Doubt, questions plague Freundel converts

Rabbi Barry Freundel leaves the courtroom on Oct. 15 pursued by reporters. He pleaded not guilty to six charges of voyeurism. Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro
Rabbi Barry Freundel leaves the courtroom on Oct. 15 pursued by reporters. He pleaded not guilty to six charges of voyeurism. Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro

Bethany Mandel was raised in an interfaith family, with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. As an adult, she found herself increasingly tugged by her Jewish roots. In her search for identity, she turned to Orthodox Judaism, hoping to convert and live life as an observant Jew. Hoping to make that conversion ironclad, she scoured the Internet for a conversion rabbi who was “the most respected, who has the most experience.”

Over and over again in her online searches, one man’s name kept surfacing – Rabbi Barry Freundel.

Now that the same man has been arrested and charged with six counts of voyeurism for allegedly using a hidden camera to spy on women as they dressed and undressed for the mikvah, a spiritual bath, at National Capital Mikvah, located next door to Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown.

Mandel specifically moved to Washington, D.C., to undergo the conversion process with Freundel, Kesher Israel’s rabbi at the time (he has since been suspended without pay). The first time they met, Freundel handed her an extensive reading list. She devoured each of the books and began meeting with Freundel in his office up to two times per week.

Very early on, Mandel said Freundel told her that while she had a very good grasp of the information, he didn’t want to complete her conversion too quickly, as doing so might create the perception that she was only converting in order to marry.

Ten months later, in June 2011, Mandel converted to Judaism. News of Freundel’s arrest has left her hopeful that her conversion will hold in the eyes of a religious court, but “you never know,” she worried in an interview Tuesday. “Who knows what they’ll respect in 20 years if my kid makes aliyah?”

That is why Mandel, like other converts who have spoken to WJW, was only partially relieved when the Rabbinical Council of America, which handles matters concerning Orthodox rabbis, declared Monday that all conversions performed by Freundel prior to his arrest “remain halachically valid and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.”

The RCA’s statement followed a review of the criminal complaint, search and arrest warrants, as well as applicable Jewish law. Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA executive vice president, explained that conversions are considered legitimate and appropriate unless proven otherwise. He also pointed out that three rabbis sign off on a conversion, not just one.

In an effort to avoid future problems with conversions, the RCA and the Beth Din of America ruled that each local beit din, Jewish court, must appoint a woman or group of women to serve as ombudsman to listen to any concerns of female candidates for conversion and that any woman starting the conversion process needs to be informed about this.

The RCA appointed a commission this week of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals to review the conversion process and create safeguards against possible abuses. The committee is to report its findings by Jan. 31, 2015.

In Israel, where conversions conducted in America have always been suspect, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate at first said it would review Freundel’s past conversions before deciding whether to accept them. But on Tuesday, that body did an about-face, releasing a statement that it will recognize all past conversions performed by Freundel.

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel clarifies that the Rabbi Freundel affair has no effect on the policy of recognizing conversions performed by him in the past,” Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor wrote to JTA in a text message.

Locally, the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, of which the 62-year-old Freundel had been vice president before his suspension from the group, said it will respect any conversions Freundel oversaw.

“Our hearts go out to the victims and to Kesher Israel Congregation. We will continue in the days ahead to support and assist those in need and to work to restore trust and the highest standards of moral and ethical leadership and practices,” the local RCA wrote in a statement to Washington Jewish Week.

“The privacy of women is central to our beliefs, and we deplore, in the strongest words possible, any violation of a woman’s privacy,” the statement read. “We deplore and condemn any conduct that desecrates the trust placed in Rabbis and communal leaders. We have zero tolerance for any behavior that violates Jewish law and the laws of the society in which we live.”

The RCA acknowledged that this was not the first time it has looked into Freundel’s behavior. In 2012, some conversion candidates “expressed that they felt coerced to perform clerical work for him in his home office” and also to contribute money to the beit din. “Further it was discovered that he was a co-signer on a checking account with a conversion candidate,” according to an RCA statement.

Rabbi Freundel was confronted and “made assurances that these behaviors would discontinue,” according to the RCA statement. At that time, the RCA decided the charges “did not rise to a level that required him to be suspended from the RCA or to be removed from his work with converts, as long as they did not continue,” the statement read.

In 2007, the RCA set up a tribunal to ensure that uniform standards were set to guide rabbis and their converts through the conversion process. Freundel “was actively involved” in this work but was only one member, according to the RCA. Freundel served as chair of the RCA’s Geirus Protocol and Standards conversion system from 2006 to 2013.

