To cheers and applause, the metal claws of an excavator dug into lush green lawn in front of Congregation Anshe Chesed — and a dream crossed the line into reality. After a nine-year struggle, on Sunday, July 14, members of the Orthodox Linden synagogue broke ground for the Ziga Roshanksi Mikvah. The planners hope to have the ritual bath finished by fall 2014.
If the timing seemed strange — in the period preceding the Tisha B’Av fast, when construction is generally barred — Anshe Chesed’s leader, Rabbi Joshua Hess, had a ready answer: “For a communal construction for a mitzva, the prohibition can be waived.”
The mikva “is inherently a unifier” of husband and wife, and of people with the Creator, he said.
Ritual baths are used monthly by Jewish women observing the laws of “family purity,” men who seek a ritual immersion on customary occasions, and, overseen by rabbis, by individuals undergoing the conversion ceremony.
The congregation, which is about three years short of its centennial, began thinking of building its own mikva in 2004, when Rabbi Cary Friedman was its leader. There are eight mikvas in a 10-mile radius, but none within easy walking distance of the growing young Orthodox population in Linden, which proved difficult for those whose visits to the bath were mandated on Shabbat.
Friedman’s successor, Rabbi Aryeh Stechler, who was present on Sunday together with a number of other rabbis, continued the effort. Efforts to acquire a suitable property failed and plans came to a halt. When Hess and his wife, Naava, came in 2009, they took up the effort, seeing the mikva as an essential element in the effort to attract young families.
A breakthrough came when the planners, together with architect Steven Prawer, came up with a way to build the mikva on the shul’s existing property.
The process slowed again when Prawer died, in December 2011. Crucial help came from Mark Roshanski, who offered to have the construction done by American Dream Properties, the Edison development company founded by his father, longtime Anshe Chesed member Ziga Roshanski, and now owned by Mark. In June the City of Linden issued the required building permits.
Ziga died in 2011. Mark, who had his bar mitzva ceremony at Anshe Chesed and now lives in Manhattan, said he saw the mikva as a particularly apt way to honor his father. “When he was 31 — the age I am now — my father helped fund a mikva in Kiryat Gat [in Israel], where he was living,” he explained.
Ziga grew up in Russia, unable to live openly as a Jew. After his move to Israel, and then to the United States, he reveled in the freedom to fully practice his religion. He and his family settled in Edison and joined Anshe Chesed. His son told the audience he hopes the mikva will help attract new members and encourage participation in Jewish tradition. “It is my way of paying homage to an incredible man, and following in his footsteps by giving back,” he said.
The congregation is drawing new members. Dr. Dovid Helfgott, past president and current chair of the mikva committee, announced that with two families in the process of joining, the number of young members, counting parents and children, will reach 100. The total membership is 125 family units, 25 of whom are classified as “young.”
“A Jewish community is not a community without a mikva,” said current president Alex Gross.
Rav Cheftel Neuberger, dean of Ner Yisroel Talmudic Academy of Baltimore, Hess’s alma mater, gave the blessing. Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka, who has championed the mikva in the hopes of drawing more people to the city, also attended, saying, “It has been a long road, but good things sometimes take a long time.”
Sandi Newman, a fourth-generation member of the congregation, has been involved in the mikva effort, together with Naava Hess, Leah Helfgott, and other women. Watching over her four daughters, with her husband Michael taking pictures of the event, Newman spoke of her pleasure at seeing a milestone achieved.
“For the women who sometimes have to walk to and from Elizabeth, whatever the weather, to use the mikva at the Jewish Educational Center, this is going to make things so much easier,” she said.