsored their immigration. After arriving in 1948, Mermelstein eventually settled in Philadelphia, where she met her husband, a fellow survivor. The couple had four children together.
At the groundbreaking, Hoffman hopes to have all of her siblings in attendance. And at the future dedication, she aims to have all of her mother’s descendants present.
[email protected]; 215-832-0751