The gulls and sandpipers must have been surprised when 28 grown men strode naked into the chilly ocean waters off Rodeo Beach in Marin County.
The bathers had gathered before sunrise Sunday, Sept. 17 for Congregation Rodef Sholom’s annual men’s mikvah, part of their spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah.
“There’s something about going to the water and putting everything in cosmic perspective,” says Michael Lezak, associate rabbi at Rodef Sholom and organizer of the men’s mikvah. “These are living waters.”
Lezak has been leading the men’s mikvah for four years. Though most people think of it as a woman’s ritual, the mikvah is open to all Jews and is becoming increasingly popular with men.
“We had 10 or 12 the first year,” says Lezak, “and it has doubled every year. Seventy-five percent are returning people and there’s always a new crew who come.”
The morning began at 6 a.m., with participants gathering in the synagogue’s candlelit sanctuary for study, prayer and personal sharing.
“We sat in a circle on the bimah,” says Lezak. “Everyone talked about one thing they wanted to leave behind and one thing they wanted to take with them into the New Year. It was deep and real.”
“For me, it was a great way to get it started,” says Fred Greene of San Rafael, founder of the popular podcast golfsmarter.com. He was there in the men’s mikvah for the second time. “It was our opportunity to get introspective, and to get into the High Holy Days.”
After singing a closing niggun, everyone drove to the Marin Headlands shore where Lezak further explained the ritual of mikvah.
To be kosher, the source must consist of living waters (such as a river, creek or ocean waters), the feet must come off the ground, the head immersed under water, and hands and toes fully spread out. The rabbi instructed the men to recite three blessings, including the Shehechiyanu and the Sh’ma.
“Then,” he says, “it was between them and the water.”
Water temperatures were somewhere in the 50s, but Lezak notes that complaints about the cold rarely come up anymore.
Says Greene, “Rabbi Lezak is a great spiritual leader. This was probably for me the most meaningful Jewish experience ever, followed by my sons’ bar mitzvahs.”
The rabbi’s first personal experience with mikvah came eight years ago in Boston, the morning of his wedding. “I went to Walden Pond at the crack of dawn,” he recalls, “surrounded by people who loved me on that day of transformation, birthing myself in living waters.”
His wife, Noa Kushner, was the Hillel rabbi at Stanford for several years, and she led a woman’s mikvah ceremony at Half Moon Bay during her tenure.
So when Lezak came to Rodef Sholom, he says, “it seemed natural, since we are so close to the water, to connect [mikvah] to the holidays.”
Lezak believes that the spiritual preparation removed any sense of shame over public nudity. “The sight of grown men walking into water naked, thinking about the approaching New Year as the sun crept over the headlands, was as mighty a communal experience as I ever had.”
And as for disrobing out in the open, Green had no concerns. “I spent a lot of time in Santa Barbara in the ’60s,” he says. “I’m 51. I don’t care what anyone thinks.”