While upholding Freundel’s conversions, Rabbi Dratch came out strongly against practice dunking into the mikvah, something several converts, including Mandel, have said Freundel encouraged them to do.

“No. We had never heard of it before. It’s not something we have endorsed or recommended,” Dratch said. “Had this come to our attention, we would have reacted.”

In October 2010, Freundel instructed Mandel to take a “practice dunk” in the mikvah. “He was never in the room. I did not dunk in front of him,” she recalled. But Mandel didn’t feel right. “It’s sort of weird for a non-Jew to go in the mikvah,” she said. She asked Freundel about the check list for entering the mikvah, and said the rabbi instructed her to “take a long shower” and not worry about the formalities.

The three converts who spoke with WJW all took practice dunks at Freundel’s urging, and felt strange about doing so. None felt confident or knowledgeable enough to question Freundel, whom they considered a towering and intimidating authority figure, not just locally but throughout the American Orthodox movement.

Emma Shulevitz, 27, of Rockville, took a practice dunk in July 2012, reciting no prayers. “He told me to return for as many practice dunks as you want,” she recalled.

While she said Freundel was not present in the mikvah, he was in the waiting room showing her where to store the personal items she had with her. He never touched her or saw her naked, she said.

“It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach,” she said, adding that she even asked Freundel if this submersion constituted her conversion. “He kept saying, ‘No, you are not ready for the real one,’ ” she recalled.

Later, she went to a mikvah in Woodside for a practice dunk. Staff there shot her bewildered looks, stating they had never heard of such a thing.

Shulevitz eventually did convert, not with Freundel, but with the help of another rabbi in New York. When she told that rabbi about her practice dunk, “He sort of cried. He didn’t say anything,” she said.

Another woman who converted to Judaism via Freundel, and who wished to remain anonymous, first converted through the Conservative movement but later approached Freundel to make sure her conversion was never questioned as valid.

At their very first meeting, he told her she could do a practice dunk. When she told him she didn’t have the $25 donation with her, Freundel told her “not to worry, she could pay later,” the Rockville woman recalled.

“At this point, in hindsight, I feel like I was coerced into doing something that was beneficial to him, not me,” she said.

To her, entering the mikvah would mean she was “entering the club. This was my day,” she said. Freundel “was someone I trust. He’s the leader of the Jewish community. When you say his name, everyone knows him.”

Those who know him best are Kesher Israel congregants. Around the Shabbat table, after services and throughout the day, talk now turns to Freundel, the man they no longer believe they know. This man who married them and presided over so many life-cycle events may not have been the warmest person around, but he was a well-respected, learned Orthodox rabbi, they believed. We believed that “literally, the path to Hashem was through Freundel,” said a congregant, who asked that his name not be used.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that they had videotapes, I wouldn’t believe it,” said another congregant as he left Shabbat services Saturday night.

“It’s a hugely tragic time,” said his friend, who has attended Kesher Israel for eight years. “We don’t know how long he has been doing this. Apparently he thought he could get away with it.” Still, he said, “I think the community will get past this.”

The previous day, a group of congregants stood outside the synagogue at 28th and N Streets in Georgetown, soaking up the bright sunshine and eating from plates filled with Chinese food. Across the street, television cameras aimed directly at them.

The morning services were “shockingly normal. People are just trying to move on. People are sad, but we are trying to move on,” said one woman.

Synagogue President Elanit Jakabovics is being credited by many for the tactful and sensitive way she has handled this crisis.

Elana Sztokman, an author specializing in gender and religion who lives in Israel but has met Freundel and is monitoring the case, called Jakabovics “an impressive woman,” adding, “I think that the fact that this synagogue has a woman president who is not just a part of the boys’ club” enabled the story to come out so quickly.

In her address to the congregation on Shmini Atzeret, Jakabovics acknowledged, “There are no words to describe the shock, devastation, and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment.”

Jakabovics, who has been president for the past 2 1/2 years, said she was angry, frustrated, concerned and sad. “Kesher Israel is supposed to be a safe space for us,” but now, “our trust has been violated.”

The board of directors held a meeting Monday night in which Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier and officials from the U.S. Attorney’s office and professionals from social service and counseling agencies spoke and answered questions. The entire downstairs was filled and the upstairs, where women sit during services, was partially filled, according to one attendee.

Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue had a similar meeting the night before, choosing not to participate in one joint meeting. When asked about this, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld replied in an email that he was too busy to speak with the press. “My sole focus now is on helping the victims.”

As Jakabovics pointed out in her recent address, “We will fix what has been broken. We will cleanse what has been soiled.”

After all, Mandel pointed out, “Judaism isn’t about rabbis and what they say. It’s about Torah, and it’s about faith.”

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