Of all the miraculous stories that happened in my life, perhaps this one is at the top of the list. Not because it takes something tremendous to see G‑d’s hand choreographing our lives, but because it was a singular experience where I saw G‑d speaking directly to me, independent of the other 7 billion people on this planet.

My husband and I are eager tourists, travelingMy husband and I are eager tourists to distant and remote places of the world. About 10 years ago, to celebrate our anniversary, we embarked on a cruise that started in Sydney, Australia, and went to Tasmania and New Zealand.

Just a few months before the journey, I had studied the laws of Family Purity and committed myself to the mitzvah of mikvah. I learned that building a mikvah for a community takes precedence over purchasing a Torah scroll. And so, with much excitement and caution, I embraced this new part of my Jewish identity as a link between biblical heroes and feminists of modern times.

When I first realized that I would need to use a mikvah during the cruise, I brushed off any worry with the optimistic thought that I could always use the ocean. I was clearly missing some research data about the temperatures of water around the Tasmanian region, however. Even if I was a penguin, I would probably hesitate before taking the plunge.

The day of my still-not-so-planned visit to the mikvah arrived, and we stopped in the city of Melbourne. My husband and I decided to spend our time visiting a local museum, where we “coincidentally” spotted a religious family on a trip with their children. I approached them and inquired if there was a mikvah nearby. I knew from prior research that there is a big Jewish community in Melbourne.

The woman told me that a few were close by, but that they all opened at night. I didn’t know then that women only immerse in the waters of the mikvah after dark, right before reuniting with their husbands. This was a problem since our ship was scheduled to depart from Melbourne at 5 p.m.

The lady asked me where we were going next, and I informed her that our next port of call was Hobart, Tasmania. This very friendly couple offered to call their rabbi to see if there was an opportunity for me to use a mikvah there.

I felt rather determined to make it happen. In fact, the challenge of this particular situation made me want to perform this mitzvah even more!

After following this friendly family through the museum for almost an hour as they made one call after another, they told us they had arranged for a woman named Penina to meet us at the pier in Hobart and take me to a mikvah. I was at peace. It seemed like it was all going to come together. Who could have imagined that this was not just a regular plan, but a custom one designed just for me?

Visiting David and Penina in their home after the mikvah experience. This was the 19th of Kislev, a Chassidic holiday, and we were eating sweets and celebrating meeting each other. From left to right: Sasha Tamarkin, David, Penina, Sofya Tamarkin (and two local children).
Visiting David and Penina in their home after the mikvah experience. This was the 19th of Kislev, a Chassidic holiday, and we were eating sweets and celebrating meeting each other. From left to right: Sasha Tamarkin, David, Penina, Sofya Tamarkin (and two local children).

When we disembarked in Tasmania, we immediately spotted a Jewish woman wearing a long skirt and a wig. She was overjoyed to see us, and I was both stunned and pleased to be so warmly welcomed in a strange land by a fellow Jew.

Before going to the mikvah, Penina offered to show us Silver Falls near the foot of Mt. Wellington. We talked about the continuity of the Jewish people and the importance of Jewish women keeping the laws of mikvah. Penina was incredibly profound and authentic. I felt so humbled to have met such a wholesome soul.

We took a taxi to a private home where the mikvah was built as a separate shed-like structure in the backyard of that home. Penina explained that years ago she lived in this house and when she rented it, the new tenants agreed to let the mikvah remain as a functional facility with a separate entrance.

As is customary, I began my preparation by taking a bath and a shower before the immersion. When I turned on the water, the pipes made a loud, unwelcoming noise, and a brown-looking liquid burst out of the faucet.

I struggled to stay calm and pretended toI struggled to stay calm smile as I called out to Penina, who was reciting Psalms right by the mikvah. She was completely wrapped up in her prayers, and it took her a minute to see me covered in shampoo. She told me to “hang in there” and ran to the home of the tenants. After a few minutes of contemplating whether to cry in despair or laugh at my ridiculous situation, two women emerged with pots of warm water to wash the soap off my body. I felt rather vulnerable as the two women poured water over me. This whole experience seemed surreal.

After a few more trips to fill the buckets with water, I was finally ready. As I walked down the steps into the actual mikvah, I saw Penina’s face completely transformed and illuminated. She prayed and even cried as I said the blessing. These same words have been recited by millions of holy Jewish women as they immersed in mikvahs around the world.

I was moved by Penina’s reaction. New to a religious way of life, I had never seen anyone so genuinely happy to see another Jew perform a mitzvah. When I walked out and dried myself, I felt overwhelmed by her kindness.

When I finally composed myself, I asked her how long ago this mikvah had been built. Penina informed me that it was constructed 20 years earlier, in 1988. The first person to immerse was a newly married young woman from Sydney on her honeymoon. She took the plunge in cold water, as the heater had not yet been installed.

The Rebbe actually sent one of his students to Tasmania about 30 years before my visit with a book of Tanya, instructing him to educate Jews in that part of the world. His blessing for a mikvah was: “It will be used.”

Penina herself was over the age of 60, and at the time of my visit there were no Jewish women living on the island who were committed to the monthly immersion. There were two women from other parts of Tasmania who had used the mikvah until they moved away. Occasionally, travelers would seek out this mikvah and allow it to serve its purpose.

I was one of just a handful of women who met Penina, as she continued to be a guardian of these purifying waters.

As I wrote this article, I made contact with Penina and asked her about her memories of this special day:

Dearest Sofya,

It was your eagerness to perform this mitzvah that touched my heart; it was a special time for both of us.

I don’t remember the exact time I picked you up from the wharf, perhaps around midday. Before going to the mikvah, we drove to the foot of Mount Wellington to one of my favorite places: Silver Falls. We walked up a mossy path flanked by ferns and shaded by overarching branches. I remember the sound of water flowing by, murmuring to itself.

It was a weekday with no one around. Together, we reached the pretty little waterfall.

For me, sitting with you at the top of the waterfall talking about Jewish women and deep, spiritual matters was inspiring. I was impressed by your receptiveness to the beautiful mitzvah of mikvah. I remember making a reference to a popular TV show set in Tibet called “Monkey,” where there was a very old woman high up in the mountains guarding a well of pure waters. I remember saying how important it was for me, and that I saw my mission as the “Keeper of the Waters.”

I told you that I thought if only one woman was to use the mikvah during my life I would have felt that I had completed my mission.

Penina

While I was clearly sent to the far end of theI was transformed by the experience world to allow this incredibly devoted woman to fulfill her self-described purpose, it was I who was transformed by the experience. I learned that in moments of darkness we must always remember that we are not alone; there are people out there guarding wells of “pure water,” waiting for us with unwavering dignity and commitment.

This world is not such a cold and lonely place. It was specifically designed for each of us to fulfill our individual missions.

Never lose hope. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught: “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.” Become that force of goodness and light that shines for people around you and make your Creator proud.