The Purifying Waters: Mobilizing the Community to Renovate the Shore Area Mikveh

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Mozelle Forman 

 

A community is united by shared customs, values, and goals. While geography certainly plays a part in the cohesiveness of a community, a few tolls and bridges have never separated our beloved Deal and Brooklyn branches. We feel a deep bond, and are committed to supporting and caring for each other. A heartwarming example of this bond of shared values and mutual concern is the renovation and expansion of the Shore Area Mikveh, with the community in its entirety coming together for this sacred undertaking. 

Mikvaot in the Syrian Community – A Brief History 

When Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, zt”l, and his beloved wife Mazal, a”h,  arrived in Brooklyn with their young family in 1933, they had a mission – to help the area’s Syrian Jews become a cohesive, Torah-observing community. With their boundless love and kindness, and unconditional acceptance of all community members, the rabbi and rebbetzin gently encouraged their congregants to observe more mitzvot, and to build the infrastructure needed in order for a thriving Jewish community to develop. The building on 67th Street emerged as a hub of Torah life, housing the synagogue, the ktab, the boys’ after-school learning program, and, deep down in the basement, a one-room mikveh. As the community grew and moved from Bensonhurst to the Ocean Parkway area, the need for new infrastructure was apparent. 

With the generosity of lay leaders, foundations were set in the building of Magen David Yeshiva and Shaare Zion. Many yeshivot and synagogues followed. But one important facility was still missing – a mikveh.   

Without a mikveh, community women who were committed to observing this sacred mitzvah  needed to go through a great deal of trouble to do so. Sylvia Laniado recalls that during this period, many people had never even heard of a mikveh.  

“There were no classes, instructions, or information,” she says, but we agreed to go.”  Sylvia describes how women would travel by bus or train to 67th St. to use the existing mikveh. On Friday nights or holidays, they walked to the mikveh on Ocean Parkway, near Avenue Z, which was situated inside a garage in the backyard of a property.   

“After walking there on a Friday night, you’d open the garage door and be met by a pool full of stagnant water, bugs, and flies,” she reminisces, less than fondly. “You had to move your arms in circles to clear the water so you could dip!” Needless to say, this state of affairs discouraged many from observing the mitzvah. 

“The Purity of the Community” 

As often happens in our community, the first communal mikveh project was initiated by a group consisting of rabbis and lay leaders who saw a need and set out to meet it. Rabbi Kassin approached Sonny Laniado and said, “Sonny, my boy, I want you to build a mikveh in our community.”  According to Sonny’s wife, Sylvia, Sonny did not think he was the right man for the job, until he spoke to Rabbi Yosef Raful, whose encouragement propelled Sonny into the project.  

Mr. Laniado enlisted the help of visionaries Mr. Isaac Hidary and Mr. Manny Haber, who began raising money, and finding and purchasing a property on Avenue S in Brooklyn. Simultaneously – because we are, after all, one community – they worked with Rabbi Isaac Dwek, approaching donors to raise funds for a mikveh in Deal. Mr. Ezra E. Ashkenazi was a major benefactor who was involved from the project’s inception, and assumed the responsibility of funding the mikveh for many years.  

“When we were first approached to open the mikveh,” Manny Haber recalls, “we didn’t understand the significance. But the building of the Brooklyn and Deal mikvehs together changed the purity of the community in a very significant way.” Both projects proceeded in tandem, with the smaller Deal project finishing first, and both were celebrated with beautiful ceremonies and a great deal of fanfare. 

“A Place Where We Connect with Hashem” 

The Shore Area Mikveh, located on Norwood Avenue in Deal, opened its doors in 1976, with a dedication in memory of Mrs. Sylvia Serouya.  

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi describes, “The mikveh is a place where we connect with Hashem in the most profound manner, observing a mitzvah that spans the generations as it upholds the very essence of Jewish family purity.”   

Rabbi David Ozeri explains that “the mikveh is not just a facility; it is a sacred space that facilitates spiritual renewal and personal sanctification. It is where individuals connect with a tradition that has sustained our people through the ages.”  

In fact, according to halachah, building a mikveh takes precedence over building other religious institutions in terms of allocation of funds. Thanks to the generosity of our community members, this precious mitzvah is being fulfilled. 

