Washington’s Kesher Israel is emerging today from a long four-day stretch of holiday and Shabbat, back to dealing with the reality of news about the synagogue’s rabbi, Barry Freundel, who was arrested on voyeurism charges after allegedly peeping on women at the mikveh. For Orthodox members of the synagogue, it has been a forced, but welcome, detachment from TV news and online updates on the case that has brought local and national attention to their synagogue.
The issue was discussed, however, in between prayers and services during the holiday and weekend and was addressed only once from the bimah, when the synagogue’s president Elanit Jakabovics delivered a heartfelt speech during Thursday’s morning service.
“There are no words to describe the shock, devastation and heartbreak we are feeling at this moment,” Jakabovics told congregants, in a speech that did not mention Freundel by name even once. She spoke in harsh terms when describing the news thrust upon the congregation. “I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m concerned, I’m sad,” she said, expressing her sympathy to Freundel’s wife and children and mainly to all members of the community, some of them potentially victims of the rabbi’s actions.
The synagogue, she said, is supposed to be “a safe space for us” and events of the past week have shattered this sense of safety. “Our trust has been violated,” Jakabovics said, noting that the mikveh is a sacred place, a sanctuary, “a space of inviolable intimacy and privacy.” This place, Kesher Israel’s president stated, has now been tarnished. “Our inviolability has been violated,” she said. “I am a woman; it could have been me.”
But Jakabovics also sought to look forward and instill hope in members, assuring that the community will come together to support and rebuild. “Kesher and the mikveh will be a safe place again,” she promised.
“We will fix what has been broken. We will cleanse what has been soiled. We will honor what has been dishonored,” said Jakabovics. “What has been tarnished will be made luminous again.”
The congregation’s top lay leader looked to the holiday of Simchat Torah, which took place right after the news about their rabbi broke, as “prophetic timing,” noting that Jews are obliged to be happy, to persist with joy.
Jakabovics has already seen signs of the community’s resilience in the immediate aftermath of Freundel’s arrest. The next morning, one of the member families showed up, as planned, to celebrate the naming of their newly born daughter. “It was entirely normal,” she said, “life continues and our community added its newest member.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman