Fargo Orthodox Jewish community strives to bring back the ritual bath
Once home to a thriving Orthodox Jewish population, Fargo had its own mikvah or 'ritual bath.' It disappeared years ago, but an effort is underway to bring it back.
FARGO — North Dakota’s Jewish community is trying to bring back an important part of its faith tradition with the construction of a mikvah in north Fargo, the first in nearly 75 years.
A fundraising campaign by the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota has raised close to $40,000 toward its $250,000 goal to build a new mikvah at 1234 Broadway, site of the old Ronald McDonald House.
Rabbi Yonah Grossman and his wife Esti Grossman have been working on the fundraiser since last year and have also worked with an architect on the plans to repurpose the garage and an adjacent area of the property for the mikvah.
What is a mikvah?
A mikvah might just look like a small swimming pool, but it’s actually a ritual bath.
According to The Jewish Women, “Its ordinary appearance, however, belies its primary place in Jewish life and law. The mikvah offers the individual, the community and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness.”
Immersion in the mikvah is seen as “a gateway to purity,” and is used largely by women in the days after menstruation or before getting married. However, the mikvah is also used by men and women on other special occasions. (For fans of “Sex and the City,” Charlotte York Goldenblatt immersed herself in a mikvah when she converted from Christianity to Judaism.)
Fargo's old mikvah
In February of 2020, The Forum featured a story about an abandoned mikvah that served Jewish women in Fargo during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The remnants of the ritual bath can be seen in the basement of what is now the Red River Women’s Clinic.
As Fargo’s Orthodox Jewish community started to dwindle in the middle of the 20th century, the mikvah fell into disrepair and closed. The exact date when the mikvah was sealed is not known, but it's estimated the mikvah was no longer in use by the mid-20th century. People who follow either the Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism, which make up a larger population of the Jewish faith than the Orthodox in today’s Fargo-Moorhead, do not use the mikvah in great numbers.
‘A whole ordeal’
Nonetheless, the need is still there, according to the Grossmans, who say while the state once had at least four mikvahs, there are currently none, leaving women who want to use a mikvah to travel four hours or more to Winnipeg or the Twin Cities.
While the Jewish faith says some naturally occurring bodies of water can serve as mikvahs, none of the thousands of lakes across Minnesota have been deemed suitable for use as mikvahs or ritual bathing.
“Local Jewish women in Fargo have expressed that going to Mikvah is ‘a whole ordeal'". With expensive travel, weather delays, and in some cases needing to bring the entire family along, Mikvah is a stressful experience that most won’t even consider,” the Grossmans wrote on the fundraising website “Bring Mikvah Home” where they spell out why they want “a mikvah in tundra territory.”
North Dakota’s mikvah fundraiser is part of a larger fundraising effort called “Bring Mikvah Home”, whose goal is to bring mikvahs to seven North American communities that currently don’t have one. They include: Fargo, North Dakota; Salem, Oregon; Mobile, Alabama; Arcata, California in the United States and Kelowna, British Columbia; and Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada.
The “Bring Mikvah Home” websites points out that while many mikvahs across the nation were able to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, “for tiny, remote Jewish communities in small cities and towns across North America, access to a Mikvah became increasingly difficult with travel restrictions and strict safety precautions.” So it’s even more important now to get mikvahs built in communities to serve residents and any travelers to the area.
The fundraising campaign is supposed to end on Thursday; however, Rabbi Grossman says since they are only about 13% toward their goal, it will likely be extended, because it’s an important project.
“Mikvah is the cornerstone of Jewish life and a foundation of Jewish continuity. According to Jewish tradition, construction of a mikvah takes precedence over the construction of even a synagogue,” Rabbi Grossman said.
They are still hopeful the mikvah can be built and used by the end of 2021 and will be available to Jewish couples who wish to use it for a small upkeep fee. However, Grossman adds,“Nobody will be turned away due to lack of funds,”
For more information about plans to bring back a mikvah to Fargo and to donate visit: Fargo’s page of Bring Mikvah Home.