PARK SLOPE — On the outside, the freshly built William and Betty Katz Center for Jewish Life keeps a low profile, with muted gray walls and an entrance tucked discreetly between two taller residential buildings.
But members of Chabad of Park Slope know that inside is Park Slope's first mikvah, a facility where observant Jews practice bathing rituals in specially built pools. The building opened this week on 15th Street and Sixth Avenue after five years of construction marked early on by complaints from some neighbors.
For the dozens of families at Monday's ribbon cutting, the new mikvah was a cause for smiles. "When a new mikvah is built, it's always a big celebration," said Deborah, a 50-year-old Crown Heights resident who didn't want her last name used.
"It means that more people need it because people are getting married and having children. It means we're growing and thriving."
For women, visiting the mikvah is at the center of married life, Deborah explained. Women immerse themselves in the pool at the end of their menstrual cycle as a way of purifying themselves before they "reunite with [their] husband physically," she said.
The 15th Street building holds a mikvah for women on a subterranean level and one for men on the first floor. On the second floor is an apartment where families visiting relatives at nearby New York Methodist Hospital can stay.
The women's mikvah has three preparation rooms that each open into the chamber holding the mikvah pool. One has a massive clawfoot bathtub, and another has strands of glittering crystals hanging from elegant light fixtures. Vases of orchids and votive candles decorate the serene, spa-like space. The actual mikvah pool chamber has a slowly trickling waterfall built into one wall.
The highly private bathing rite, which women perform solo with the help of an attendant who makes sure they're completely submerged, is a sacred moment that signals a "starting over," Deborah said. The practice also provides a moment alone to be prayerful, where women feel "they have God's ear," she said.
"It's a really enveloping, special thing," Deborah said. "Many women feel like it's a healing process."