Jewish community in Kelowna welcomes opening of 1st mikvah in B.C. Interior

Fraidy Hecht, far left, and her daughter give guests a tour of the new mikvah in Kelowna, B.C., during its official opening ceremony at the Okanagan Chabad House. (Chabad Okanagan/Facebook - image credit)
Fraidy Hecht, far left, and her daughter give guests a tour of the new mikvah in Kelowna, B.C., during its official opening ceremony at the Okanagan Chabad House. (Chabad Okanagan/Facebook - image credit)

During the winter, Fraidy Hecht has to either drive or fly from Kelowna to Vancouver for a Jewish ritual of bathing in a mikvah.

A mikvah, also spelled mikveh, can be in any natural body of water. When it's warm enough, Hecht can use one of the region's lakes. When temperatures plunge, she prefers to use an indoor facility — which requires a trip to either Vancouver or Calgary, both hundreds of kilometres away.

But now, Hecht and other women in the region's Jewish community will be able to use a mikvah built in downtown Kelowna.

The Mikvah Chaya Mushka opened on Feb. 21 in the Okanagan Chabad House, a Jewish educational outreach organization south of downtown Kelowna, following months of work by certified mikvah builders from Minnesota and New York.

"Everybody is so excited — it's really a cornerstone of a Jewish community, like you have a synagogue," said Hecht, co-director of the Okanagan Chabad House.

Jewish ritual of 'cleansing'

The Jewish law (Halakhah in Hebrew) requires that an indoor mikvah be an immersion pool containing at least 757 litres of natural rainwater, melted ice or snow that is built into the ground or inside a building, according to New York-based Jewish organization Mikvah USA.

The organization says given that water symbolizes life in Judaism, immersing in a mikvah pool is a religious ritual that can cleanse people of impurities.

Okanagan Chabad House
Okanagan Chabad House

It adds that the mikvah is primarily used by Jewish women to practice taharas hamishpachah or "family purity," a tradition where they refrain from having any intimate contact with their husband during menstruation.

According to the tradition, the mikvah immersion should take place after nightfall, seven days since the end of menstrual bleeding. The woman should first fully submerge herself into the mikvah water, recite the blessing for ritual purification while standing in the water, then immerse twice more.

Okanagan Chabad House
Okanagan Chabad House

Jewish women are free to resume having sex with their husband after the mikvah.

Jewish men also use the mikvah on Erev Shabbat (Fridays), as a groom on his wedding day, or before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism that happens in late September or early October.

1st mikvah between Vancouver and Calgary

According to the New York-based Taharas Hamishpacha Organization, there are 41 mikvah bath facilities across Canada, including four in B.C. — two in Vancouver and two in Victoria — serving more than 34,000 people who self-identify as Jewish across the province.

Before the Mikvah Chaya Mushka bath was built, the nearest mikvah for people in Kelowna was in either Vancouver, 258 kilometres away, or Calgary, 395 kilometres away.

The Okanagan Chabad House raised more than $46,000 to build the new mikvah in the Kelowna metropolitan area, where the Jewish population has more than doubled from 595 in 2016 to 1,225 in 2021.

Hecht, who has been married for more than a decade, says she could take the ritual bath in a nearby lake during the summer, but had to go to a mikvah in Vancouver during the winter.

According to the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Jerusalem, a woman may immerse in any natural water body if there are no recognized mikvah pools around.

Hecht says the ritual is an important part of her marriage.

"Mikvah really brings renewal — there are about 12 days when you're separated, and then you get together again," she said.

Shmuly Hecht/Facebook
Shmuly Hecht/Facebook

Her husband, Rabbi Shmuly Hecht, co-director of Okanagan Chabad House, says the mikvah enables Jewish women to bring God's blessings to their marriage.

"Women have a lot of power in bringing stability and wholesomeness to marriage. The women hold the key to true love and for each other," he said.