In a headline-grabbing year, these are the biggest stories to come out of Greater Washington:
1. Rabbi Freundel arrested
Just the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel was shocking. The imposing rabbi of Orthodox Kesher Israel in Georgetown, known for his erudition and strict approach to Judaism, seemed an unlikely target for police.
Following his arrest in October, one fantastic detail followed another: Freundel, a leader in the Modern Orthodox movement, was charged with six counts of voyeurism. He had videoed women as they prepared to enter the ritual bath, or mikvah, adjacent to the synagogue with a camera hidden in a clock radio placed in the changing room. Images showed Freundel setting up the camera. As many as 200 women could have been recorded without their knowledge. To assure good footage, Freundel invented “practice dunks” in the ritual bath, an act unknown in Judaism.
The revelations shook the congregation which he had led for 25 years, giving it notoriety it didn’t seek. They left women who worked with Freundel as congregants or converts feeling violated at their most vulnerable moments. They raised the question of the validity of the conversions he had performed.
Nationally, Freundel’s actions led to a call for female supervision of Orthodox ritual baths, of which women are the primary users. And it showed that the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America failed to act on earlier evidence about Freundel’s transgressions.
Freundel was fired from Kesher Israel and lost his positions in the Modern Orthodox movement and secular academic institutions, including Georgetown University and Towson University, some of whose students he brought to the mikvah for tours. In February, he pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism. He was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison. The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that the conversions Freundel oversaw remain valid. In July, the RCA released guidelines aimed at preventing abuses during the conversion process.
2. Alan Gross freed
A contractor for the United States Agency for International Development, Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and accused of crimes against the state for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community. He subsequently received a 15-year prison sentence. The Washington-area Jewish community and local politicians worked to keep his case in the spotlight (Gross is an area resident), and held weekly vigils at the Cuban Interests Section.
Said to be in poor health and despondent over his incarceration, Gross saw his fortune change with the sudden announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations after a half-century-long freeze. As part of an agreement mediated by Pope Francis, three Cubans held as spies in the United States were returned to Havana. Gross came home to Washington in a U.S. government aircraft to a hero’s welcome.
3. President Obama comes to Adas Israel
Only a handful of sitting U.S. presidents have visited a synagogue or addressed its congregants. So President Barack Obama’s May address at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington was destined for the history books as soon as it was announced. Officially there to mark Jewish Heritage Month, Obama used his appearance to remind American Jews of his strong support for Israel and opposition to anti-Semitism.
And coming weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress that the nuclear agreement the United States and its allies were negotiating with Iran “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” Obama sought to show the Jewish community that there was another way than the prime minister’s for American Jews to support Israel.
That way includes support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which Netanyahu repudiated on the eve of Israeli elections in March.
“I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland,” Obama told the 1,000 people gathered in the synagogue’s sanctuary. “And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
4. Iran deal divides Jewish community
The high stakes battle over the Obama administration’s drive to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran and the Netanyahu government’s unblinking rejection of a deal has caught Israel’s American Jewish supporters in the middle. When Netanyahu was invited to address Congress without coordinating with the administration, who were you to side with, the president or the prime minister? When Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, made the round of synagogues in the spring, talking down a possible agreement, was he informing American Jews or trying to enlist them in a political battle against the administration?
Since the nuclear agreement was reached in July, Jews and Jewish organizations have been lining up for or against it in a bid to sway members of Congress who are expected to vote on the deal this month. A person’s position on the issue is starting to become a litmus test. Lists are being tallied. Names are being kept. Whose side are you on? AIPAC and a related group are reportedly spending between $30 million and $40 million in an attempt to kill the deal. J Street is spending $5 million to do the opposite. And in the marketplace of ideas, it’s getting ugly. The Jewish Voice website called yeshiva-educated pro-Israel Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) a traitor for his support of the agreement, and an “obese politician” to boot. The only thing left undecided as the year ends is who’s going to clean up the mess that’s being made.
5. Day school nets $21 million
The Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital graduates its students at the end of sixth grade. Attorney and diplomat Alfred Moses came to the conclusion that keeping those students at the school for two more years would make “a meaningful difference” in their Jewish lives.
So in April, the school announced that Moses and The Gottesman Fund would each donate $10 million for a new middle school facility. School parents Steven and Chani Laufer pledged another $1 million, plus a $500,000 matching gift. School leaders said this was one of the largest gifts of its kind in the country. The new seventh and eighth grades are scheduled to open in fall 2018.
