By Dovid Zaklikowski for COLlive and Hasidic Archives
When a group of rabbinical students from Brooklyn visited Atlantic City in 1963, the community expected to hear some inspirational lectures on Judaism, nothing more. But a simple request by the students on Shabbos morning started the community on a journey that led to the construction of the city’s first Mikvah.
Rabbi Aaron Kraus was a student at Yeshiva University when he agreed to host a class in Tanya, the fundamental text of Chabad philosophy, in his dorm room. A young Chabad rabbi, Berel Baumgarten, delivered the weekly Tuesday-night class to a group of students, and the two men became friends.
When he graduated, Rabbi Kraus took a position at a Conservative temple in Atlantic City, and shortly thereafter invited Rabbi Baumgarten to lecture at the synagogue on a weekend. Rabbi Baumgarten arrived with three friends, among them a young man named Mottel Kalmanson, and all three addressed the community until late Friday night.
On Shabbos morning, the students asked where they could find a Mikvah in order to immerse before prayers. The response: none existed in Atlantic City!
“Atlantic City was known to have a large Jewish population,” remembered Rabbi Kalmanson. “We could not believe there was no Mikvah there.” Immediately after Shabbat, the students leaped into action and encouraged Rabbi Kraus to organize a meeting. A group gathered that night and a committee was established. “The young rabbis sparked our interest in having a Mikvah,” Rabbi Kraus said.
When the three men returned to New York, they wrote a report to the Rebbe detailing the events of the weekend. In response, the Rebbe’s aide, Rabbi Mordechai Hodakov, requested on behalf of the Rebbe that Rabbi Kalmanson spearhead the Mikvah-building project.
Rabbi Kalmanson returned frequently to Atlantic City, but progress on the Mikvah was slow. “There were few experts and we needed funding,” he recalled.
The Rebbe’s dedication to the project never wavered. In a private audience with the Rebbe, when Rabbi Kalmanson expressed interest in getting married, the Rebbe responded, “Currently you’re involved in one project [the Mikvah], and when you finish that one, you can move on to the next!”
The committee purchased a property and began drafting a blueprint. The Rebbe arranged for Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, a renowned Mikvah expert, to assist, and Rabbi Meir Greenberg, the Chief Rabbi of Patterson, New Jersey, also joined the effort.
In the early stages of the building process, Rabbi Kalmanson brought Mr. Irving Summers, a local businessman who was supporting the project, to a gathering with the Rebbe on the holiday of Purim. During a pause between talks, the two men approached the Rebbe, and Mr. Summers presented the Rebbe and Rabbi Kalmanson with wristwatches. The Rebbe agreed to accept the watch on condition that Mr. Summers accept the position of president of the Atlantic City Mikvah. Summers obliged.
On another occasion, Rabbi Kalmanson brought a large group from the Atlantic City community to a gathering in 770, in hopes of cementing their commitment to building the Mikvah. At the gathering, the Rebbe spoke at length about the importance of Mikvahs.
“The obligations to fulfill G-d’s commandments and to learn Torah begin when a boy turns 13, or a girl turns 12. Yet there is one commandment in which a person participates even before conception: the commandment to be pure, to go to a Mikvah, so that the birth should be sanctified,” he said.
Nine months before a child is born, the Rebbe explained, a woman should lead a holy and healthy life, so that the infant be born with a healthy body and soul. “It is incumbent on the parents that they act in the proper way,” the Rebbe said, “since their actions also affect the future child. Therefore we understand the great reward that our sages tell us is given for fulfilling this mitzvah.”
He concluded: “We might think that the building of a Mikvah is the obligation of the rabbi, the ritual slaughterer, the teacher, or the synagogue’s committee, while, in fact, it’s everyone’s obligation.”
Despite the Rebbe’s efforts, the project progressed very slowly, and later that year, during a private audience, the Rebbe told Rabbi Kalmanson that if the Mikvah did not move forward, he would have to return the watch to Mr. Summers.
Mr. Summers took the message to heart and soon thereafter, in the summer of 1964, the community convened for the groundbreaking.
“Groundbreaking ceremonies for an ultramodern Mikvah (ritualarium),” reported the Atlantic City Press, “will take place Sunday at 2 p.m. The structure will be the only one of its kind in Atlantic County.”
The newspaper explained that, “A Mikvah is defined as a ritual bath, built according to rabbinic specifications….The primary goal [is] family purity, a tradition that has been kept alive even under the most adverse conditions in Jewish history.” The newspaper noted the Rebbe’s involvement in “making this sacred project a reality.”
The Rebbe sent Chabad luminaries Rabbi Yochonon Gordon and Rabbi Schneur Zalman Duchman to represent him at the groundbreaking.
In a letter addressed to the gathered crowd, the Rebbe made clear what he expected from the event: “It is gratifying indeed that the efforts of your society, under rabbinic leadership headed by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro [the chief rabbi of Atlantic City], have reached this milestone. With all of you, I hope and pray that the construction of the Mikvah will proceed with all speed, so that it will soon be possible to joyously celebrate the completion of the Mikvah with blessing and gratitude to the Almighty.”
The Rebbe added, “We all know well the importance of zerizus [swiftness], in the fulfillment of all mitzvos [Jewish observances]…. It is obvious how very important it is to follow through with the utmost zerizus such a great and comprehensive mitzvah as [building] a Mikvah, which is one of the foundations of the House of Israel and one of the main pillars of every Jewish community.”
Yet progress on the building was slow due to the daunting cost. During this time, the synagogue of Rabbi Greenberg, who had been involved in the Mikvah committee, was vandalized.
Rabbi Greenberg informed the Rebbe of this devastating event, and the Rebbe’s response was that the time to complete the Mikvah project in Atlantic City had arrived. Rabbi Greenberg devoted himself anew, and soon the Mikvah was completed, to the delight of the entire community.
Dedicated members of the Jewish community maintained the Mikvah for many years. However, the neighborhood declined, the Mikvah piping was vandalized, and the building was later condemned by the city.
In 1983, when Rabbi Shmuel Rapoport arrived in Atlantic City as a Chabad emissary, he immediately focused on building a new Mikvah. This time, the process was seamless, and a Mikvah was again available to the community. “Thanks to Chabad,” said Rabbi Kraus, “we had—and once again have—a beautiful Mikvah in the city.”