Converts say D.C. rabbis abuses extended beyond mikvah

When Rabbi Barry Freundel asked Bethany Mandel to take a “really long shower” before a “practice dunk” in the mikvah before her formal conversion to Judaism, the request seemed a bit odd, she said.

For one thing, Freundel allegedly instructed her to skip the pre-mikvah checklist, which includes things like cleaning out one’s navel, trimming nails, and getting rid of excess hair and skin. For another, she had never heard of practice dunking.

Rabbi Barry Freundel

But Mandel said she eventually bought the rabbi’s explanation: that women performing the ritual for the first time at their actual conversions might, in their nervousness and confusion, turn around and mistakenly expose themselves to the three rabbis present. Mandel said she, like other women who took practice dunks, actually found the trial run helpful.

But that was before last week, when Freundel, a prominent Orthodox leader and rabbi at Washington’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the mikvah’s shower room. He is believed to have clandestinely filmed women showering and undressing before their practice dunks and the monthly immersions that married Orthodox women perform following menstruation.

Freundel has been charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and suspended without pay from his job.

Peeping was not the only form of abuse that converts said they experienced at Freundel’s hands. The rabbi also demanded that conversion candidates perform clerical duties on his behalf and donate money to the Washington Beit Din, or rabbinical court. These candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.

Many felt they had no recourse but to comply with Freundel’s requests.

“My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself,” said a Maryland resident who converted in 2012 after two years of working with Freundel and spoke on condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”

The peeping Tom revelations, while the most extraordinary of the allegations against Freundel, have helped pull back the curtain on what may be a far more common problem in the Orthodox world: the abuse of prospective converts by the rabbis who convert them. In Freundel’s case, the rabbi allegedly abused his power both for sexual and non-sexual purposes.

Kesher Israel synagogue in Washington, D.C.

The Rabbinical Council of America, which rebuked Freundel two years ago for misusing conversion candidates for clerical work, says it is reviewing its procedures to better safeguard against such exploitation.

For the women whose privacy was violated by Freundel’s alleged actions, the revelations have been shocking — but in retrospect, they said, not out of character with a man many deemed “creepy.”

The RCA, which suspended Freundel’s membership following his Oct. 14 arrest, says it has appointed a committee to review its entire conversion system to determine if and where changes are needed to prevent rabbinic abuse. The organization, which serves as the main rabbinical association for centrist Orthodox rabbis in the United States, also said it would appoint women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, said in an interview that it’s difficult for the RCA to police its members closely. “Because they are scattered throughout the country, we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight,” he said.

The appointment of female ombudsmen, Dratch said, is meant to address this problem.

Critics say the RCA is not up to the task, as demonstrated by its failure to identify Freundel’s alleged misdeeds despite at least two prior complaints against him. One was about using prospective converts for clerical tasks, as well as maintaining a joint bank account with a conversion candidate. In the other, Freundel was accused of sharing a sleeper compartment on an overnight train with a woman who was not his wife.

“A delegation was sent to Washington to speak with Freundel,” Dratch recalled. “They came back with a recommendation that didn’t rise to a level where he had to be dismissed.”

A rabbinic critic interviewed by JTA said the RCA’s approach to Freundel was “totally incompetent.”

“The organization should have seen a red flag and they didn’t,” said the critic, who declined to be named. “This is a story of a Jewish institution missing the warning signs because they answer to nobody.”

Freundel, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeur-ism. His next court date is Nov. 12. The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that all the conversions Freundel oversaw prior to his arrest remain valid.

Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher Israel’s board president, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the address she delivered to her congregation on Oct. 15, a day after Freundel’s arrest, was posted on the synagogue’s website.

“There are no words to describe the shock, devastation and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment,” she said. “Our trust has been violated. I am a woman; I know it could have been me.”