Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi served on the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive committee and, from 2006 to 2013, presided over its committee on conversions.
Rabbi Freundel had been considered an advocate for women’s rights in Orthodox Judaism. The local United States attorney’s office has charged him with using a camera concealed in a clock radio to film women as they showered or changed for immersion in the ritual bath, called a mikvah.
The council that it would not only require the appointment of an ombudswoman for each regional tribunal of rabbis overseeing conversions, but would also name a commission, which would include women as members, to recommend ways to prevent conversion abuses.
Women converting to Judaism are required to immerse themselves in a mikvah; Rabbi Freundel, in an unusual step, apparently persuaded some women to take “practice dunks.”
After some commentators had questioned whether conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel were still valid, the rabbinical council said Monday that they were. But Israeli news media reported that the chief rabbinate there was conducting its own review of that question.
Rabbi Freundel was arrested and charged with six counts of voyeurism, which is a misdemeanor; he pleaded not guilty at a court appearance. He has been suspended by the rabbinical council from membership, leadership and “all activities related to conversion.”
The council said that, although it had been unaware of allegations about mikvah misconduct, it had twice previously received allegations of other concerns. In a statement, the council said that in 2012 some candidates for conversion to Judaism had said that Rabbi Freundel had required them to perform clerical work for him and to donate money. The council said that it had determined that conduct to be inappropriate, and that the rabbi had informed his synagogue leadership of the issue.
Then, in 2013, the council said, an anonymous caller accused Rabbi Freundel of sharing a sleeper car on a train trip to Chicago with a woman who was not his wife. Rabbi Freundel denied it, and the council did not inform the synagogue because it determined the allegation to be “unsubstantiated innuendo.”
Rabbi Freundel has since 1989 been the spiritual leader of Kesher Israel, a synagogue in Washington with several prominent members. He is now suspended without pay. Over the weekend, the synagogue released a speech by its president who said, “There are no words to describe the shock, devastation and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment.”
“Mikvah is an intensely sacred, private ritual space,” she added. “It is also supposed to be a sanctuary — a space of inviolable intimacy and privacy, where we go to cleanse ourselves and reckon with ourselves and our aspirations to a right Jewish life. But these sacred spaces — our shul and our mikvah — have now been tarnished. Our inviolability has been violated. I am a woman: I know it could have been me.”
The allegations against Rabbi Freundel have already prompted a broader discussion about security at mikvahs around the country. A mikvah is a place where many people already feel vulnerable and that women want to make sure they can get back to that place where there’s trust.
The positive coming out of this is that all mikvahs are re-evaluating safety procedures.