Ella's Mikveh


Rabbi Margaret's Letter


January 20, 2008

Dear friends of Ella,

This past Friday, the 18th, Ella received the biopsy results of her tumor which is located in her left temporal lobe. Her biopsy showed a Stage IV glioblastoma, this is the most malignant stage. Radiation and Chemotherapy are being recommended to improve her quality of life and life span. This tumor is not curable.

Ella met with a Neuro Radiologist and a Neuro Oncologist on Friday. At both appointments she was told that without any treatment her prognosis was about 3 months. With Radiation alone her prognosis was up to a year. With both Radiation and Chemotherapy statistically 25% of people in Ella's situation could live about 2 years. The chemotherapy that they are recommending is an oral form and has a lot less side effects than most forms of chemotherapy.

Radiation is recommended for 6 weeks. The oral chemotherapy is started at the same time, as it is shown to increase the effectiveness of the radiation therapy. Ella was assured that she could receive the treatment needed in Berkeley with the same technology and quality of care that Stanford could offer (just a 10 min drive from where she is staying). She received all of this news with a clear mind and an open heart. Ella will start treatment soon at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley.

"Are you surprised that I am going with Western medicine?" Ella asked on Friday. She was quite clear that this is the path she wants to take at this point. While she is interested in supportive and alternative treatments, she wants for them to be researched by someone with medical expertise. Her cousin Len Doberne, an MD, was with Ella for the appointments on Friday and has offered to help with this. Please send information about alternative and complementary treatments, that you think could help Ella, to Kris Reiber at krisr@mcn.org as she will be working with Len on this.

During the six weeks of treatments Ella will stay in Berkley at her brother David’s home. Her immediate need is for caretakers/caring friends to assist and stay overnight with her in Berkeley. If you can do this sometime during the next six weeks, please contact Donna Montag at 877-3243 or montag@mcn.org (best) and she can give you further information as to what is needed for this position.

Ella enjoys receiving cards and notes, which can be sent to her at Ella Russell, PO Box 84, Elk, Ca 95432

A tax-deductible fund to help Ella with her expenses has been set up: you can send contributions made out to MCJC, PO Box 291, Little River CA 95456. Please mark your check "health fund” in the memo field.

We are trying to make a central list of everyone who would like to receive updates about how Ella is doing. We have sent this first mailing quite broadly to many circles of community in which Ella is involved, but we don't want to continue overwhelming people. If you would like to keep getting updates, requests for help and so on, please contact Mickey Chalfin at mc@mcn.org .

Ella and her family have said repeatedly that they feel very much supported by the love, practical help and prayers of their many interlocking circles of community, friendship and family. She is not in pain and has been told that she should not anticipate being in pain, even if her condition worsens. She has a very difficult medical condition, but she faces it with the courage and spiritual strength that we all know in Ella.

With love,

Rabbi Margaret Holub
Kris Reiber
Donna Montag

Ella's Mikveh at Chabad House

This is the latest chapter of the saga of Ella the Mikvah Lady, one of the founders of the Mendocino Jewish Community. Ella was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor and is in Berkeley to receive radiation and chemotherapy.
This is written by Rabbi Margaret Holub.

Hi dear friends of Ella,

Yesterday evening four of us brought Ella to the mikveh for a ritual immersion in healing water. She asked me to write everyone and tell you all about it.

It took a lot of work (about which I know only a little) to get this all organized! Ellen Saxe started the ball rolling, then Michaela Aizer also did a bunch to make it happen. Others of you may have been involved as well. Ella's immersion was in the ultra-orthodox Chabad mikveh in Berkeley. Because Ella's immersion wasn't their typical scenario, the mikveh lady had to consult with her Rav, which led to some restrictions on what could be said and done in our case. But off we went...

The mikveh gang consisted of Ella, of course, and her beloved friend visiting her from England, Linda Chase, also Michaela and Simcha Calmenson (more on Simcha's special role below...) and myself. We met up in front of the Chabad House, which is a kind of crumbly Victorian up near the university, sheets in the windows, a tarped-up water heater in the yard, that kind of thing. Ella, Linny, Michaela and I arrived to find Simcha standing out on the curb shaking her head. We couldn't go in just yet, it turned out, because someone else was using the mikveh to immerse her dishes. Oh well... A few minutes later the coast was clear, and back around the house we went to Mikveh Taharas Israel. It was a pretty, free-standing little building in the back of a nice garden.

