Three hundred miles. That’s the distance from Chabad of Ashland, Oregon, to the closest traditional mikvah. Ashlander women who wished to keep the mitzvah of mikvah would endure a real drag of a road trip, and with gas prices topping the three dollar mark, it was enough to keep all but the most dedicated from following through – until now.
Chabad of Ashland is well on its way to completing the new Mei Menachem Mikvah. The plunge pool portion has been dug and cemented in. The walls are up, drywall’s done. The tiles are on their way and the area’s top tiler is scheduled to do the grouting. After a bit of electrical and fixture installation, and with a downpour of pure rain to store in the mikvah well, the mikvah will be open for business and a new era of mitzvah opportunities in Ashland will begin.
Rabbi Avi and Faigy Zwiebel, Chabad’s representatives in Ashland, are committed to making their mikvah a “wow” experience. The outside is already looking the part: visitors come upon a quaint freestanding cottage tucked into Chabad’s third of an acre property. Inside it’s soothing and pink, reminiscent of a day spa. “It will be very nice, very upscale,” said Rabbi Zweibel. “It will be a beautiful space.”
Pulling together the right look for the mikvah – classy but not trendy – was in the hands of interior designer Laura Bloom, who lives in the area and donated her services. She based her design on Faigy Zweibel’s vision of a “an inviting, relaxed environment,” said Bloom. But behind the pink marble lay a challenge: the mikvah had to appeal to longtime Ashland residents and ex-pat Californian newcomers.
Ashland, a lush green corner of southern Oregon, was once predominantly populated by artists, crafts people, and spiritual seekers. Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival has been held on Ashland’s open air stages, attracting hundreds of thousands of theater lovers, for more than seven decades. Of the 21% of Oregon residents who consider themselves “spiritual” without ascribing to any one religion, many seem to live in Ashland’s Victorian style homes and frequent its coffee houses and galleries. No coincidence that author Neale Donald Walsch, whose trilogy Conversations with God topped the New York Times’ bestseller list for months, lives there too. Like Sedona and Boulder, Ashland achieved status as a latter day hippy haven. Laid back residents, open to the mystical, welcomed the Zwiebels when they arrived two years ago.
“People are not ostentatious in Ashland. They are very approachable here,” says Zweibel, adding that Ashlanders are “genuinely searching for spirituality.” About 20 or so of them join the Zwiebels and their three young children for Shabbat meals each week.
The city’s reputation, low crime rate, fertile job market – its high quality of life – consistently landed it on top ten lists of America’s best places to live. Coupled with its location – a mere fifteen miles north of California – the city of 20,000 is growing. Californians and others seeking the Ashland good life flowed in. Populations throughout the area boomed to the extent that there are plans to raze the too-small airport to make way for a larger one. Tight housing markets drove up real estate prices. Rabbi Zweibel estimates that the property he bought two years ago has gone up in value by 50%. Buying property today for a Chabad house with land to spare for a mikvah would have been nearly impossible, he said.
New Ashland residents able to afford the higher housing prices have affluent tastes to match. Chabad’s responded by filling the mikvah with top drawer amenities to enhance the experience. In the preparation room, the soaking tub is equipped with whirlpool jets. Under the floor hydronic heating keeps bare feet warm. And since its also the most efficient way to heat the space, it’s attractive to Ashland’s eco-crowd, too.
When the mikvah opens it will be one of the newest visible symbols of Jewish life in the area. Bloom, who has been a Shabbat guest with her family at the Zwiebels, anticipates that it will help call Ashland’s Jewish population out of the woodwork. “It is a real nice community down here,” said Bloom, “very open and accepting of whatever you want to practice, and the mikvah will give us a bigger Jewish presence and bring the community together.”
Local donors offered some funds and services towards the mikvah, but the bulk came from Mr. Yingy and Gittie Bistritzky, who have sponsored mikvah projects from Conejo, CA, to Tzefat, Israel; from the Mikva USA fund and the George and Pamela Rohr Family Foundation.
Once the mikvah is completed the Zwiebels will set to work educating the community of the place of mivkah within Jewish tradition and at the heart of the Jewish family life. Classes, tours and possibly a guest speaker will help them broadcast the mikvah’s message. But for one neighbor at least the mikvah’s presence alone is an attraction. Several months ago, during the digging phase of the mikvah’s construction, a woman approached Rabbi Zwiebel and asked about the heavy duty diggers chomping away at the mud. An add-on? A guest house? She wanted to know what the Zwiebels were up to. “When I told her, she said, ‘Oh, I am Jewish.’ I told her that right here, right down her block, there was going to be a mikvah. She was touched.”