No, We Didn't Let Barry Freundel Happen

Not unsurprisingly, given that I’m a victim, I’ve read almost everything printed about the Barry Freundel case since it first broke back in October. I have made myself available for interviews not because I want to be known as the woman whose rabbi taped her naked, but because I think it’s important for reporters to understand the nuances of Orthodox Judaism, of conversion, of the community in Washington D.C.

Stories like these are “bad news for the Jews,” and it’s important to for the Jewish community to be clear that things like this happen not because of inherent issues with Judaism, but due to the flaws of some human beings who practice it.

It was with extreme frustration that I read Jay Michaelson’s latest column in this very paper on the case. Michaelson seems to believe that prominent members in the Kesher community should have seen Freundel’s recently exposed flaws more clearly.

He asks, “How can some of our community’s leading (if self-appointed) cultural sages lionize and valorize someone who, in fact, they didn’t really know that well?”

Juxtapose this question with a statement from Michaelson’s last column on Freundel (in which he blamed “burnout” for Freundel’s transgressions) “Those of us who knew, or thought we knew, Rabbi Barry Freundel — recently arrested for spying on women in the mikveh, with a mountain of evidence suggesting his guilt — are still in shock. As much as I disagreed with many of his halachic positions, I always thought he was one of the good rabbis, the ethical ones.”

Michaelson describes his own attendance at Kesher, but doesn’t explain why he didn’t see Freundel’s flaws more clearly. If other well-known attendees were supposed to see them, why didn’t a contributing editor for the Forward?

The column also describes silent, “ardent supporters” of Freundel among Kesher leadership and the Rabbinical Council of America who, even after the scandal broke, were still defensive of the once-prominent rabbi. Despite what Michaelson claims, immediately following the news of the scandal both organizations released forceful statements regarding Freundel’s activities.

The President of the synagogue, Elanit Jakabovics, gave a widely shared and moving speech from the bima on Shmini Atzeret, just days after Freundel’s arrest. In it she said, “Due to the events of the last few days, much of that has been shattered. Our trust has been violated. Mikvah is an intensely sacred, private ritual space. It is also supposed to be a sanctuary — a space of inviolable intimacy and privacy, where we go to cleanse ourselves and reckon with ourselves and our aspirations to a right Jewish life. But these sacred spaces — our shul and our mikvah — have now been tarnished. Our inviolability has been violated. I am a woman: I know it could have been me.”

In the days following the scandal the RCA convened a committee to reevaluate conversion protocol and immediately named myself and another Freundel convert, Evelyn Range-Fruchter, to have an equal voice as leading rabbinic figures and other esteemed women of influence in our community on it. The RCA also released a statement defending the validity of Freundel’s conversions almost immediately, protecting converts such as myself, and within that statement made clear several points on their position on the situation. They stated, “In an emergency meeting on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, the day before Shmini Atzeret, the RCA Executive Committee voted unanimously to suspend Rabbi Freundel from all positions of leadership in the RCA, from RCA membership and, together with the Beth Din of America, from all activities related to conversion.” 

How statements such as these could in any way be construed and portrayed as defensive silence is nothing less than willful blindness at best, and loshon hara at worst.

Michaelson seems to believe that some of Freundel’s “elite” parishioners like Senator Joseph Lieberman and Leon Wieseltier should have seen his transgressions coming due to their positions of power in the Jewish community, as if they were somehow bestowed with superhuman powers. How Lieberman or Wieseltier, two ordinary men who weren’t intimately engaged in the day-to-day operations of the synagogue were supposed to see what the individuals who spent significant amounts of time with him did not is inexplicable.

In his piece, Michaelson also takes the opportunity to quote me from an interview with the Daily Beast. In it I said “People keep calling him a pervert and yes, he’s a pervert, but he’s also a power hungry sociopath. It wasn’t about porn. It was about power, and this was additional power no one knew he had.” This was a statement made in the aftermath of the scandal, not before, obviously. If Liberman and Wieseltier were supposed to see Freundel for what he was while sitting in the seats of his synagogue a few times a month, why didn’t I? I spent countless Shabbat and holiday meals at his dining room table and an hour a week with him one-on-one for almost a year. If anyone should have seen this coming, logic would indicate it would have been me, not an occasional attendee of Shabbat afternoon services.

Freundel, like many other deeply flawed individuals, had many sides, some good and some bad. I’ve told reporters the good stories about Freundel and I’ve told the bad, and unsurprisingly, only the latter have been printed. People have had the audacity to ask me (and other Freundel converts) directly and indirectly why we subjected ourselves to him if he was such a deviant, why we didn’t speak out against him before the scandal, as if he somehow had power over us to strip any instinct of self-preservation and respect. This is nothing less than victim-blaming and victim-shaming. Anyone who knows me or many other Freundel converts can attest we are nothing but strong, opinionated and iron-willed women and men (the vast majority of his converts, like all converts, were women).

To be clear, Freundel had a great deal of power over us, but while he could sometimes be controlling and manipulative, he could also be our greatest defender. I will never forget the evening when my then-boyfriend and I agreed to host another couple for a meal through the synagogue’s hospitality committee. Upon learning of my status as a convert-in-process, the couple refused to eat my food without hearing directly from the rabbi that it was safe according to the laws of kashrut. My then-boyfriend, a friend and the husband literally ran from Dupont Circle to Georgetown to knock on Freundel’s door to ask about the status of my food. Freundel (and his wife Sharon) were both horrified and furious that the couple had embarrassed me, refused to eat my food, and insulted the synagogue who assigned them to my Shabbos table. The next afternoon after services Freundel asked with tears in his eyes upon seeing them in mine how I was doing and assured me if the couple returned, he would sit down with them and discuss the proper conduct he expected from Jews for converts, both in the process and afterwards. I believed him; he had done it with dues-paying congregants before.

I tell this story not to defend Freundel, but to defend myself and the countless other people, other converts and members of the community who didn’t see the discovery of the cameras coming. When we knew him, we saw him as a man like many others: one with both positive and negative attributes. It’s easy to see warning signs in the light of 20/20 hindsight, but it’s irresponsible and cruel to assign blame for his actions on any individual besides the offender himself.

Note: While I’m am a member of the RCA’s committee to review the conversion process. This piece is unrelated to that work. Nothing I have written here is in any way informed or motivated by my involvement with it.

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