The spaces that house mikvahs have a plethora of different aesthetics, ranging from the bare bones functionality of a European shtetl to an opulent spa at the Four Seasons. But after spending a summer in Israel in which she visited many ancient and historic mikvahs in Safed and around Israel, recent art-school graduate Rachel Udkoff decided to design a reimagined mikvah space for her senior thesis project at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. Not only did the project impress and educate her professors, it led to her first professional commission designing a new mikvah in Newfoundland, Canada.

Originally from California, Udkoff now lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her family encouraged her to attend Pratt. “I have a very strong foundation; I was raised Chabad and went to seminary in Safed before college,” Udkoff tells Chabad.org.

Udkoff has been interested in designing spas for some time, but after working with an interior designer in Crown Heights who suggested she look into making mikvahs her niche, Udkoff was intrigued. She returned to Safed last summer to work at the Ascent Learning Institute and began researching the area’s ancient mikvahs. She met with local mikvah expert Rabbi David Rothschild. “He told me about the many in Safed, including one that’s been covered by an abandoned mall. He told me there are seven mikvahs that the Arizal went to, and he even mapped them out for me. I visited one in a cave, and it was incredible. I took elements of it for the mikvah I designed. To visit this ancient mikvah and bring that intangibility into a concept for a new mikvah was really meaningful.”

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When Udkoff returned to Pratt in the fall, her teacher asked the class: What are you obsessed with? Udkoff’s answer: abandoned buildings. While she was in Safed learning about mikvahs, she also developed a habit of exploring abandoned buildings and discovering their histories. “It’s the sense that you’re in this moment suspended in time. That’s what I wanted to bring into my mikvah design.”

Since the mikvah is a sacred place, Udkoff felt compelled to define the word sacred. She polled friends through social media to ask their definition of sacred, and received responses such as, “hidden” and “separate.” These elements would serve as the building blocks of Udkoff’s design.

Bringing Spirituality Into the Tangible

Rachel Udkoff at Lubavitch World Headquarters on graduation day.
Rachel Udkoff at Lubavitch World Headquarters on graduation day.

To begin designing the mikvah, Udkoff first chose the space: an abandoned building in Gowanus, Brooklyn, which sits on the Gowanus canal, among the most polluted waterways in America. The contrast between impure and pure waters, and all the necessary steps to get from one to the other felt important to Udkoff; a vessel into which to pour her molten design. The building is also a graffiti landmark and is currently being turned into an art space.

Udkoff’s conceptual proposition was to turn part of that art space into the mikvah. The entrance to the mikvah is made of rammed earth, about three feet thick. This comprises the first transition into the space itself. In an homage to the graffiti landmark, the outer edge of the rammed earth is also covered in graffiti; with the letters mem, kuf, vav and hey written at the top. “The entrance is hidden in plain sight. I got this idea when I would sit in front of abandoned buildings for hours, and people would walk by as if they didn’t see it. I wanted the entrance to the mikvah to be like that. It’s a private event—most women don’t want people to know when they go to the mikvah—so it works on that level as well.”

Shapes and schematics for the thesis.
Shapes and schematics for the thesis.

The entrance itself is through the letter vav, and leads into a dark room. Udkoff emphasizes that the letter vav correlates to transformation between past and future. Walking through the letter into this dark room, which is reminiscent of the first day of creation, is like entering a completely blank, black world. Then, there is a light discernible at the end of the room and when you walk towards it, you are greeted by the receptionist, who takes you into the changing room. “That’s the next threshold, where you shed your everyday clothes and put on a robe. That way you don’t have anything from the outside world attached to you while you’re in this space.”

A long hallway continues around the circumference of the mikvah space until the exit on the other side. Once you go from the changing room, you’re escorted into this hallway that again has rammed earth on one side. There are small cuts in the earth that are not readily noticeable, but behind them is a light source. As you continue around the hallway, you start to notice that these lines of light form Hebrew letters. The experience of uncertainty leads to the recognition of more Hebrew letters as you continue around the hallway as more light filters in.

Udkoff describes the process as a metaphor for enlightenment and a reminder that the world was created with Hebrew letters. From the hallway, there is a preparation room, the first transformation area. “Submerging in the mikvah itself is not the only purification process that you go through; the preparation room is the first step whereby you purify yourself in order to be able to accept the purification of G‑d. That’s something else that I wanted to bring in: first you purify yourself before G‑d purifies you.”

The design combines contemporary aesthetics and functionality.
The design combines contemporary aesthetics and functionality.

Evoking the Feeling of G‑dliness

The focal point of the preparation room is a large bathtub. The floor is quartz, which is fittingly the stone of purity and transformation. The stone is lit from below, so all its facets can be easily seen. The ceiling is made of sapphire, which hints at the sefirot and the counting of the Omer, a time of spiritual refinement. Udkoff worked on this project during the 49 days of the Omer. “We don’t count Shavuot, the 50th day, because that’s bestowed on us by G‑d after we’ve done our due diligence by purifying ourselves. There are a lot of hidden elements throughout my design that reference that. I was trying to figure out what to do with the threshold of the mikvah room. How can a threshold actually evoke the feeling of G‑dliness? I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it, and what I saw was a bright, dense light. I was thinking of how I could turn it into materiality. Dense air is cool air. I came up with the idea to have a layer of cool mist you walk through at the threshold from the preparation room to the mikvah itself. Motion sensors prevent you from actually getting wet; you are just immersed in the mist.”

Udkoff sees this final threshold as symbolic of the parting of the sea. Once you walk through, you’ve entered a new paradigm: the mikvah space itself, which imparts the feeling of a cave. There is a large, circular skylight above. On the ceiling, Udkoff added mirrors to bring in the light of the moon. These mirrors reflect the light to a series of acrylic tubes that transfer it into the space of the mikvah through fiber optics. If that sounds complicated, it is! The mikvah project represents countless hours of both research and design for Udkoff. She hopes the Gowanus mikvah will become a reality someday, but for now, it remains conceptual.

A cross section of the mikvah.
A cross section of the mikvah.

Meanwhile, Udkoff is designing her first “real” mikvah, which will be built for Rabbi Chanan and Tuba Chernitsky in their recently established Chabad House in Newfoundland, Canada. Unlike her design for her honor’s thesis, this mikvah will be small, simple and in the backyard of the emissaries’ home. Udkoff is excited about the opportunity and hopes to design more mikvahs in the future.

“Creating spiritual sanctuaries for women could really elevate their mikvah experience. We can encourage women to go to the mikvah by beautifying the space and bringing spirituality into it. That’s really my goal.”