It started with towels.
“We had really old towels, and we wanted to replace them with new ones. We weren’t asking for a renovation,” explained Sarah Glickfield, president of the board of Taharath Israel of St. Louis, which oversees the Sylvia Green Memorial Mikvah on the I.E. Millstone Jewish Community Campus near Creve Coeur.
“We were told if you want new towels, raise the money.”
Eventually, Glickfield and other local Orthodox women raised $4,000 to purchase new bath towels for the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath. They planned to use the leftover money to refurbish one of its bathrooms. But as another mikvah board member, Lisa Tager, 37, recalls, you start redoing one room and the next thing you know, “Everything else looks shabby by comparison.”
And that’s how a $400,000 renovation of the mikvah began. It is scheduled to be completed in June.
“We want women to feel warm and welcomed when they walk in,” said Tager, an animal food nutritionist and fiber artist who belongs to Young Israel. “The word we use a lot is dignity. Other mikvahs around the country are like spas. We want to show the world that St. Louis is a community that caters to its Orthodox families. We need to make sure our mikvah is just as up to par as the other resources and facilities we have here.”
“Mikvah” in Hebrew means “collection,” in this case a collection of water for ritual immersion in Judaism. Observant Jewish women typically visit the mikvah once a month, to purify themselves seven days after the end of their menstrual cycle. After the immersion takes place, a woman can resume sexual activity with her husband, which is not permitted during her period or for the seven days after it.
A mikvah is also used by observant men for purifying themselves before the Sabbath; by brides or grooms before their wedding day; and as the final act of a conversion to Judaism.
The mikvah on the Millstone Campus was built in 1979 and is used 1,000 times per year, according to Tager, Glickfield and others.
“Like any other building that is used every single day for 40 years, it needed some repairs,” Tager said. “There was a leak in the roof that left some water damage to the doors and closets.”
She said that before renovations began, the mikvah board initiated a communitywide survey asking women for feedback on their experiences at the mikvah.
“What we heard is that it isn’t reflective of our community,” Tager said. “They had a negative feeling coming here.”
Glickfield, 34, who belongs to UCity Shul, enlisted the help of philanthropist and developer Michael Staenberg. The two had met at a Jewish Federation event for young professionals where he spoke about charitable giving.
“He said he would take coffee with anyone, so I contacted him,” Glickfield said.
Explained Staenberg: “I knew where the mikvah was, but I had never been there in my life. So I went over there, and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ It reminded me of the JCC in 1964.
“As a person who believes in the Orthodox, the Conservative, the Reform or however you want to be Jewish, this is a ritual, and we should be able to have a first-class facility that we are proud of.”
Staenberg says he began educating himself about mikvahs.
“I went around the country and talked to people about mikvahs in Denver and Kansas City,” he said. “I saw that there’s a right way and a wrong way, so I said if we’re going to do this, let’s make it first-class, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Staenberg agreed to give $200,000, or half the cost, toward a renovation as long as Glickfield and her team could raise the rest of the money.
They applied for a grant through Mikvah USA, which they received (they cannot disclose the amount, they said). They also sought help from the local Orthodox synagogues, which in turn appealed to their congregations. Each raised roughly $10,000. In addition, they started a crowdfunding campaign that raised $65,000.
“What’s interesting is that we heard from people all over,” Tager said. “It was amazing how many people wanted to help.”
Construction began Feb. 4. The outside brick structure that houses both the mikvah and the administrative offices of the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis (which provides kosher certification) has remained pretty much intact, but the interior was gutted. As a result, the Vaad moved to temporary offices in University City.
As for the mikvah, all three immersion pools – one for women, one for men and one to wash and purify utensils – are being overhauled. An additional preparation room has been added, while the other prep areas were reconfigured so that women now have three changing rooms and men have two.
“We also addressed a brick wall that used to be in the middle of two of the pool rooms,” Tager said. “It’s gone, so there is much more of an open, welcoming feel.”
The mikvah has been closed during construction; however, a second mikvah also run by Taharath Israel and located at Young Israel remains open, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are much more stringent rules than normal due to COVID-19, such as everyone needs to prepare to use the mikvah at home, and no one can use the (mikvah) bathrooms,” Tager said. “We just felt we should do everything we can to keep it open at this time.”
A third mikvah, run by Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha Congregation, is located on its campus in Chesterfield. It, too, remains open, with certain limitations because of COVID-19.
“The mikvah is an essential part of a Jewish community’s infrastructure,” said Rabbi Yosef Landa, regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis and one of the mikvah’s rabbinic authorities. “In fact, remarkably, Jewish law mandates that if a community has limited resources and must choose between constructing a synagogue or a mikvah, the mikvah takes precedence over the synagogue.
“The current renovation project is an exciting and delightful example of Hiddur Mitzvah, our obligation to ‘beautify the mitzvah.’ It is our community’s way of demonstrating our love and devotion to this fundamental and hallowed Jewish practice, and it will no doubt inspire many new users to experience the enormous spirituality, which mikvah introduces to a couple’s intimate life.”
Tager isn’t sure when a dedication ceremony for the refurbished mikvah will be held, but its new name will be the Staenberg Family Foundation Mikvah. The cost to use the mikvah has been $23. Mikvah board members aren’t sure whether that amount will change once the new mikvah is open.
Trudy Sudin, 67, a member of the Taharath Israel board and congregant at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, said: “I used the mikvah from the very beginning. I wanted to be part of this renovation because I wanted to see it updated and beautified so that the women of today can come here, feel comfortable and have a totally positive experience.”