Uniting mind-body-spirit in birth


by Rabbi/Doula Denise Handlarski

Birth workers know the power of the mind-body connection. When I was in labour, I used the skills I’ve learned in years of meditation to be able to zone in, work with my breath, and let my body do its thing. But the mind-body connection is incomplete without the spiritual dimension.

Some people use prayer in labour. Some tap into a belief in something they might call “source-energy.” Some do not pray but rather mediate, listen to music that grounds them, engage in cultural practices they learned from their own families and communities. Indigenous women may use a smudge. Some African cultures have an animal slaughtered on the day of the birth to symbolize abundance for the child and help nourish the mother. Whatever your spirituality, it’s worth considering how you might use it in labour or if you are supporting someone in labour.

There are a couple of practices that I find really beautiful that come from Judaism, but could be adapted for anyone, to help connect the mind-body-spirit. One is using the tradition of a prayer for healing. In Hebrew this is called the misheberach blessing. You name a person who is in need of healing (if they are sick or suffering) and you also name their mother. So it goes: ________ son/daughter of ____________. Traditional Jews say a special prayer for them but you could pray for them in your own way, or wish them healing and wellness, or you simply hold them in your thoughts. Some Jewish people will recite the misheberach while labouring. I love this idea because at the moment of your own struggle, the intensity of the experience of birth, rather than dwell on your own pain or pressure you focus outwards. This is a reminder that we are all part of a broader family of humanity and we all share in pain and pleasure, illness and wellness. It allows the person who is in labour to feel both connection and empathy for their broader community. This is so useful because often in labour people find it useful to remember that many others have been through this experience too. I’ve said and I know others have said to a woman in labour: “Women have done this throughout the ages. You can do this too.” I had a Jewish midwife who said she was in a birthing room with five generations of Jewish women. She said to the woman in labour: “all of these women are a reminder that your family and your Jewish community would not exist without the strength of Jewish women in childbirth.” Feeling ourselves to be part of a community is so useful because we can feel the support of that community in our time of need.

Another Jewish spiritual practice that I find immensely powerful for preparing for birth is similar to a blessingway found in other cultures. “Blessingways” is a term created by Navajo (Diné) women for their own pre-birth ritual. I use it in reference to, and incorporate some practices from, the book “Blessingways: A Guide to Mother-centered Baby Showers – Celebrating Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherood” by Shari Maser. Maser notes: “To me, Blessingway most aptly expresses the essence of these ceremonies. “Blessing” connotes spirituality and community connections and “Way” reminds us that every change is a process, an ongoing journey along the path of life…. When using the term Blessingway to describe this evolving ceremonial concept, let us remember to respectfully acknowledge and appreciate its sacred Diné heritage as our source of inspiration” (2). I find this practice of creating a ceremony for the prenatal mother to be a terrific way to incorporate spirituality in the pregnancy process, as a step towards incorporating spirituality in the labour and birth as well. Of course, my spin on it is Jewish. I respectfully and with gratitude adopt the cultural and spiritual practice of Navajo women for a Jewish context.

What is a Blessingway? Women get together and provide physical acts of care for the pregnant person, surround her with love and well wishing. Perhaps they create affirmations, or some kind of birth anchor. The women in my life each added a bead with a special intention (in Hebrew we might call it a kavanah – a powerful spiritual word). These beads were strung onto a bracelet I used as a focal point in birth.

For my clients, I have created a version of the blessingway that can happen at a mikvah, which is a ritual bath. The mikvah is to be used for cleansing, sometimes after menstruation. I find this to be a practice that has sexist origins, but powerful possibilities. After suffering a pregnancy loss, I attended a mikvah, and created a ceremony to help me release my sadness and grief and allow me to move on. The idea of the waters being cleansing, like a baptism or other religious/cultural cleansing rituals, really helped me forge the mind-body-spirit connection. I had a water birth with my second child, and the connection to the waters was made spiritual for me because of that experience. I also have a mikvah ceremony to prepare for birth and/or for after birth to mark the transition and make it spiritually significant and recognized.

These are a few examples of how I bring spirituality into pregnancy and birth. I’d love to know other examples of spiritual practices that you find useful or meaningful. Feel free to leave me a comment to share yours. Whatever your experience as a person in labour or as a birth worker, I encourage you to find ways to bring the spiritual dimension of life into this very significant journey. We are whole beings and holistic birth needs to account for the mind, the body, and the spirit.


