It was an endeavor that began three years ago and culminated in a rousing Zoom celebration held on Thursday evening, December 24, with spiritual leaders from Ahavas Achim, Anshei Lubavitch, Darchei Noam, Shomrei Torah and Young Israel of Fair Lawn all in attendance. The theme repeated again and again was that of achdut. Such unity was critical to the success of this project, whose aim was to enhance the mitzvah of taharat hamishpacha by modernizing the town’s mikvah. The proceedings themselves were a mixture of inspirational thought, hakarat hatov, fundraising and lighthearted banter. First, though, some history.
Fair Lawn’s mikvah was constructed by Shomrei Torah and is housed on its premises. It has served the community for over 30 years, almost exclusively under the leadership of long-time shul member Dossy Brandstatter. Over time, as repairs were needed, they usually received a Band-Aid treatment. More recently, it became apparent that a major overhaul was overdue. Rather than go it alone, Shomrei Torah joined forces with the shuls mentioned above, as well as with Bris Avraham, to form the Fair Lawn Mikvah Association. The Association was created in September 2017 and has been headed by Nechama Zofan of Shomrei Torah since March 2018. Its goal was two-fold—to determine how best to refurbish the existing mikvah and to discuss a future stand-alone mikvah near the Saddle River Road part of town, since women from that area have been forced to walk up to 45 minutes to visit the mikvah on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
The association got a much-needed boost when Chaya Birnbaum moved into town. While making use of the mikvah, she recognized the need for its renovation. She approached several rabbis in town with her concerns and her ideas on how they might be addressed. She then stepped up by giving both her time and financial resources to the project. She was one of the first to make a sizable donation to honor the memory of her parents. As she explained, “Everyone has their causes and this one was mine.” She stepped into the role of project manager and designer, meeting with contractors to discuss plans and receive price quotes. Based on feedback, she determined that to implement all the necessary upgrades, including a fourth prep room, would cost $360,000.
The goal was set and over time, Rabbi Levi Neubort of Anshei Lubavitch used his fundraising skills to locate donors willing to match, sometimes by several multiples, many of the contributions. Mikvah USA was approached and given a tour of the mikvah last year.
As Zofan explained, “They were impressed that it was a community-wide effort with participation from all the shuls.” As a result, they offered a significant grant.
The fundraising effort went into overdrive about a month ago. Until then, the only ones who knew the details of the renovation were committee members. Additionally, though there had been many pledges, they hadn’t yet been translated into bankable contributions. Shira Teichman, a committee member from Young Israel, decided that the plans needed to be opened to all of Fair Lawn. She organized a Zoom meeting kickoff event attended by 130 women, which, she said, “generated a lot of positive excitement.” At that meeting, it was announced that there would be a 36-hour fundraiser sometime over the next few weeks, with the stated goal of raising the $360,000. That event took place from midday December 23 to midnight December 24. Incredibly, within 12 hours of its start the goal was met and a new goal of $440,000 was established. All excess funds were earmarked exclusively for the future standalone mikvah.
Teichman said, “We are at a beautiful place in the trajectory of this community and I am proud to be part of it.”
Rabbi Neubort, master of ceremonies for the Thursday-evening event, opened by proclaiming it “an unprecedented evening in Fair Lawn history,” noting the incredible community achdut. He announced that the official count raised as of that moment was $519,508. He encouraged the meeting’s 134 participants to “Share a link on Facebook and YouTube to get as many involved in this noble cause as possible.” He also asked that if anyone knew of a property for sale near the Saddle River Road area, or better yet, one that could be gifted as a mikvah, they should speak up.
Shira Donath, rebbetzin at Darchei Noam, who is also a yoetzet halacha specializing in taharat hamishpacha, was the first to speak. She dedicated her few moments to Rabbi Yehuda Henken, z”l, who had been her inspiration for increasing and enhancing taharat hamishpacha, saying, “His goal was to create achdus and this campaign is a testament.” Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Shomrei Torah spoke of the concept of kedusha and tahara and thanked Zofan as the organizing force who kept the mikvah open and safe during COVID. Rabbi Andrew Markowitz, the shul’s current rabbinic leader, echoed the thought, speaking of how Zofan and others had endangered their lives to keep the mikvah open. He also spoke of the vast number of questions posed and answered during those trying days. He acknowledged Shevi Yudin, whose selflessness and tireless efforts sparked the creation of a mikvah decades ago.
Rabbi Ely Shestack of Ahavas Achim spoke of the parallels of relating to a spouse and relating to Hashem, and the importance of the role served by a mikvah. Rebbetzin Chana Shestack directed her remarks towards the women of Fair Lawn and all of klal Yisrael, saying, “I want to give a shout-out to those women who, despite being tired and challenged with balancing multiple obligations, still are totally committed to attending mikvah even in the middle of a winter snowstorm.”
Rabbi Belizon of Young Israel marveled at the highly successful efforts of the past 36 hours, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fundraiser like this one.”
Rabbi Neubort kept things lively by periodically announcing prizes to the highest bidder.
Rebbetzin Neubort gave credit to Birnbaum, noting that “it offers the potential to allow women of all levels of observance to consider attending mikvah—hopefully on a regular basis.” Rebbetzin Markowitz noted that this is a time to daven for those who do not yet need the mikvah but are looking for a shidduch. Rabbi Jeremy Donath of Darchei Noam noted, “We made so many campaign goals already that this event has become a celebration. Our job normally is to give chizuk to the community, but they gave it to us … In the last months all of our shuls closed, but the one institution that didn’t was the mikvah … We need to credit the women and rebbetzins of our community.”
Zofan, in a later interview, proudly spoke of this same concept. “We continued uninterrupted during COVID. Every night we needed to make changes to make women comfortable, to follow CDC guidelines and to keep proper hygiene … at one point the older mikvah ladies were not permitted to work and the rebbetzins and others took over to volunteer for three straight months beginning in March, which was no small accomplishment.”
The Zoom call/fundraiser was a marathon, lasting over two-and-a-half hours. A testament to the importance of the topic, though, was that nearly two hours into it, there were still over 70 people on the call.
As of this writing, $539,670 has been raised for this special mitzvah. To contribute, go to www.Charidy.com/flma.
Robert Isler is a researcher/writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected]