(JTA) — When Rabbi Barry Freundel asked Bethany Mandel to take a “really long shower” before a “practice dunk” in the mikvah prior to her formal conversion to Judaism, the whole request seemed a bit odd, she says.
For one thing, Freundel instructed her to skip the pre-mikvah checklist, which includes things like cleaning out one’s navel, trimming nails, and getting rid of excess hair and skin. For another, she had never heard of practice dunking.
But Mandel eventually bought the rabbi’s explanation: that women performing the ritual for the first time at their actual conversions might in their nervousness and confusion turn around and mistakenly expose themselves to the three rabbis present. Mandel said she, like other women who took practice dunks, actually found the trial run helpful.
That was before last week when Freundel, a prominent Orthodox leader and rabbi at Washington’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the mikvah’s shower room. He is believed to have clandestinely filmed women showering and undressing before their practice dunks and the monthly immersions that married Orthodox women perform following menstruation.
Freundel has been charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and suspended without pay from his job. Looking back, Mandel says, elements of the experience were deeply suspect.
“At first I was like, this was weird, but when he was waiting in the waiting room I thought this is just me being paranoid,” Mandel said. Now, she says, “It makes me ill.”
Peeping was not the only form of abuse that converts said they experienced at Freundel’s hands. The rabbi also demanded that conversion candidates perform clerical duties on his behalf and donate money to the Washington Beit Din, or rabbinical court. These candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.
Many felt they had no recourse but to comply with Freundel’s requests.
“My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself,” said a Maryland resident who converted in 2012 after two years of working with Freundel and spoke with JTA on the condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”
Mandel, too, had no idea when her conversion would be complete. After her practice dunk in October 2010, it took nearly two more years for Freundel to green-light her actual conversion.
“You’d meet with him and he’d at some point arbitrarily decide that you were ready to go to the beit din,” Mandel said. “There was no clear outline or timeline or requirements. I didn’t go to classes or study.”
The peeping Tom revelations, while the most extraordinary of the allegations against Freundel, have helped pull back the curtain on what may be a far more common problem in the Orthodox world: the abuse of prospective converts by the rabbis who convert them. In Freundel’s case, the rabbi allegedly abused his power both for sexual and non-sexual purposes.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which rebuked Freundel two years ago for misusing conversion candidates for clerical work, says it is reviewing its procedures to better safeguard against such exploitation.
For the women whose privacy was violated by Freundel’s alleged actions, the revelations have been shocking — but in retrospect, they said, not out of character with a man many deemed “creepy.”
One female candidate for conversion who declined to be identified for fear that her 2012 conversion could be challenged said Freundel made her ride with him to Towson University near Baltimore, where Freundel taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, to do secretarial work. The woman, who was single at the time, said the rides were uncomfortable and the work was onerous, particularly because she worked nights and needed her days free to catch up on sleep.
But she didn’t dare say no to Freundel because he held the prerogative to declare her ready for conversion.
“When you’re going through conversion, you don’t know the timeline of when you’re going to finish — there’s so much power being wielded over you, and in the interim you’re in limbo,” she said. “You can’t move, you can’t switch jobs to another location, because you have to live in the community where you’re converting. I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible.”
She said Freundel made comments that struck her as strange and inappropriate.
“He made a lot of comments that didn’t sit right for me about my appearance, about how attractive he thought I was, about whether guys were pursuing me, about my clothing,” she recalled. “I found it quite uncomfortable to be around him for long periods of time alone.”
Mandel said her own conversion process was terribly disjointed even though Freundel was part of the committee that established conversion policies and standards for the Rabbinical Council of America. Freundel was also known for being an advocate of opening up certain leadership roles in Orthodoxy to women, such as synagogue presidencies.
The RCA, which suspended Freundel’s membership following his Oct. 14 arrest, says it has appointed a committee to review its entire conversion system to determine if and where changes are needed to prevent rabbinic abuse. The organization, which serves as the main rabbinical association for centrist Orthodox rabbis in the United States, also said it would appoint women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, said in an interview that it’s difficult for the RCA to police its members closely.
“Because they are scattered throughout the country, we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight,” he said.
The appointment of female ombudsmen, Dratch said, is meant to address this problem.
“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” he said. “We want to support a healthy conversion process.”
Critics say the RCA is not up to the task, as demonstrated by its failure to identify Freundel’s alleged misdeeds despite at least two prior complaints against him. One was about using prospective converts for clerical tasks and soliciting the beit din donations, as well as maintaining a joint bank account with a conversion candidate. In the other, Freundel was accused of sharing a sleeper compartment on an overnight train with a woman who was not his wife.
The RCA says it appointed a committee to investigate the first complaint and concluded that while the behavior was inappropriate, there was no malicious intent. Dratch says Freundel asked many congregants, not just converts, for clerical help and donations, and the joint checking account was intended to help a prospective convert. Freundel was reprimanded and agreed to stop.
As to the train incident, the RCA says Freundel was confronted and provided a “reasonable explanation,” and there was no evidence of inappropriate behavior, but did not elaborate.
“A delegation was sent to Washington to speak with Freundel,” Dratch recalled. “They came back with a recommendation that didn’t rise to a level where he had to be dismissed.”
Among those tasked by the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America with investigating Freundel were two attorneys who now lead major Jewish organizations: Allen Fagin, now the chief professional at the Orthodox Union, and Eric Goldstein, now CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. Goldstein declined to comment to JTA; a representative for Fagin said he was unavailable for comment.
A rabbinic critic interviewed by JTA said the RCA’s approach to Freundel was “totally incompetent.”
“The organization should have seen a red flag and they didn’t,” said the critic, who declined to be named because he said he did not want to be a distraction. “This is a story of a Jewish institution missing the warning signs because they answer to nobody.”
The critic compared the RCA’s handling of the Freundel allegations to the failure by Yeshiva University to reign in the inappropriate behavior of Rabbi George Finkelstein, a teacher and administrator at Y.U.’s high school for boys who over the course of three decades allegedly wrestled and hugged boys inappropriately, and the failure of the Orthodox Union to put a stop to the abuse of minors by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was exposed by reports in The New York Jewish Week and eventually was convicted in 2002 of two counts of child sexual abuse.
Freundel, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeurism. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris of the Washington firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke L.L.P., did not return a call seeking comment. Freundel’s next court date is Nov. 12.
The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that all the conversions Freundel oversaw prior to his arrest remain valid.
Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher Israel’s board president, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the address she delivered to her congregation on Oct. 15, on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a day after Freundel’s arrest, was posted on the synagogue’s website.
“There are no words to describe the shock, devastation, and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment,” she said. “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.”
David Barak, a Kesher Israel congregant and former president of the mikvah, said Freundel long had been a polarizing figure even within the congregation. But Barak, who converted under Freundel in 1998 and teaches a practical Judaism class for converts, was one of Freundel’s defenders.
“Nobody came to me afterward and said hey, the rabbi’s being weird,” Barak said. “But clearly there was a whole world I didn’t see.”
He says the synagogue is handling the scandal well, noting that the Simchat Torah holiday last week was one of the synagogue’s most spirited ever.
“I think the sense at the shul is we were here before the rabbi and we will be here after the rabbi,” Barak said.