This is what a mikvah can look like. You can also use any natural freshwater source that is running, like a stream. If you are not observant and are flexible on the rules, you can use a bathtub or swimming pool.


This article first appeared on the website of Rabbi/Doula Denise Handlarski, Jewish Doula: Labor and Birth Services.

Midwifery and Postpartum Care From Generation to Generation – From Mexico to the United States


Sarah and Her Mother Martha: The Cuarantena – From Mexico to the United States, by Imeinu doula and midwife in training Cristina Urista, was published by Squat Journal in the Winter 2012 edition. Please find the article here: Cuarantena Squat Journal Urista Postpartum Mexican

My mother Esperanza (right), a former Mexican partera, her mother Eufracia (pic) who taught my mother the importance of the Cuarentena care was also a Mexican partera, and me (left), currently training as a nurse-midwife at UCSF. -- Cristina Urista

My mother Esperanza (right), a former Mexican partera, her mother Eufracia (pic) who taught my mother the importance of the Cuarentena care was also a Mexican partera, and me (left), currently training as a nurse-midwife at UCSF. — Cristina Urista

Sarah Miranda had discussed the special postpartum care she received from her mother with her Imeinu doula Wendy Kenin after her third pregnancy. They had hoped to document it, to share the important traditions in supporting maternal health. Cristina Urista encountered Wendy the next year.

Cristina herself was beginning her journey into birth work at the time she interviewed the Miranda – Moreno family about the Cuarantena. Doing this research gave her an opportunity to begin to approach her own mother for a deeper understanding of her background as a midwife (partera) in Mexico.

“I am grateful that Imeinu encouraged me to further connect with my mother’s past as a Mexican partera, allowing me to discover that my maternal grandmother was also a partera,” Cristina says. “Imeinu opened a space where I could explore and reclaim my traditional and intergenerational Mexican birthing customs.”

Sarah Miranda (left) and her mother Martha (right.) Martha cared for Sarah according to the traditional cuarantena customs of their heritage after the birth of Sarah's third child, as was documented by Cristina Urista.

Sarah Miranda (left) and her mother Martha Moreno (right.) Martha cared for Sarah according to the traditional cuarantena customs of their heritage after the birth of Sarah’s third child, as was documented by Cristina Urista.

Cristina did an awesome job applying her ethnic studies background to document the postpartum care that Sarah’s mother Martha Moreno provided beginning immediately after delivery of her third child. We were thrilled that Squat Journal published Cristina’s concise and rich article to help share the wisdom of these special traditions for women’s and babies’ health.

After, Cristina joined Imeinu at a home birth and several hospital births. She wrote the story of her own birth, published by instructor Samsarah Morgan, founder of Bay Area Birthkeeper, where Cristina dove deeper into birth work, and you can read it here.

“Imeinu opened a space where I could explore and reclaim my traditional and intergenerational Mexican birthing customs.”

Cristina has been accepted this year into the nurse-midwifery program at UCSF after working for three years as a doula, which followed after the publication of this article in 2011.

It was very special to have Cristina document this practice that a grandmother brought with her from Mexico to Napa Valley in caring for her daughter, our beloved Imeinu client. Imeinu thanks Cristina for her tremendous contributions and looks forward to continued collaboration as she embarks on her midwifery studies.

Mazel tov!

Jewish Mother’s Day – Anniversary of the Passing of our great matriarch Rachel


by Wendy Kenin @greendoula

So after the Jewish New Year holiday series, what next? The only holiday during the month of Cheshvan is Shabbat – but that’s the most important of all of them! During Cheshvan, the month when we are reading in the Torah from Bereshit about the beginning years of the world again, we can pay special attention to the yarzeit of Rachel Imeinu, our matriarch Mama Rachel, whose husband the patriarch Jacob laid to rest on Cheshvan 11 in the year 2208 (1553 BCE) next to the road in Beit Lechem after she died giving birth to Benjamin her second son. This year Cheshvan 11 falls on November 3-4, 2014.

Rachel’s Tomb, considered the third holiest site to the Jewish people, is visited by thousands of people every year, but particularly on her yarzeit. Rachel “Our Mother”, who lived for many years barren while her sister bore children to her husband, whose cry HaShem responds to by promising that her children the Jewish people will return home, is understood to hear the prayers of her people and to advocate for them.

