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Marriage sustained with dip at mikvah

A Jewish recipe for success in marriage:

Women: Take off your clothes, jewelry and makeup. Take a shower and take out your contact lenses.

Wipe off your nail polish. Floss and brush your teeth. Comb your hair. Remove lint from your navel.

You should be scrubbed, squeaky clean and naked. Step into the pool of rainwater at Boca Raton Synagogue. Immerse your body and say in Hebrew:

"Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has made us holy with your commandments and commanded us concerning immersion."

Dunk two more times and emerge.

Now go home and enjoy a passionate night with your husband.

This ritual, practiced by Orthodox Jewish women, is part of the Jewish family purity laws that proponents say keep the divorce rate low among observant families.

Members of the Orthodox community in Boca Raton have revived this ancient ritual _ known as the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath. A $300,000 building at Boca Raton Synagogue was completed last month and contains six mikvah preparation rooms and three 5-foot-deep pools for immersion.

Married Jewish couples who observe the family purity laws _ which include prohibitions against rape and sexual bribery _ abstain from sex during the wife's menstrual period and for seven days after. The law stems from the biblical Book of Leviticus.

"Going to the mikvah is a spiritual rebirth, a cleansing, a reawakening," said Jennifer Ungar, a 35-year-old mother of three from Boca Raton. "My physical relationship with my husband is never taken for granted. The time we are together is more special because we've been apart."

Water is a powerful symbol of spiritual purification in many faiths. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River _ a ritual based on the mikvah immersion. Christians today are baptized either by being sprinkled with or being immersed in water.

Muslim men and women are required to take a ritual bath after sex and other bodily functions. Like the Orthodox Jews, Muslims also abstain from sex during menstruation.

Rabbinical teachings since biblical times have expanded the purity laws to forbid any physical contact between a husband and a menstruating wife. They sleep in separate beds and don't hug, kiss or hold hands during menstruation or for one week after.

Orthodox Jews say the lack of contact is not a punishment, but a time to expand the verbal side of the relationship.

"When you're not able to touch each other, you work on communicating," said Rochelle Ettedgui, a 32-year-old mother of three from Boca Raton. "You focus on respect and friendship. You learn that a relationship is not only physical."

The abstention period mirrors the woman's internal cycle, said Boca Raton Synagogue's Rabbi Kenneth Brander. Menstruation is a death, when the uterine lining falls away from the body and conception is usually impossible. So it is inappropriate for a couple to have intercourse, a happy occasion, during that time, he said.

When the abstention period mandated by the rabbis _ about two weeks _ is over, the wife visits the mikvah _ or the ocean or any free-standing body of water _ and the couple is free to have sex until the next cycle begins.

"When the couple has sex again, there is a rebirth inside the woman's body, and that's exactly what's happening in the relationship," Brander said. "The mikvah is a symbol of family interaction. Jewish law has created a time for abstinence, but it also encourages sexuality."

Many Orthodox Jews consider the mikvah the cornerstone of Jewish life.

"The mikvah establishes us as a community," Ettedgui said. "Some people believe a mikvah is more important than a synagogue."

Boca Raton Synagogue is the center of a growing Orthodox community off Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton. It has expanded from 80 families three years ago to 265 families today. A new sanctuary was recently completed, and Brander says the congregation's youth and adult programs are crowded.

These families observe the Sabbath, keep kosher and follow an intricate set of laws that stem from ancient times _ including the mikvah. Following ancient specifications, its concrete walls are thick to ensure the water's purity. Its rainwater is collected in cisterns outside the building.

Some congregations use their mikvahs for conversions from other religions. But to avoid intra-Jewish disagreements on who is qualified to convert, conversions will not be permitted in this mikvah, Brander said.

About four women per day have been using the Jewish ritual bath, which is supervised by a shomeret, or female attendant. She makes sure the participating women fulfill the commandment by immersing their whole bodies in the pool.

"With the proliferation of sex clinics and manuals today, people are wondering how they can make their marriage work," Jennifer Ungar said. "If people knew more about the Jewish family purity laws, I think we'd see a lot more marriages working better."

The Boca Raton mikvah is open every night.

Lois K. Solomon writes for the Palm Beach Post.