After several false starts, the original building was completed at its present site on Norwood Avenue. The facility underwent several renovations and expansions over the years to accommodate the growing needs of the community. The first expansion occurred in 1990, with the addition of four dressing rooms. At that point, the community of full-time Deal residents had, baruch Hashem, grown from 65 families (4,000) people to 5,600.  And in the summer, when the Brooklyn and Deal segments of the community reunite geographically at the shore, the mikveh served about 30-40 women each night, including Shabbat.  

It can be proudly said that the regular use of the mikveh by so many righteous community women in those years led to considerable wear-and-tear. When the boiler broke, Rabbi Shmuel Choueka knew who to contact – Mr. Louie Massry. Initial repairs were made, but Lou was not satisfied with just fixing what was broken – he wanted to ensure that the mikveh served our community in the best way possible. Lou became a devoted patron of the mikveh, meticulously looking after the mikveh’s maintenance. When it became obvious that the mikveh would need another expansion, he worked diligently with architects and builders, raised money, and, along with Tita Matut, oversaw all the work necessary to expand the facility to four pools and 15 dressing rooms. 

One of the community members that Lou contacted to support the Deal mikveh was Eli Cohen, a Shaare Zion board member. Mr. Cohen was excited to join this endeavor.  

“Our first mitzvah,” Mr. Cohen says, “is peru urvu [procreation – Beresheet 1:28]. In order to fulfill this mitzvah, we must follow the laws of taharat hamishpahah [family purity], and in order to follow those laws, we must have a kosher mikveh. By supporting a mikveh, we ensure the continuity of our beautiful community. We don’t know the merit of our mitzvot, but it is clear that supporting a mikveh allows one to gain merit from all the mitzvot that follow from it.” 

Now, in 2024, the number of full-time residents in the Deal area stands at approximately 10,000, nearly double the number of residents since the mikveh’s last expansion. Its summer clientele is up to 80 women every night. As the community has spread out in the Jersey Shore area, other mikvehs have been built to service local women on Friday night by appointment, but the Shore Area mikveh remains the sole mikveh open seven nights per week, 365 days a year, with no appointment required. The dedicated mikveh attendants even accommodate women who require late entry to the mikveh due to delayed flights, family occasions and weddings, sometimes as late as 1am! No one is ever turned away.   

Unfortunately, however, some women have reported being reluctant to use the mikveh due to its poor condition. Moreover, the recent development of the property next door has made privacy a new and pressing issue. And thus the time has come to refurbish, renovate, and expand. 

Meeting the Highest Standards 

Halachic sources delineate the minimum requirements of the mitzvot – a sukkah must have certain dimensions and be constructed in a particular manner; a kiddush cup must be a certain minimum size; a mikveh must be filled with a minimum amount of rain water collected in a specific manner. But in addition, the halachic concept of hiddur mitzvah requires showing respect to mitzvot through aesthetic enhancements. We adorn the sukkah with decorations, and we use a silver cup for kiddush. This obligation is derived from our ancestors’ proclamation in their song of praise after the miracle of the sea, “Zeh Keli ve’anvehu – This is my Gd, and I shall glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2).  The Sages (Shabbat 133b) understood “ve’anvehu” (“and I shall glorify Him”) to mean, “hitnaeh lefanav bemitzvot” – that we must make the mitzvot aesthetically beautiful. Indeed, when Gd commanded Beneh Yisrael to build a special site for serving Him, He instructed that they construct a magnificent Mishkan, with gold, silver, precious gems and other materials, which the people enthusiastically donated for this purpose – so much so, in fact, that Moshe needed to tell them to stop donating! When it comes to the aesthetic beauty of our mitzvot, we must be prepared to give generously, thereby displaying our love for Hashem’s commands and the priority we ascribe to them. 

Accordingly, community rabbis are appealing to community members to donate toward the renovation of the Shore Area Mikveh. 

 

“The current condition of our mikveh, while functional, does not fully mirror the kedushah and reverence this vital mitzvah deserves,” Rabbi Farhi says.  “The time has come for us as a strong and dedicated community, to elevate this sacred space, ensuring it meets the highest standards of tzeniut, kashrut, and comfort.”   

 

Rabbi Joey Haber likewise reminds us that we live in a time where our homes are prettier, our cars are nicer, and our vacations more beautiful. “How can our mikvaot not meet the same standard?” he asks. 