While Kever Rachel has been the subject of art over the centuries, today it is enveloped in a military compound as it has been subjected to religious war and turmoil. Access to this sacred site had been obstructed at various times over the centuries and so the militarism of the site is for the purpose of maintaining access for Jewish people as well as for preserving the site’s integrity and keeping Rachel, Our Mother safe. Considering this past summer’s news of the destruction of the Tombs of Yonah and of Daniel in Iraq by Muslim extremists after they had survived all these centuries, the military protection of Rachel’s Tomb looks better than ever.

Even if you can’t make it to Kever Rachel in person to honor her during the anniversary of her tragic death, this day has been dubbed “Jewish Mother’s Day” and you can observe her yarzeit from wherever you are. Certain customs to consider include learning Torah with others, giving charity in honor of the deceased, and blessing and sharing food with others. Herein lies more possibility for raising the spirits of the Jewish people, in the merit of and with love for our precious matriarch Rachel Imeinu, the embodiment of Jewish grace.

Judaism revers women and mothers. We exercise our elevated female role throughout the Jewish calendar cycle – from special mitzvot for women relating to Shabbat, to celebrating the new month each Rosh Chodesh, to resting while the Chanukah candles are lit. Cheshvan 11 offers the Jewish people another occasion to focus on the special strengths of women while also honoring our matriarch Rachel in her sacred resting place in the Holy Land during her yarzeit. We can do this individually or in groups, and I recommend doing it in groups!

Unity is a mandate. While we may have work to do individually internally and externally, Judaism offers structures throughout the annual calendar to stay connected in community and never to isolate ourselves. Being present for a minyan, or participating in simchas can bring greater blessings. Staying engaged in earthly activities with other Jewish people in the physical world, particularly focused on Torah learnings, is our way. We convene throughout festivals, sabbaths, rituals, and even on our very special Jewish Mother’s Day.

This blog entry is an excerpt from an October 12, 2014 article titled, “Sacred Sites and Sacred Rights: Earth-Connected Spirituality from the Jewish New Year through ‘Jewish Mother’s Day.'” Read the article in it’s entirety on Times of Israel here.

Jewish Women’s Mitzvah Class – Separating the Challah


Thursday, February 7, 2013 1-3pm

Doula Devorah Leah Romano will guide us to make dough and “separate the challah” with the appropriate blessing according to Jewish law. We are Jewish women raising Jewish families, and practicing how it’s done! Participants will be asked to bring their own ingredients and extra-large bowls. Of course, we’ll do some Jewish learning too! We are lucky to have Rebbetzin Miriam Ferris as a long-time contributor to and supporter of Imeinu! Mrs. Ferris will share the secrets of challah baking as elucidated in the kabbalistic book for women “Ohel Rochel.” Please bring your own ingredients: 3/4 cups sugar or honey 3/4 cups oil 1 1/2 tbsp salt 4 1/2 tbsp yeast 3 1/2 cups water (or half eggs,half water) 5 pounds flour clean dish towel measuring cup and measuring spoons large mixing bowl (Ikea sells a sturdy inexpensive one!) Please RSVP to receive location information. ImeinuDoulas@gmail.com This event is taking place in anticipation of Rosh Chodesh Adar! There is no charge for attending this event. Donations accepted. Facebook event: click here

Imeinu? Our Mother.


by Wendy Kenin @greendoula

According to Jewish tradition, parents receive one sixtieth of prophesy when choosing the name for their child. The doulas and allies with Imeinu who selected this name “Imeinu” – Hebrew for “Our Mother” – may have been blessed with something similar when choosing the name by which we identify our childbirth work together.

The name is inspired by the Jewish matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. Each of these Jewesses is regarded as a mother of the Jewish people and is referred to as “Imeinu,” our mother. They each exemplify profound spiritual and feminine character traits. In the written and oral Torah we learn much about their lives, relationships, blessings, gifts, and tribulations.

We know about the circumstances around which they married and the key issues of their marriage relationships. We know about their entanglements in multi-generational familial conflicts. We know about their journeys and struggles with fertility, birth, and family.

