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Saturday, July 15, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For Hasidic Jews, ritual bath a path back to traditions

Seattle Times religion reporter

If Chanie Levitin wants to obey one of the few laws Jews believe God set aside specifically for women, she has two choices:

She can hope the timing is right and there's room in the schedule at the only synagogue in the state with a kosher ritual bath, Bikur Cholim-Machzikay Hadath in Seward Park.

Or, she can sneak down to Lake Washington for a late-night skinny-dip.

It's no wonder women who want to renew Jewish traditions often draw the line at the mikvah. All too often, the rabbi-approved waters where they can perform the spiritual cleansing prescribed in scripture are inconvenient, uncomfortable or both.

That's about to change for Jewish women who've settled in the View Ridge neighborhood of North Seattle where Levitin lives, across town from Seward Park.

Levitin's congregation, Shaarei Tefilah-Lubavitch, is building its first synagogue in Seattle. It will have two mikvahs - one for women, who bathe as part of marital duties given to Old Testament matriarchs, and one for men, who use the purifying waters for spiritual rebirth.

Levitin's husband, Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, moved to Seattle 28 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y. He was sent by the spiritual leader of the Lubavitcher branch of Hasidic Judaism to start a Hasidic congregation in Seattle and to establish Chabad House, a Jewish educational center near the University of Washington.

The posting of missionaries such as Levitin is a mark of the Lubavitch movement, which works with potential converts and tries to bring nonpracticing Jews back into the fold.

The sect got its name from Lubavici, a Russian town where the group's founders settled 200 years ago.

Levitin and other male Lubavitchers dress in the stern Old World European garb of their forebears - dark suits, white shirts, wide-brimmed black hats, untrimmed beards.

But there's nothing severe about their zeal for sharing the faith. During Hanukkah, Congregation Shaarei Tefilah-Lubavitch lights a giant menorah at Westlake Mall. At Purim, another traditional celebration, a wildly decorated van tools through the neighborhood, loudspeakers blaring holiday greetings.

The $1.5-million synagogue being built at Northeast 65th Street and 43rd Avenue Northeast, is slightly Old World-looking as well. Turrets anchor either side of the entrance. The synagogue is nestled on a house-size lot.

There's no need for a parking lot: Hasidic Jews don't drive on the Sabbath, so all 75 member families live within walking distance.

Many have had only brief experience with Orthodox Judaism or no formal Jewish background before joining Levitin through his Chabad program. Over the years they've worshipped in basements, transformed garages, and, lately, a gutted apartment complex.

"We started out with people who didn't know how to respond to a prayer," said Chanie Levitin. "They had no real Jewish education. It brought tears to my eyes when I realized recently they were really responding, at the right time, with the right words."

Some will experience the mikvah for the first time when the synagogue opens in the fall.

The tradition requires brides and converts to immerse themselves in the purifying waters as a symbol of spiritual rebirth. Men visit the mikvah before weekly services and at Yom Kippur. New dishes are washed in mikvah waters to purify them for a kosher kitchen.

But it's married women who will use the mikvah most heavily. For them, the baths are a monthly obligation, timed to menstruation and a woman's most fertile time. Between the onset of menstruation and the visit to the mikvah - two weeks each month - men and women cannot have sex or even touch each other intimately.

The woman prepares herself for the mikvah by removing everything that might come between her and the purifying water, including makeup, jewelry and nail polish. She immerses herself several times, so that not even a hair is left dry, repeating blessings passed down from Old Testament matriarchs.

In the past century, though, the mikvah appeared headed for the scrap heap. Women complained that the rib-deep pools were often dilapidated, cold and dirty. Some said the ritual itself smacked of sexism and ancient taboos.

But the baths are undergoing a renaissance, particularly among Orthodox women who see them as a way to express spiritual obedience and marital love.

"You feel very connected to women who lived thousands of years ago," said Chanie Levitin. "Your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother, all the way back to Sarah, Rachel and the other women of scripture. You also feel very connected to God. For many women it's a strong spiritual and holy moment."

According to Levitin and others, men respond to the obligatory sexual abstinence by learning to relate to wives as friends as well as lovers.

Jews are reclaiming all kinds of traditions, and there are more calls for the mikvah. According to Taharas Hamishpacha, an organization that publishes a mikvah directory for travelers, there are 700 of the baths worldwide - excluding Israel, where there are thousands.

That's an increase of 40 percent in the past 10 years, said Chana Seligson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Seattle's Lubavitchers are taking care to remain true to the tradition. Architects had a long learning curve, said Robin Abrahams, principal at Abrahams Architects.

"Actually, I had never heard of a mikvah before," said Abrahams, who is Jewish but not orthodox or observant.

"But the ritual part of it rings to me of creating a life passage or life ritual. Like kids becoming adults, adults creating children and people dying and being born. We're versed in making buildings that are structurally sound, but not having to build according to rituals."

To make sure the structure meets scriptural demands, the congregation also has hired a mikvah consultant, Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum of Chabad-Lubavitch Center in St. Paul, Minn.

The mikvah waters must be "there by natural forces, either spring water or rain water that's fallen on the roof," Grossbaum said. There's no spring at the Lubavitchers' property, and not enough rainfall. So Grossbaum has devised a complicated system in which city water is pumped through rainwater, becoming purified by the contact.

Grossbaum and Levitin believe the mikvah will attract new people, converts or Jews who want to reconnect with tradition as the Lubavitchers offer it.

"Every human being has a part of the divine in them and has a need to nurture that," Grossbaum said. "Therefore when the mikvah is offered, they say, `Ah, that is speaking to me.' It really is speaking to their soul, to some undefined yearning of the soul."

Sally Macdonald's phone message number is 206-464-2248. Her e-mail address is smacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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