 

Rabbi Meyer Yedid comments that, “Making the mikveh roomier and more accessible aligns with the principle of hiddur mitzvah – beautifying a commandment. By renovating our mikveh to be more beautiful and inviting, we are not merely enhancing our physical experience, but elevating the spiritual value and fulfillment of this mitzvah. By investing in its renovation, we reaffirm our commitment to our shared values and the future of our community.”  

 

Uniting the Community 

 

A project of this scope and magnitude requires a great deal of support and dedication. Eddie Mizrahi, President of the Executive Board, felt compelled to get involved in this project which has, in his words, “united every dimension of our community.” He explains, “This project is community-driven with unity and the backing of the rabbis of the Deal community and the support of the Brooklyn rabbinic leaders, as well.”  The Rabbinical Board is comprised of Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, Rabbi Shmuel Choueka,  Rabbi Edmond Nahum, Rabbi Saul Kassin, and Rabbi Moshe Malka. Other members of the Executive board include Maurice Zekaria (Vice President), Edgar Cohen (Treasurer), Eli Cohen, Ray Haber, Soli Mizrahi, and Joey Setton. 

 

The mikveh could not function without the devoted efforts of Mrs. Diana Kuessous and Mrs. Susie Choueka, who have been working tirelessly for over 40 years, greeting the women each night and providing them with support.  

Mrs. Elyse Kairey, who has helped women perform this mitzvah for over 24 years, is passionate about the renovation project.  “The mikveh is not just a place to perform this important mitzvah,” she explains. “We tend to the women in a caring way. There is a sensitivity and a beauty to their commitment to this personal, private time, and with the renovations, we hope to create an uplifting, welcoming and warm environment, assuring a pleasant experience as they perform this vital mitzvah.”  

Mrs. Kairey also expresses her heartfelt gratitude to Rabbi Choueka “for his ongoing, selfless devotion to the mikveh. He tirelessly addresses inquiries and offers guidance on mikveh issues, and we deeply appreciate his dedication and support.” 

Designer Deborah Shiloach has generously devoted her time and her many talents to the current project since its inception three years ago. Abe Jerome has shared his invaluable expertise and guidance. Maurice Zekaria and Ray Builders, at the helm of the construction, are ensuring that the project not only meets but exceeds our community’s expectations.  

The renovated mikveh will have as its centerpiece the Matriarch Wall and Eshet Chayil Wall, with dedication opportunities to acknowledge and honor the holy women of our community.  The Matriarch Wall, generously donated by Jack and Joyce Kassin, is fittingly dedicated to the matriarch of our community, Rabbanit Mazal Kassin, a”h, who lovingly served alongside her husband, Rabbi Jacob Kassin, zt”l, for 45 years, working to promote the values of purity, family, and fealty to tradition. I am proud to have called her Sito, and humbled to be her namesake.   

The Eshet Chayil Wall, generously dedicated by the Shiloach family, honors Mrs. Molly Chappan Shiloach, a”h, who epitomized commitment to tradition and community. Her legacy, which was built in Maryland and then brought by her family when they moved to New Jersey, endures through her children and grandchildren.  

“A Cornerstone of Jewish Life” 

This project will profoundly affect the entire community, raising the levels of sanctity and purity. Rabbi Rachamim Aboud says, “Purifying in a mikveh brings kedushah and taharah into the home, which will influence children to follow the ways of the Torah. Therefore, all who are involved in supporting or enhancing the mikveh, thus encouraging the observance of this vital mitzvah, will be blessed that their children will follow the path of Torah. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah [one mitzvah leads to another].”   

Rabbi David Ozeri eloquently reminds us that “for millennia, the practice of taharat hamishpahah has been a cornerstone of Jewish life, enriching our families and communities with sanctity and unity.”   

Rabbi David Tawil describes family purity as the “hallmark of Am Yisrael…which we have maintained through even the harshest oppression. Our women have gone to heroic lengths to ensure the preservation of our holy line, observing the laws of family purity with respect.”  And Rabbi Yaakov Nissim Ben-Haim attests that “our grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Kassin, zt”l, and our father, Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim, zt”l, reiterated many times the importance of not only a kosher mikveh, but an appealing mikveh for the women of our community.” 

There are many ways to become involved in this critically important initiative, with many dedication opportunities still available. Rabbi Choueka has emphasized that the Shechinah (divine presence) rests where there is taharah.  It is our hope that together we can truly and profoundly enhance the purity and sanctity of our community, and thereby bring the Shechinah into our midst, now and throughout future generations.