But for our birth professionals collective, the word “Imeinu” is especially inspired by and in reference to Rachel Imeinu, the second wife of Yaacov. While Sarah, Rivka and Leah are buried with their husbands in the Cave of Machpelah, Yaacov buried Mama Rachel along the side of the road when she died giving birth to her second son. Author and teacher Chana Weisberg writes, “When she looked far ahead into the future, Rachel was determined to sacrifice her eternal pleasure so that these children could pass by her gravesite, and she would pray on their behalf.”

In Rachel’s merit, God annulled a decree against the Jewish people and guaranteed their return to the Holy Land. It is because of Rachel’s powerful prayers that in Jewish custom we pray for a person in the merit of their mother.

A mother’s cry for her child arouses mercy from God. Rachel Imeinu’s burial site is a place where people make pilgrimages to pour out their hearts to Mama Rachel. Particularly, Jewish women pray at Kever Rachel (Rachel’s tomb) for finding a soul mate, for pregnancy, a healthy birth, a good life for their families.

The Jewish people have fought to maintain access and to protect the kever – as recently as the beginning of the second Intifada, a group of Jewish women set up a tent camp at the nearby Gilo Junction for eight months until they reclaimed access to the sacred site.

To our group of childbirth professionals, “Imeinu” is a special utterance that draws upon the spiritual strength of Rachel Imeinu and all the Jewish matriarchs and mothers. But the word resonates in additional ways in the work of our doulas. First, we serve mothers. We talk about “our mother,” the mother we are serving, as she prepares for and gives birth. We embody the role of a mother when we are “mothering” the mothers through labor, as the work of the doula involves taking on a nurturing and experienced feminine role. We fight for our mothers to have safe births in hospitals, birth centers, or homes – based on their personal choices and evidence-based science.

With respect to our heritage and the continuation of the Jewish people and of the tradition of women in the world, every mother we serve is imeinu. We can refer to each client with the pronoun “imeinu” as each mother we serve is a matriarch, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin. It is with humility and honor that we embrace the opportunity to provide loving, supportive assistance to our women and families, and so to bestow the term “imeinu” on to them is an expression of our recognition and praise.

Imeinu Doula Sue Proctor says, “Our group consists of many strong Jewish women who not only support our clients but each other as well.” Truly our birth workers collaborative network is a multi-level mothering operation, where feminine wisdom, nurturing, support, and advocacy echo in all directions.

As a Jewish women’s organization in the business of women’s health and reproduction, we look to our roots in our ancestral mothers for comfort, strength and success. And we aspire to emulate some of their grace in our lives and sacred birth work.

This piece first appeared in Times of Israel.

This Ecofeminist Doula’s favorite Jewish practice? Mikveh!


There are so many reasons to love the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath). My love for mikveh inspired me to keep kosher, observe the Jewish Sabbath, and cover my hair as a married woman.

Here are a few of my personal favorite things about the mikveh:

1. Immersing into the Earth’s waters

Mikveh water must meet certain requirements of being naturally existing, as from a natural body of water or harvest from the rain. Any large enough body of naturally occurring water can be a mikveh. The ocean is the largest mikveh in the world. When a woman immerses in the mikveh, she is entering the womb of the feminine Earth, called Adamah in Hebrew. She strikes a fetal position pose, and then is spiritually reborn upon exiting the waters.

“When we refer to G‑d’s presence within our world, giving life to all things, then She is the Shechinah,” writes Tzvi Freeman about why we don’t call G-d Mother.

“When we refer to G‑d’s transcendence beyond this world, we call Him The Holy One, blessed be He. G‑d does not change or have parts, G‑d forbid. Both are the same one and singular G‑d, just looking at that G‑d from different angles,” he writes.

G-d is female, G-d is male, and G-d is everything and can be interacted with and described from each of these aspects.

The feminine aspect of G-d, the Shehina is present and dwelling among us when Jews perform mitzvot (commandments), such as davening (praying) together, or learning Torah together. Freeman continues, The Holy One, Blessed Be He unites with the Shechinah when we accomplish mitzvot correctly, hence elevating spiritual harmony in the world. When a woman immerses in the holy waters of the mikveh, she is physically uniting with that feminine Shechinah and in fulfilling the mitzvah uniting the Shechinah with The Holy One, Blessed Be He.

The Shehina dwells in the wilderness where Creation is ever-abundant, and also dwelled in the Holy Temple which explains all the miracles that happened there. Through her immersion in the mikveh, the woman embodies this powerful, fertile life force that travels with her. Observance of the marital laws that include the mikveh brings the Creator into the relationship with the husband and wife, elevating their union.

