During World War II, the United States government enacted a rescue commission known as the War Refugee Board, which achieved a few notable results (although not as much as it could have), including the rescue of over 100,000 Jews and the distribution of vital relief services when the war ended. In one unique instance, roughly 1,000 refugees were brought from Italy to Fort Ontario, an abandoned army base near Oswego, New York. Vaad Hatzalah, the Orthodox relief organization, offered a wide range of support services, a model for its postwar efforts. Among the refugees were 300 Torah-observant Jews.
The Vaad promptly met their basic needs: kosher food, talis, t’filin, and a shul in which to pray. At first, only Orthodox refugees registered for kosher food. Yet, as word of its superior quality spread, the number of registrants doubled. How could the Vaad refuse? After all, Jews wished to eat kosher. The Vaad was delighted. In time, a second kosher kitchen was established, and a Talmud Torah for the children. The camp’s needs increased daily, and the refugees requested an eruv in order to carry on Shabbos. The Vaad had no difficulty taking care of that need, to the great appreciation of the refugees.
The next request, however, was not as simple; the Jews insisted that they need a mikvah to ensure spiritual sanctity in their homes. The Vaad was happy to oblige, but before they could do anything, they needed to explain the concept and importance of a mikvah to Mr. Joe Smart, the Christian camp director. Without his approval, nothing could be done.
The Vaad asked Rabbi Eliezer Silver zt”l, a ranking member of the Vaad and the chief rabbi of Cincinnati, Ohio, who had come to visit the refugees and offer them encouragement, to represent them in their attempt to procure permission for this endeavor. Reb Leizer was eager to be of assistance. The word mikvah needed to be translated into English, and one way to do this was to use the word “ritualarium,” which had been coined earlier while building Boro Park’s first mikvah.
“A ritualarium,” Rabbi Silver explained to Joe Smart in his heavily accented English, “is a bath where Jewish men and women immerse themselves for religious purposes. Separately, of course.”
Smart nodded knowingly. “What you need is a swimming pool,” he said chirpily. Reb Leizer shook his head, indicating that a swimming pool was not acceptable. He decided to try to explain the concept of a mikvah by showing Smart how to build one.
“Okay. First,” he said, “the Talmud requires that a mikvah must have at least 40 sa’ah (a minimum of 648 liters) of water.”
Smart shrugged unknowingly. He had never heard of a “sa’ah.” But Reb Leizer didn’t notice. “Also, the space is measured in amos (cubits).” The camp director looked around, helplessly lost in the terminology, searching desperately for a translator.
But Reb Leizer would not let him go. “Amos – you know, forearms, forearms. It’s measured in cubits – about the length of a forearm.” He stretched out his right arm as if to demonstrate the exact dimension in true life.
Joe Smart immediately demurred, taking the matter on faith. “Rabbi, it’s okay. Amos – cubits, that’s fine.”
Joe realized that the diminutive rabbi had already drawn a crowd. And he still had no idea what the man was talking about!
“Okay,” Reb Leizer said, “now the water. A mikvah needs natural water.” He began making flowing gestures with his hands. Displaying enormous patience, Smart smiled, “All water is natural. You want us to pump water in for your mikvah, right?”
“No, no,” Rabbi Silver shouted, arms flailing in all directions. “Still, natural water. A mikvah cannot have water collected from a pipe. The water must be obtained from the sky or a river. It has to be still and natural.” Joe Smart sighed and gave up. He could not grasp the details and really had no clue what this eminent rabbi was talking about. Shrugging, he motioned to a couple of army engineers standing nearby. “Do whatever the rabbi says,” he said, and slowly backed away.
The engineers had not been part of the conversation before and now ambled over to the short man with the top hat and long coat. Before they had even reached him, Reb Leizer launched into a discourse on amos, forearms, and natural water, to the utter surprise and bewilderment of the new arrivals. Rabbi Eliezer Silver persevered, and in two weeks there was a mikvah!