We were met at the door by Sharona, the mikveh lady (for those of you unfamiliar with this whole thing, the ML helps women do the immersion ritual. It's a special role. Ella has for many years been our devoted though un-traditional mikveh lady up here for our pond mikvehs...) She welcomed us all inside and showed Ella to a handsome tiled bathroom for the pre-immersion shower. Michaela went in to help her.

Sharona began talking to Linny, Simcha and me. She began by saying that a kallah (a bride) had immersed earlier that day, which was a special benefit. Ordinarily if one asks Hashem (God) for something, He (God) asks you what you've done to deserve favor and so on. But there are situations in which Hashem's customary stringency is lifted and He will respond without questioning.

(As I am writing this, it makes even a little less sense than it did to me when I was listening...) A kallah immersing before her wedding day is one such scenario -- Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are others. Sharona explained that the merit caused by the bride's immersion lasts all day, so Ella would be immersing into that good grace.

Then she went on to say to us specifically that she had learned in yeshiva that if someone you love is ill or in distress, it is perfectly all right to "shake your fist at Hashem" -- whereas if you yourself are suffering, you must do your best to accept your troubles humbly, without complaint. I think she was giving us permission to be mad at God for Ella's sickness.

To my surprise she next asked, "Would it be all right if I hugged each of you?" We all stood up and she embraced us one by one. She said something to the effect that she didn't grow up religious, but as her commitment grows, she is realizing how connected she is to all human beings.

"And so, even though I don't know any of you, I care about you." She might even have said "I love you." It was a sweet and teary moment.

Then, even more surprisingly, she said, "You probably don't need me hanging around here. Here's how you lock up." And she blessed us all with some kind words and walked out, leaving us on our own.

Ella was ready for the immersion. Now backtrack an hour or so to David's house, where all of us (except Simcha, who met us at the mikveh) had a short confab before going to the mikveh. I had felt some consternation about the Rav's decision that we couldn't say the traditional mikveh blessing*, but when I talked to Ella about it, it didn't bother her at all. She said she didn't actually want to say anything at all before immersing. "This is my first mikveh ever where I don't need anything," she said several times. And she said, "I do not feel the need to pray for a cure. I may someday, but I don't now. I am totally at peace with what is happening to me." And several times, smiling beatifically, she said, "After all, I am already enlightened, you know..."

All of us who have immersed under Ella's wonderful guidance over the years have learned from her the power of formulating a clear kavvanah (intention, direction, state that one is hoping to move into...) before stepping into the water. She has taught us to share our kavvanah with our witnesses (often whispering it into Ella's ear) -- so that the witnesses can hold our intentions while we step into that powerful water and let go completely. So I felt perplexed at first in this conversation about what it meant to go into the mikveh apparently not wanting anything at all. Ella and I were cuddling on the couch, and I said, "How does this sound to you? The traditional use of the mikveh is for a married woman to immerse at the end of her menstrual period, so that she can go home and have sex with her husband. So we could think of the mikveh as a preparation for greater intimacy, in your case with God -- in your case EVEN greater intimacy with God, stepping into God's arms completely." She started laughing happily and said, "Yes! Say that at the mikveh, okay?" So off we went.

Okay, now we're all in the little mikveh room itself, which is also tiled, heated, smelling of brome. I repeated the above, as Ella had asked. She took off her bathrobe and paper slippers, walked into the chest-deep water and did her immersions. We said "kasher!" after each one (making her go in one more time when her head didn't go under, so she would know that WE are stringent, even if God isn't...)

Now all of a sudden I am a little vague here about one important moment -- sorry. I think she was still in the water when she said to Simcha, "You are going to be a wonderful mikveh lady for us..." Maybe it was just afterwards, but my recollection is that she was standing in the mikveh when she said it. That was a big moment. Simcha loves the practice of mikveh and has been sharing the role with Ella at our annual women's retreat. At this past summer's retreat, when they were shepherding us together, Simcha said something about being Ella's assistant, and Ella had said, "No, we are equals" (or something more graceful to that effect...) Who knew that Ella would be so ill so soon afterwards? It felt very much like yesterday Ella had anointed her successor in this role which she treasures and which has brought so much meaning and joy to many, many of us.

When Ella came out, we wrapped her back in the robe and hugged and cried a bit. Then she went into the shower room to get dressed, and the rest of us cried a lot. When she came back out, "Like lightning bolts emanating from the radiance of the Chayos" was the countenance of our Ella. She was beaming, crying, laughing, as blissful and ecstatic as I have ever seen anyone.

As we walked back out into the little garden and into the Berkeley evening, Ella asked me to tell all of you about this experience. So I hope I have done as she wishes --

with love, Margaret