2. Ancestral Customs for personal hygiene, social networks, and intimacy

Before a woman immerses in the mikveh, she must  meticulously clean her body according to certain procedures, to ensure that nothing will obstruct any part of her body from being touched by the holy waters. She has been preparing for seven days since the end of her menstruation. The moments preceding and during immersion are guarded by a female attendant, a witness to help ensure that the woman is totally clean and totally immersed.

Mikveh is a basic element of living a Jewish life. According to Jewish law, building a mikveh takes precedence over building a house of worship.

Women are known to gather and spend time together on mikveh night before returning to their husbands. Bathing and the opportunity to connect with other women is guaranteed down time every month, guarded by the custom and engagement of the Jewish women in the local community.

I personally love knowing and practicing the hygienic customs of my ancestors! It’s not only about how we keep ourselves clean, it’s also about how we prepare ourselves for intimacy with our beloved. Generally speaking this monthly ritual for the married woman provides a rhythm of intimacy for husband and wife. Our own Jewish tradition has within it a structure for balance and renewal of healthy sexual intimacy.

3. Centrality of the woman’s rhythms

Not only does a woman learn to track her menstrual cycle according to the Hebrew lunar calendar and the traditional timing systems through the practice of mikveh, but the rhythm of her menses greatly impacts her relationship with her husband and family, and hence the womens’ cycles guide social dynamics in the community. It makes so much sense to have the women’s core rhythm, which is intrinsically connected and divinely balanced with the moon and the tides, be central to the Jewish calendar. I feel so proud that this woman-centered consciousness is embedded in the heritage of my Jewish ancestry.

The woman learns to track her menstrual cycles according to ancient calendar methods. She tracks her cycle dates in relationship to the lunar month, the Jewish calendar, and her internal rhythms. The ancient practice of tracking our cycle in this way is incredibly rooted and grounding, as is the traditional women’s celebration of Rosh Chodesh, each new month, ever since Sinai.

4. Spiritual Strength

I discovered traditional Yiddishkeit (Judaism) during my childbearing years, and then had the opportunity and great blessing to have relations and conceive children while involved with the holy mikveh. This action bestowed spiritual blessing on my children, as well as applied retroactively to any of my previous children and the generations of babies born since my grandmothers ceased using the mikveh. I know these things because they were passed to me through an unbroken oral tradition, a living practice that I accessed because I sought out people who maintain and guard these traditions.

As it is a carefully implemented mitzvah, I have had the privilege of using the mikveh in this way because I am a married Jewish woman married to a Jewish man. So many variables in my life could have been different. I feel totally blessed to have mikveh in my life.

5. Timeless Wisdom

A translation of the root of the Hebrew word mikveh is “place of hope.” Today, when humanity seems to be on the brink of both enlightenment and self-inflicted destruction, I am grateful to have this spiritual practice to arouse my sense of hope.

The Jewish understanding of gender, spirituality, and the earth offers a foundation for ecofeminist views on patriarchal wars and environmental degradation now and in the past. Women at the mikveh pray for fertility, peace, everything.

Understanding the mikveh and all that evolves around it provides me with a context for interacting with people of other faiths and traditions – people with whom we share the future of humanity. I understand how according to Jewish heritage women are revered. I know about how we eat, how we bathe, and how we value life.

We find in Judaism the acknowledgement of the Earth as female, and a connectivity between the women and the Shehina through the mikveh. According to the ancient teachings, the age of peace and the time of the redemption will arrive in the merit of the women.

Many people are dunking in the mikveh without an obligatory bracha (blessing) this week, to purify and cleanse the soul in preparation for the coming new year. Whether or not you take that plunge, May Hashem bless us all this year to grow in our spiritual maturity, unity, and love for one another in joy, success, and good health! Shana tova u’metukah!

Wendy Kenin is a Jewish ecofeminist and lives in Berkeley, CA. She is married and has four children. She is a doula and founder of Imeinu Birth Collective. Wendy blogs at Greendoula and tweets as @greendoula on birth, Judaism, peace, and social and environmental justice.

This piece was published by new Jewish birth network website Layda.org, orthodox mikvah calendar tracker website Mikvah.org Tikkun Daily as Rabbi Michael Lerner’s spiritual wisdom of the week, and was a featured blog on Jewcology