In the sukkah of Rabbi Barry Freundel

Rabbi Barry Freundel, mobbed by reporters as he is leaving D.C. Superior Court after his arraignment on six voyeurism charges on Oct. 15. Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro
Rabbi Barry Freundel, mobbed by reporters as he is leaving D.C. Superior Court after his arraignment on six voyeurism charges on Oct. 15. Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro

I had the distinct honor of spending the full week of Sukkot, from the first day of yom tov, all the way through Simchat Torah and Shabbat Bereishit, with Washington D.C.’s Kesher Israel Congregation. It was truly an honor being with the people, at the place, and quite literally front row to a clergy sex scandal that was dealt with so well, that even within days of the arrest, it was clear that the handling of this case had reset the standard not only for how Jewish institutions deal with clergy sex crimes, but how religious institution in general deal with sex crimes.

The handling was swift, efficient, and restrained. The board of directors, and notably the synagogue president, were calm, collected, and in charge of their emotions and the situation. The board issued sensible, focused statements promptly and involved exactly the right people at the police department, Jewish Social Services, and other counseling agencies. The board’s response was SO good, you’d have thought they were actors reading lines from a script.

And that’s exactly the point; they weren’t acting, but they did have a script. Just like Sandy Hook and other school shootings have prompted schools to create and practice response plans to school-shooter scenarios, Kesher Israel had a similar plan for dealing with synagogue sex abuse — from clergy, a parent, a teacher, whoever. All contingencies were covered and planned for. The Kesher Israel community and, quite horribly, the rabbi now facing charges, had been through a line-in-the-sand confrontation with the Orthodox Union over it’s handling of the Baruch Lanner sex-abuse scandal a decade ago. In the end, Kesher Israel’s position was not accommodated. The synagogue canceled it’s OU membership and independently created its own rigorous plan for dealing with clergy sex abuse, should, G-d Forbid, such a travesty ever visit their community.

Whatever the meaning behind the Divine Providence involved, a clergy sex scandal did visit their community, and Kesher Israel’s independently-created plan for dealing with clergy sex abuse actually dealt with it better than any other case I can think of. There were no years of cover-ups, no kicking the can, no deferring to someone else, no turning a blind eye, and no making excuses.   Even the Board’s reaction was not an over-reaction. There was no angry spasm. They knew who to call at which police department. They knew which social services to get involved, which counselors, and when. There was a plan in place for how to handle public communications and public statements. They put the rabbi on suspension without pay, but immediately and discretely organized a chesed group of old-time level-headed members to bring prepared meals to the rebitzen and avoid further victimizing her for her spouse’s alleged wrongdoing. I don’t think most people who heard the news over Succot were immediately thinking about Mrs. Freundel, but those of us who had just heard her give a beautiful and erudite Yom Tove Torah drasha, unknowingly just a few days before police raided her house and took her husband away in handcuffs were all pretty clear that she probably wasn’t in the mood to go shopping at Whole Foods.

The Talmud in Mesechet Sotah offers a long list of signs regarding the imminent coming of the Messianic Age.   “With the footsteps of Mashiach…” the Talmud begins a long list of signs, finally concluding “…and the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father.” Most of the items listed deal with various aspects of the collapse of social order. They are clear and unambiguous. But what’s this ‘generation with the face of a dog’ business all about?

The most-quoted answer is that of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, OB”M, who taught that a dog by nature runs ahead of its master, always turning around to see where he is heading; whatever that direction may be, the dog arrives there first. Now, this is a terrific answer for a creative thinker who had never studied Torah, but it is a glaringly bizarre answer from an outstanding Torah Scholar like Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.

Outstanding rabbis don’t just make up answers to explain midrashim. That is the way of entertainers, comedians and talking heads. Rabbis explain Torah imagery from Torah sources, and only venture outside when no internal explanations are available. Allow me to offer a novel insight that I suggest Rabbi Salanter was clear on, but chose to deliberately obscure for his PG-rated audience of mid 1800’s Lithuania.

