Is it safe to go back in the water?

A woman immerses herself in a local mikvah in this undated file photo.
A woman immerses herself in a local mikvah in this undated file photo.

By Josh Marks

Local mikvaot are grappling with security concerns in the aftermath of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s highly publicized arrest on voyeurism charges. Freundel is accused of setting up a hidden camera in the shower room of the National Capital Mikvah in order to spy on women who changed there before taking the ritual plunge.

There are eight mikvaot in the Washington, D.C. region, and they are responding in different ways to the shocking revelations (Chabad Lubavitch Mikvah-Northern Virginia Region and Aspen Hill Community Mikveh could not be reached for comment before press time). The scene of the alleged crime – the National Capital Mikvah – never closed and is currently fully operational. However, director Sarah Barak tells Washington Jewish Week that major security precautions have already been implemented, and more are in the works.

The locks have been changed, the police have searched the mikvah to make sure there are no recording devices, an expert security firm is going to do a second search and a halachic expert will conduct a third security search and also ensure that the mikvah’s religious integrity is still intact.

The decision to keep the mikvah open was made after consulting with Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, former rabbi of Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring who now lives in Israel. Breitowitz said that the mikvah is still kosher and is fine to use.

The Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington, which operates two mikvaot in Montgomery County – Wallerstein in Kemp Mill and Ballard Street in Woodside – conducted a security sweep at its Wallerstein location and male volunteers will no longer be permitted to enter the mikvah without a female counterpart. Ballard is managed by women. Mikvah Emunah held two women-only events on Monday evening to address concerns and answer questions from the community.

James Mesis, a New Jersey-based private investigator, security specialist and editor-in-chief of PI Magazine, says hidden cameras are increasingly harder to find because they can be as small as a period at the end of a sentence.

“You can hide a pinhole camera or the body of the camera behind anything, and you just need a tiny, tiny little hole that’s the size of a button-thread hole to be able to look through,” explains Mesis. “So unless you have the right equipment to find these hidden cameras, you’d never find them.” Freundel’s camera was allegedly part of a Dream Machine digital clock radio.

Mesis recommends hiring a professional Technical Surveillance Countermeasure (TSCM) technician. “Establishments, what they need to do is, on a regular basis, have a TSCM technician come in that’s been properly trained and is credentialed with the proper equipment and just do an inspection of all of the target locations. And what I tell people, wherever a person could be in the form of undress, is an area where you want to search. You don’t really need to search anything other than areas where somebody is going to be undressed.”

But some area mikvaot do not plan yet on hiring a professional security firm. A representative from Mikvah at the Jewish Family Center in Olney said there are no additional security arrangements in place yet. The mikvah is sporadically used, so it isn’t as urgent as some other mikvaot.

Mikvah at the Silver Spring Jewish Center does not plan to increase security.

Rabbi Herzel Kranz calls Freundel an “aberration,” adding that there is a “deficiency in this human being – a mishegas that goes through people’s head.” He didn’t seemed concerned that Freundel’s behavior could be replicated at his mikvah. “Are we lacking for pornography in the United States? Something is screwed up here. We are bringing holiness here, conversions. There is no bigger contradiction than that.”

Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Cleveland Park, which welcomes more than 400 immersions per year and describes itself as the D.C. area’s only “progressive and pluralistic” mikvah, scheduled a security sweep immediately after hearing the news about Freundel’s arrest.

“The Adas Israel Community Mikvah remains in solidarity with every other mikvah affected by recent events while continuing to offer meaningful and secure experiences to the entire community,” says Naomi Malka, mikvah director and ritual coordinator.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Lubavitch of Maryland, said that Mikvah Ateres Yisroel in Potomac has had a longstanding policy that its mikvaot be operated exclusively by women for women, with a rabbi serving as the halachic authority. “Security is always a concern and we review and upgrade the system from time to time as technology improves.

“The mikvah is one of the oldest and most important institutions in Jewish life, and we are confident that despite the recent horrific episode, the institution of mikvah will continue the remarkable comeback it has made over the past few decades.”

UPDATES: A correction was made to this story on Oct. 30 to reflect that the Aspen Hill Community Mikveh is also located in the Washington, D.C. area. Another update was made to this story on Nov. 7 to reflect that Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington conducted a security sweep at its Wallerstein location.

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Senior writer Suzanne Pollak and political reporter Dmitriy Shapiro contributed to this report.


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