Tensions have not dissipated between Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown and Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue following Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel’s Oct. 14 arrest on charges of voyeurism for allegedly videotaping women as they prepared to use a mikvah (ritual bath).
Freundel and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, have engaged in a cold war since Herzfeld came to the D.C. synagogue in 2004.
“This has been a thing since the day Herzfeld showed up in Washington and didn’t kiss Freundel’s ring,” said Jonathan Javitt, a member of both Kesher Israel and Ohev Sholom. “Every single success of [Herzfeld] inflamed Freundel.”
Freundel had been a member of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington for close to 30 years before his dismissal last month. Herzfeld has applied several times but has never been admitted to the Rabbinical Council. Two years ago, he told Washington Jewish Week, “They have turned me down. They have not given me a reason. I have not been told why.”
Freundel wielded power over the Orthodox community in Washington, D.C., and was influential in the conversion process as well as in deciding which restaurants received kashrut certification. Freundel was viewed as more of a hard-liner than Herzfeld. While Freundel frowned on female members of the Orthodox clergy, Herzfeld recently brought Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman to Ohev Sholom.
Herzfeld has certified as kosher such eateries as Soupergirl and the former Sixth and I food truck when the Rabbinical Council, commonly known as the Vaad, refused.
“It was certainly Freundel who told his members not to trust” Herzfeld’s kashrut certification, said Javitt, who recently made aliyah.
But even after Kesher Israel’s board of directors suspended Freundel without pay, the two synagogues remain at odds. Both synagogues held their own separate meetings after Freundel’s very public arrest. The meetings, a day apart, both featured Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier and staff members of several Jewish social services agencies.
According to a Kesher Israel congregant, his synagogue reached out to Herzfeld to see if they could hold a joint meeting at Kesher Israel but with Herzfeld giving the d’var Torah. “Since we were essentially ground zero for this, you would have thought they would have reached out to us. We thought they should have coordinated with us,” said the Kesher Israel member, who asked that his name not be used.
But Herzfeld would not agree, and “appropriated this tragedy for himself,” the congregant said.
However, an Ohev Sholom congregant who didn’t want his name used explained that many of that synagogue’s female members also used The National Capital Mikvah that is located next door to Kesher Israel. Therefore, the congregant said, many Ohev Sholom members feel as aggrieved as Freundel’s own congregants.
Herzfeld refused to speak about the matter, explaining, “My sole focus now is on helping the victims, and I am not speaking with the press at this time.”
Kesher Israel President Elanit Jakabovics also believes her most important duty right now is to help “the Kesher community cope with this tragedy.”
However, she acknowledged, “I know that Rabbi Freundel and Rabbi Herzfeld have had strong disagreements when it comes to interpreting Jewish law and have had a different approach when it comes to how to perform their duties as a rabbi. I recognize there is a lot of deep-seated anger and mistrust between the Kesher and Ohev communities that stem from these disagreements.”
Jakabovics continued in an email to Washington Jewish Week, “I don’t think rehashing what happened in the past is productive; our communities go beyond just being defined by the personalities who didn’t like each other.”
As both synagogues work to move past Freundel’s arrest, Ohev Sholom is preparing to open its own mikvah. “It’ll be open as soon as the last rain drop fills it. It’s in God’s hands,” said Javitt. The mikvah began filling in August.
Unlike the mikvah associated with Kesher Israel, Ohev Sholom’s mikvah will have separate entrances for men and women. Maharat Friedman would not speak to Washington Jewish Week about the new mikvah, but she is quoted on her synagogue’s Facebook page as explaining, “Mikvah use serves as a ritual to help usher people through important moments such as conversion and marriage. Mikvah also has potential to speak to people at other moments of transition, like illness and healing.”
She went on to explain, the new mikvah “is a communal space, available to the whole community” that can also be used to mark numerous transitions from graduations to personal milestones to completing a round of chemotherapy.
“Mikvahs are so important. You can pray in someone’s home. You can pray anywhere,” Javitt said. But going through the purifying ritual can only be done in a mikvah, ocean or lake.
Javitt is hopeful that the two synagogues may one day “get together” to help the broader Jewish community, but that will only happen “if they recognize a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said.
Jakabovics also wants the two Orthodox synagogues “to act as one unified community, focused on healing from the deep pain and anguish that we are each feeling about what happened. As the Kesher community, the Ohev community, and the entire Jewish community work together to heal, I know we will come out of this stronger than ever before.”