Throughout rabbinic literature, the dog is the primary symbol for sexual licentiousness. The origin of this symbol was that the dog was one of three creatures that copulated on Noah’s Ark, during the one-year mourning period for all those who drowned in the flood (see Sanhedrin 108b, “three sinned on the ark… [and were punished]”). Can you even contemplate the mindset? Copulating at a funeral? A funeral for the whole world? Or, to drive the point home in present tense, the licentious act that defined “acting like a dog” for time immemorial was done in a world-wide mikveh. The dog was punished because his behavior indicated a profound lack of basic decency. Even in common, every-day speech, when people refer to a sexually prolific individual, they rarely call him a cat.

Rabbi Salanter knew what he reading, and was clear on the symbolism of the dog that is repeated throughout the Talmud, Zohar, and many Midrashim. But things were hard in 1800’s Lithuania. It would not have helped his countrymen to learn that the Messiah they prayed for so fervently would be heralded by a generation in which rabbinic leaders were making headlines for acting like dogs in the sense so bluntly stated throughout Torah literature. It was enough to teach that this statement is referring to the collapse of the rabbinic leadership of the generation, and to throw in the clever allusion to running ahead like a dog, but always looking [at this statement in the Talmud when we arrive in that point in history – i.e. now].

I heard the news while sitting in the Kesher Israel sukkah that Rabbi Freundel had supervised and built in the courtyard directly between the synagogue where I had prayed Shaharit with him just before his arrest, and the mikveh where the rabbi had allegedly installed hidden video cameras in the ladies’ shower. About 15 hours before hearing the news, I had stood in this very spot just after nightfall and invited the Heavenly Guest of the evening, Yosef HaTzadik, into the sukkah. The juxtaposition of the heavenly souls in the sukkah and hidden cameras in the mikveh right next door hit me hard. Evidently, I had not been the only one to have been hit hard by this juxtaposition.

I wanted to kick something, but it wasn’t the sukkah, and it wasn’t Rabbi Freundel. Perhaps Rabbi Freundel would have been wiser not building such a holy and kosher sukkah right up against his mikveh. It seemed too poignant a metaphor, and here I was, sitting inside his metaphor, struggling with the same cognitive dissonance as the rest of the Kesher Israel community.

However the Freundel criminal matter gets resolved in D.C. Superior Court, Rabbi Barry Freundel’s greatest legacy to the world may be his largely having created an effective and systematic institutional response plan for clergy sex abuse allegations. For me personally, I will always remember him for having built a sukkah that was so inviting to special guests that the mikveh next door was made pure.

Rabbi Yaakov Waintroob-Roberts leads Bircat Shalom Synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla.

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  1. how ironic is it that it was the day that yosef was the guest–called hatzadik because he overcame the overpowering sexual advances of eshet potiphar.

  2. Forgive me for kicking sand in your face, but the response plan seems to have been focused on dealing with scandals as they arose, and sorely lacked any actual acceptance of abuse BEFORE it happens! Why is it that this man had SUCH power that he could literally ALLEGEDLY do this stuff under everyone elses nose?? I will be more impressed when I see the communities taking responsibility for NOT letting things get so out of hand…

  3. From Failedmessia comments
    It appears clear that despite Kesher’s public self-congratulating for its response to Rabbi Freundel, claims of ignorance as to Rabbi Freundel’s behavior which appear to be in large part false and public attacks on the RCA (which the RCA does deserve), Kesher’s membership, Kesher’s leadership and the Orthodox community in DC were actually aware of allegations of inappropriate behavior/exploitation of converts by Rabbi Freundel and others and took no steps to make basic inquiries/ensure converts were protected. Moreover, it appears that the behavior of some of the Kesher membership to its converts was also inappropriate:

    1) See above linked article:
    “Then, some time later, I began having issues with some of the male congregants saying sexually inappropriate things to me. It was at that point that I went to Rabbi Freundel for help, but he seemed to simply shrug the problem off and explained to me that as a young, attractive female, this was going to happen in any community.”

