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25 November 2020

Building a Mikvah for Brighton & Hove

One of our aims is to establish the infrastructure to sustain Jewish life in Brighton and Hove – for every denomination. In collaboration with Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation (BHHC), we decided early on that, as part of this mission, it would be essential to build a new mikvah (religious bath) for the local and visiting Jewish community to use. A mikvah is a natural pool of water traditionally used for achieving spiritual purity, and holds special significance for Jewish women. Marking a key milestone in our construction project, we will be pouring the mikvah concrete this month.

The building of a mikvah on site is a project close to Rabbi Rader’s heart. He and BHHC’s board have put a great deal of time, dedication and love into building this important facility for the community. Rabbi Rader has worked closely with Rabbi Posen, a world-leading expert in mikvah construction, to ensure a first rate design and halachically compliant mikvah. Our Project Manager Bob Whittaker commented, “we are grateful for the advice and guidance that the Rabbis have provided, without which the construction of these facilities would not have been possible”. We recently interviewed Rabbi Posen to understand the value our mikvah will bring to the community.

Born in Frankfurt, Rabbi Posen fled from Germany just before the Holocaust in 1939. He spent WW2 as an evacuee in Buxton, UK, before later moving to London where he has continued to spend much of his time. Before Covid-19, Rabbi Posen split his time between his home in Israel and his flat in North London, as well as travelling to many international cities to supervise the mikvahs he designed. Now in his '90's, Rabbi Posen is based in Israel and won’t be travelling until it’s safe to do so, but has spent lockdown supervising mikvahs virtually.

Rabbi Posen greeted us on Zoom while sitting in the shade of pomegranate trees in Jerusalem, with accompanying songbirds and blue skies in the background…
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Q: How did you become a mikvah expert?

A: Mikvahs used to be built by two people, the Rabbi and the architect. The Rabbi knew halachah (ritual Jewish law) and the architect knew the technicalities of design. Often there were miscommunications between them because they couldn't always understand each other, and I saw first-hand that unless the architect also had an understanding of Jewish Law, there would always be mistakes. As I had started my career in graphics, I soon realised that I could combine my understanding of technical design, and my knowledge of halachah to design a mikvah myself.

Q: What are the most important ways to make sure a mikvah is kosher?

A: In essence, a mikvah is any natural collection of water, such as a pond, lake or the ocean. But this source of water can’t be static – it has to be a moving collection of water. In theory, you could even use the River Thames as a mikvah, and in the Middle Ages many Jewish people did! Any collection of rainwater in or on the ground is also acceptable to use for a mikvah as long as this body of water has no leakage. Secondly, a built mikvah also needs to be constructed as if it were a part of the ground. For example, if you pour concrete into the ground during construction, then the mikvah is part of the ground and therefore kosher, but it wouldn’t be if it were installed into the ground as a prefabricated unit.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge when building a mikvah today?

A: Nowadays there is a big challenge to build a mikvah that is comfortable and beautiful whilst still within Jewish ritual law - it’s not so easy to do! For example, although using natural rainwater is important for a mikvah to be kosher, many mikvahs will also install a kosher filter to clean the water, and a radiator to warm the water for comfort. We want a mikvah to be a place that is comfortable for everyone, and a place which is beautiful. By making the mikvah beautiful we enhance the Mitzvah (ritual), much like the way we would decorate the Succah. This balance between comfort and ritual law can be challenging.

Q: How many mikvahs have you helped to build and have you visited them all?

A: I have built many mikvahs in almost every continent in the world – except for Antarctica! I have managed to visit every one of my mikvah builds as it is very important for me to be able to inspect them in person. In the current time of Covid-19 it’s been difficult to travel, but there is a lot I have learned that you’re able to do over Zoom. Even if I can’t travel, I always keep a telephone with me so that if any of the mikvah projects I’m working on has any questions, they can contact me straight away.

Q: Have you ever visited Brighton, and will you be visiting in the future to inspect our mikvah?

A: I have visited Brighton many times – I actually designed the first mikvah in Brighton many years ago in the 1970s in the local public bath, and I remember many conversations with the Council about its construction. I would very much like to travel to Brighton to inspect the mikvah in person and I hope to visit one day when it is safe to do so.

Q: How will this mikvah become an important asset for the Brighton Jewish Community?

A: The function of a mikvah is achieving purity – not physical purity, but spiritual purity as an important Jewish ritual. Taking care of our spiritual life through the mikvah nourishes our souls. In these times of social distancing, we can see more than ever the importance of spiritual life. People continue to be Jewish without the physical presence of the Torah, or the synagogue, but our religion cannot continue if we aren’t able to sustain Jewish traditions for spiritual growth – traditions such as the mikvah.