Center City Mikvah Opens to Community

The women's mikvah is a large, square bath with teal green tiling. It is in a larger building with large, marble blocks. There is a marble staircase leading to the mikvah, with two handrails.
The Mai Shalva Center City Community Mikvah is now open to women. | Courtesy of Menachem Schmidt

The Facebook group to raise funds for the Mai Shalva Center City Community Mikvah was created on Oct. 19, 2013, but the need for the mikvah long predated the page.

Thirty years after the initial plan for a Center City mikvah, and 40 years since the closure of the previous Center City mikvah, at long last, Mikvah Mai Shalva is now open.

The mikvah, a ritual bath used for purification rituals in Judaism, is located at Vilna Congregation, the Society Hill shul at 509 Pine St.

Currently open to women exclusively, the mikvah is primarily being used for the purpose of taharat hamishpacha, family purity. However, it also will be available before Shabbat and weddings, and for additional ritual use.

Despite spearheading the efforts to build the mikvah and hosting it at his shul, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt wasn’t originally interested in being involved with the process. As a Chabad rabbi, Schmidt was used to interacting with University of Pennsylvania students and young professionals.

But as Schmidt has been a rabbi at Vilna Congregation, which was founded in 1922, since 1988, he had nearly three decades to warm up to the idea of a mikvah. He eventually came around, as community interest in the mikvah reached a critical mass in the past 10 years and because, as Schmidt said, a mikvah is crucial to any Jewish community.

“A mikvah is such an important thing in the community that you’re allowed to sell a shul to build a mikvah,” Schmidt said to illustrate his point.

For Jews, particularly Jewish women who observe taharat hamishpacha, the mikvah is an affirmation of the Jewish value of family.

“Family truly is the center of everything,” said Chava Schmidt, Menachem Schmidt’s wife and a Mikvah Mai Shalva committee member. “A synagogue is very holy, but it’s not the same. It’s not as important as a Jewish family.”

The ritual bath was especially appreciated for Jews living in Center City. Mikvahs are often needed on Shabbat, but the only mikvahs in the area are solely accessible by car.

“​​On Shabbos, you can’t drive to and from the mikvah on Friday night, so it needs to be within walking distance, and that has not been available,” Chava Schmidt said.

For Brenna Stein, a longtime supporter of and donor to Mai Shalva, the closest mikvah was more than a 30-minute drive from her home in Center City.

In addition to the mikvah’s convenience for those already in the area, Stein believes that having a mikvah in Center City will be a driving force in growing the Jewish community there.

The generosity of the community members showed that they agreed, as they raised more than $800,000 for the mikvah’s construction.

Vilna Congregation closed in early 2019 to accommodate the ritual bath’s construction, and demolition began in May 2020 and was completed the following month. That was the easy part; the mikvah went through multiple contractors and architects over the past two years, slowing the timeline.

“In Hebrew, it’s called a bilbul — a whole, big confusion,” Schmidt said.

COVID-19 further complicated matters, as the city delayed building inspections.
“Construction delays for nonprofit projects are part of what you hope doesn’t happen, but always happen,” Schmidt said.

Vilna Congregation is a century-old building with a large door surrounded by stained-glass, light bricks, window beds with plants overflowing from them and a black metal gate.
Vilna Congregation began construction on the mikvah in early 2019. | Courtesy of Menachem Schmidt

Finally, in March, the building passed inspection and the Mai Shalva Mikvah began the months-long process of collecting rainwater, as required halachically — by Jewish law — to fill a mikvah.

The shul’s ark and Torahs were displaced by the construction, and now reside in the building’s new synagogue space on the second floor, which will also serve as a flex space for educational programs and services. In its place on the ground floor, the women’s mikvah and preparation rooms now reside.

Since its soft opening at the beginning of August, the mikvah has hosted a steady stream of women every day, according to Chava Schmidt.

Stein was one of the first women to use the mikvah, following the birth of her child in July. Having tried for years to conceive, Stein would use her time at a mikvah in the past to say personal prayers. Now, at the mikvah she invested in for years, Stein said she was able to take time to thank God for her child.

“We tried for a very, very long time to have our child, and we’ve been waiting a very, very long time to have the mikvah,” Stein said. “So it feels very appropriate.”

Additional information about Mai Shalva, as well as reservations for the women’s mikvah, can be found at The Schmidts intend to announce plans for the men’s mikvah and mikvah for the keilim, immersion of vessels, as well as the date of the grand opening and dedication of the mikvah, in the coming days.; 215-832-0741


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