    2) “Kesher Israel’s board of directors released a statement last week saying that in 2012, Freundel told the synagogue’s president, Elanit Jakabovics, “of concerns unrelated to his recent arrest that the Rabbinical Council of America had deemed a ‘closed matter.’ ”

    There was no follow up by Kesher.

    3) Board minutes confirm that congregants had complained about Porno Berry’s conversion activities:

    Kesher Israel Board Minutes (Excerpts)
    January 12, 2014

    The Rabbi also took the opportunity to
    respond to criticism from some members
    regarding the time he spends related to the issue of conversion.

    4) More indication Kesher and others in the community knew:

    There is evidence Freundel’s improprieties were known by those tasked to oversee his work. According to a former Kesher Israel congregant, as early as 2009 a vice president of the synagogue board was aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct by Freundel against converts.

    Unlike today’s swift, empathetic and efficient responses by the Kesher Israel board to Freundel’s victims in the charges of alleged voyeurism, in 2009 no action was taken. (When asked for response by the Times of Israel, members of the board declined to comment.)

    The former congregant spoke of occasions when Freundel would regale visitors at his home (synagogue property) with stories of what happened during a conversion dunk. She told how the rabbi would identify individuals and laughingly describe how a candidate looked and reacted during immersion.

    And then there was the blatant favoritism.

    “Generally when there was an attractive female convert it was inevitable that Freundel would approach her,” she said. This congregant said she took allegations of these abuses to the vice president in 2009, but didn’t pursue the matter after she didn’t see fallout.

    Now, she said, the shul leadership should bear some responsibility. “They didn’t know about this crime [voyeurism], but certainly knew about abuse with female converts,” she said. Or even simple halachic improprieties such as being alone in his private home with these unmarried women.

    5) Somehow Steven I. Weiss has been investigating Porno Berry for over a year. How is it that Kesher leadership claims to have been unaware of his misconduct?

    Kesher and its leadership need to be subjected to a third party objective investigation as to who knew what and when and as to Kesher’s overall institutional failures over the past decades. The results of the investigation should be made public. It is not just the RCA that failed in this case.

  4. Bernhard Rosenberg · 57 minutes ago

    The horse is out of the barn. They should have had him arrested by the police years ago before the harm was done when they were given evidence of wrong doing. More committees means trying to bury the problem and hope it goes away. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard ROSENBERG

  5. Z W:

    As a personal and halachic matter:

    1) Please don’t submit anonymous attacks on the internet.

    2) Please don’t propagate nicknames such as “Porno Barry”. This is a matter of respecting yourself as a human being, loving Barry Freundel as yourself (even if he really did everything he is accused of), and for goodness sake setting an example for your children. If you weren’t posting anonymously, would you really want your children seeing you referring to the “Porno Barry” rabbi on the internet? How about your mother?

    The reason Rabbi Freundel was arrested was that the Kesher Israel Board of Directors called the Police and invited them to come investigate. The Board did so immediately upon credible allegations of criminal behavior. Based on the knowledge available now, the Kesher Israel board appears to have acted outstandingly well while navigating and diffusing very difficult and potentially volatile circumstances. The acted so well, in large part, because they were well prepared for this contingency. I suggest that we as Jews learn from their example, incorporate their plan of action in shuls everywhere, and keep the conversations on this topic focused on the victims, preventing future misconduct, and coming together as a community and as a nation in renewed love for the righteous converts among us. There is a time for healing, and that time is now.

  6. Rabbi Waintroob-Roberts puts a compassionate face on this issue. Rabbi Freundel apparently acted in a criminal manner. That makes him a flawed human who has done something wrong. It does not cancel out the myriad good things he has probably done in his life. No one person is entirely “bad” or “good”. We would do well to not cast stones unless we with a clear conscience can say we have never transgressed. Calling names and slinging mud is distasteful and cowardly, particularly when done anonymously. Hopefully we have in ourselves the ability to do as Hillel the sage declared, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; the rest is commentary — go learn it!”


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