6. Rabbi Steinlauf comes out
It’s common now for congregations to hire rabbis and cantors who are openly gay. But what about a rabbi in midlife with a wife and children who announces to his congregation that he is gay? In October, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf sent an email to the 1,350 households affiliated with Adas Israel Congregation, telling them he is gay and that he and his wife of 20 years, Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, were divorcing. “I have come to understand that I am gay,” the 45-year-old rabbi said in the roundabout syntax that reflected his journey of self-realization.
“I finally reached the place where I had some real clarity,” he wrote, and realized the best thing to do for his wife and three teenage children was to “let go of the marriage. I didn’t want to become somebody who lives a lie.” Perhaps not surprising in 5775, his congregation supported him. And messages of support came from as far away as South Africa and Israel.
“Overnight you have also become a role model to LGBT Jews everywhere, in particular within the Conservative Movement,” wrote Aimee Close, the transformation specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. “On behalf of all of us, thank you for your courage and your leadership.”
7. Ari Roth fired from Theater J
Was it insubordination or a changing zeitgeist? Both theories were floated when, on Dec. 18, longtime Theater J creative director Ari Roth exited the theater’s home at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. During the course of 18 years, Roth built Theater J into an institution that could stand as an equal with other area theaters in quality of work and prestige. He also took seriously his mission to afflict the comfortable. His Israel-themed plays painted unconventional portraits of the Jewish state and drew both praise and criticism from the Jewish community. A 2014 production of The Admission led some community members to call for a boycott of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which supports the DCJCC. The center later canceled Theater J’s Voices from a Changing Middle East series.
Roth was planning to stage the series at another venue when the JCC informed him that he had 24 hours to sign a separation agreement that included a severance package.
Roth’s firing was decried by Jewish theater directors around the country as well as by theater luminaries Tony Kushner, Theodore Bikel and Eve Ensler. In April, Roth opened the nonsectarian Mosaic Theater in Washington.
8. Ebola casts shadow
As the Ebola epidemic spread in West Africa in October, and a handful of cases broke out in the United States, Washington became a focus of the effort to combat the often deadly disease. Two days before a Texas patient became the first diagnosed case of Ebola in America, an American physician who was exposed to the Ebola virus while volunteering in Sierra Leone was admitted into the National Institutes of Health clinical center in Bethesda. Later that month, a Texas nurse who was treating the first case of Ebola, was flown to the NIH center after being diagnosed with Ebola.
In November, nurses carrying bright red signs that read “Global Nurses United Against Ebola” and “Stop Ebola. Protect RNs. Protect Patients” marched to the White House gates. Despite panic in the United States, the virus didn’t spread here and remained limited mostly to West Africa. In August, Sierra Leone reported no new cases for the first time since the epidemic began. The death toll in the most affected countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia was 11,287.
9. Westboro Baptist Church pickets synagogue
Going to church was never like this. More like a hate group than a congregation, members of Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church came to Falls Church one Friday in April to remind Temple Rodef Shalom that “God still hates them for killing his son, Jesus Christ,” as the group’s website explained. “Our presence on the public sidewalk in front of this synagogue of Satan will be a testimony against every hard-hearted Jew who despised the blessings of God and did despite the Spirit of Grace.”
Westboro had another gripe against the Reform congregation: Its senior rabbi, Amy Schwartzman, “is a crop-haired female.” In response to the sign-carrying group of seven adults and children in front of the temple, an interfaith gathering of 500 filled sanctuary for a Friday night service dedicated to peace.
10. Free-range parenting in Silver Spring
In the age of helicopter parents and tiger moms, allowing kids to walk the neighborhood by themselves can look like abuse by contrast. So it was that Rafi Meitiv, 10, and his sister, Dvora, 7, spent nine hours in police custody in April without access to food, water, a bathroom or contact with their parents, after police spotted them walking three blocks from their house in Silver Spring.
It was not the first run-in with authorities for parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv over how they’re raising their children. The couple’s campaign to give Rafi and Dvora time to play without direct supervision brought national attention to the free-range parenting movement, which argues that, contrary to popular belief, crime is not higher than a generation ago and children are at no greater risk than their parents and grandparents were.
The family’s attorney, Matthew Dowd, said the police overreacted in an attempt to protect the Meitiv children, writing, “We must ask ourselves how we reached the point where a parent’s biggest fear is that government officials will literally seize our children off the streets as they walk in our neighborhoods.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this story.