For most women, heading to the mikvah – the ritual bath that lies at the heart of Jewish family purity laws – does not involve surprise encounters with wild animals, traipsing through three-feet of snow or hacking through a frozen river in subzero temperatures to reach flowing water.

But for residents of Jackson Hole, Wyo., from where the closest two freestanding ritual baths are run by Chabad-Lubavitch centers hours away in Bozeman, Mont., and Salt Lake City, braving the outdoors is often par for the course. Since a mikvah must remain in contact with what Jewish law refers to as “living waters,” such as a spring, permanent river, or well, sometimes the only available option is what nature provides.

“There was once a bison standing 10 feet in front of us as we went to park our car. It was on the riverbed,” recalls Raizy Mendelsohn, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming, of one time she took another woman from the community with her. “As we approached the water, there was a flock of trumpeter swans gathered on a little grassy island, sounding their horn-like call. The bison was guarding its territory – and it won. Suffice it to say, I didn’t end up going in the water that night.”

A campaign by Chabad-Lubavitch of Wyoming now aims to ensure that all Jewish women in the area can readily take part in the preservation of family purity without having to venture out into the wild or journey to a different state.

“We’ve been working to raise funds for a mikvah essentially since we arrived here in 2007,” says Mendelsohn, who established the Jackson Hole Chabad House along with her husband, executive director Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn. “We cannot effectively teach the importance of family purity and the beautiful ritual of going to the mikvah if we don’t have one in our community.”

Mendelsohn, who once piled into a car with her husband and their three small children and drove 18 hours back and forth from Jackson Hole to the ritual bath in Salt Lake City in the height of a blustery winter snow storm, calls the Wyoming project “a critical necessity.”

And it’s not just for the locals, she emphasizes. During the high tourist season – both winter and summer sees massive crowds comes to the area for skiing, other sports, and nearby Yellowstone National Park – Mendelsohn fields countless phone calls from female visitors asking her if there’s a mikvah in the area.

“We’ve had Jewish women decide not to come here on vacation because there’s no mikvah or push off going to the mikvah a week or two,” she says. “So we have to build one.”

As her husband explains, a ritual bath is so important to a Jewish community that the Talmud advises selling Torah scrolls in order to pay for one.

Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn moved to Wyoming in 2007.
Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn moved to Wyoming in 2007.

“A mikvah is the most important foundation of a Jewish community,” he says.

Building one does not come cheap, and the rabbi estimates the total cost of land and construction to be about $430,000.

“We’re the only Chabad center in Wyoming,” he points out. “We’re responsible for hundreds of community objectives and services, and this is a very substantial undertaking. To make this happen we need to find supporters who understand the necessity of such a campaign. That comes with a lot of challenges.”

For Dina Ivgi, who moved with her husband to Jackson Hole two years ago, a mikvah can’t come soon enough.

“It’s very beautiful and cleansing,” she says of going to a mikvah, which she does as often as circumstances will allow. “It’s a big part of creating peace in the home, but it’s difficult and stressful to have to sometimes prolong it because there’s not a [ritual bath] nearby. We need something nearby to do it properly.”

Zalman Mendelsohn notes that Wyoming’s modest-sized Jewish population may not be able to shoulder the financial burden on its own.

“Raizy and I came here to support the Jews of Wyoming, and they’ve been very receptive and welcoming,” he says. “But now we need everybody’s help. This project depends on Jews around the world.”