Freundel scandal highlights converts’ vulnerability

How was an alleged sexual predator given absolute power over his female charges? And how can such situations be prevented in the future?

Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)
Illustrative photo of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath (Mayyim Hayyim / JTA)

As a young rabbi at his first pulpit in 2006, Joshua Maroof wanted the best for those who approached him seeking conversion. So to negate even the slightest possibility of future problems with the notoriously strict Israeli Chief Rabbinate, he referred them to another local rabbi, Barry Freundel, who at the time headed the conversion committee at the Orthodox movement’s umbrella organization, the Rabbinical Council of America.

Obviously the learned scholar who taught at institutions such as Georgetown, Yale and Cornell, the famed musar polemicist who for decades led Washington, DC’s high-profile Kesher Israel congregation, would be beyond reproach.

So Maroof, then the rabbi of DC suburb Rockville’s Magen David Sephardic synagogue, would be the “sponsoring rabbi” and Freundel the “converting rabbi.”

But within a few years, Maroof began hearing stories from conversion students — especially young women — of intimidation, extortion, and threats of delay tactics before finalizing their conversions.

Some women told Maroof of being asked to perform clerical work at Freundel’s home when alone with the rabbi, a blatant violation of halacha (Jewish law). Others described unusual solo “practice dunks” in the National Capital Mikvah, the ritual baths adjacent to the synagogue.

Last week Freundel was charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and suspended without pay from his pulpit. He was arrested at his home 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.

When some six years ago, conversion candidates who no longer wanted to work with Freundel flocked to his young Sephardic synagogue, Maroof realized Freundel’s relationships with his converts were not 100% kosher.

“I got the sense that people were afraid of Rabbi Freundel. If he found out they were doing things not up to his standards, they were afraid of his response. There was definitely a feeling of intimidation, manipulation and unusual favoring of some [female converts] over others,” said Maroof.

So both in response to this murmuring and with a desire to facilitate a warmer and more welcoming process, Maroof began personally facilitating his congregants’ conversions and set up a free local Sephardic beit din (religious court).

Intended not as competition but an alternative to Freundel’s beit din, Maroof says he warned his students, “If you come to us, you’re not going to get the automatic recognition in Israel like with Freundel.”

Former head of the Rabbinical Council of America's conversion committee Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested October 14, 2014 on six counts of voyeurism. (Courtesy Towson University/JTA)
Former head of the Rabbinical Council of America’s conversion committee Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested October 14, 2014 on six counts of voyeurism. (Courtesy Towson University/JTA)

Last week Freundel, 62, pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeurism. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris of the Washington firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke L.L.P., did not return a call seeking comment. Freundel’s next court date is November 12.

Ironically, in light of the allegations against the formerly esteemed rabbi, the Israeli Rabbinate announced Monday (in a statement it has since rescinded), that those who converted under Freundel since 2012 are potentially facing a review of their conversions from the Israeli Rabbinate, reported Haaretz.

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is drafting a policy regarding conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel that will attempt to strike a balance between what is permitted according to Jewish law, on the one hand, and the rights and welfare of the converts, on the other,” said Ziv Maor, the spokesman of the Chief Rabbinate. (Conversely, the Rabbinical Council of America released a statement Monday reiterating the validity of all of Freundel’s conversions and steps the organization is taking to avoid future abuse cases.)

After intense international pressure, the Chief Rabbinate backtracked Tuesday and spokesman Maor issued a statement saying all of Freundel’s conversions to date are valid — but any future ones would not be.

But while highlighting the dissonance between the Diaspora and Israeli rabbinates, Monday’s damning statement represented every convert’s worst nightmare: Because Freundel’s character from 2012 onward is now called into question, those he converted while behaving as a “rasha” or more colloquially, “bad Jew,” may not be halachically Jewish to the standard of the Chief Rabbinate.

A more clear-cut case of punishing the victim would be difficult to conceive.

As more victims of Freundel’s alleged improprieties step forward with their experiences — and there is increasing evidence that the power that be were in the know — what steps will now be taken to prevent this type of abuse of power against conversion candidates again?

A fetish for converts

Since the Freundel scandal story broke last week, feminism scholar Elana Sztokman has found it impossible to turn away from the news. Her Facebook page is a running Freundel commentary, including updates, debates, articles, and debriefings from conversations she holds with key players.

Elana Sztokman, author of 'The Men's Section.' (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Elana Sztokman, Orthodox feminist scholar (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“More and more details are coming out and it looks like Freundel has been abusing women converts, treating them like his own person private property for a very long time, possibly decades — going back to the 1970s,” said Sztokman, the past-president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

“He seems to have had a very strange obsession with converts. [Over the years] his need to own them expanded and became sexual — it became a sexual convert fetish,” Sztokman said.

To Sztokman this is yet another example of the boys’ club protecting its own.

“I can’t even begin to understand what these women might be going through. There’s this man whose got these fantasies, fetishes, abusive tendencies, a need to control — and rather than being ostracized by community, he’s enabled by the community, given lofty positions, and then given control as the head of the conversion committee,” she said.

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.

The facade of Washington, DC synagogue Kesher Israel. (Wikicommons via JTA)
The facade of Washington, DC synagogue Kesher Israel. (Wikicommons via JTA)

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.

As to why she didn’t make more of an effort to see Freundel rebuked, “I felt people knew about it and weren’t doing anything,” she said. “I thought maybe I was over-reacting.”

Victims tell their stories

Most victims of Freundel’s alleged crimes are not self-identifying, but Bethany Mandel decided to break the converts’ unspoken bond of silence and wrote a widely shared blog called, “A bill of rights for Jewish converts.”

In frank conversation with The Times of Israel this week, Mandel talked about living under the working assumption that she too was taped by Freundel and about the absolute power the rabbi wielded over his conversion candidates.

Before beginning the lengthy Orthodox conversion process, Mandel, who was raised Jewish in a Reform home with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, said she realized that “a 60-year-old man whom I had never met now had control over my life — even when I could get engaged and married.”

‘A 60-year-old man whom I had never met now had control over my life — even when I could get engaged and married’

While a fresh congregant in Freundel’s shul, she said she found the rabbi learned, but naive. Someone who spoke inappropriately, without a filter — “sort of on the autism spectrum,” she said.

But in the process of preparing for her conversion she said she felt “manipulated” and “controlled.”

“There were points I really hated him. I’m so glad to be out of his orbit today,” she said.

When news of Freundel’s arrest hit the media, however, she said she was shocked.

“I got an email from one of my coworkers and it was like, ‘Did you know Rabbi Freundel was arrested?!’ And I thought it was something really innocuous like he didn’t do his taxes properly,” she said. “At first I thought this had to be a mistake, but once we heard it was cameras in the mikvah, it was specific enough that I thought they wouldn’t run into someone’s house and arrest him if it’s not serious.”

Freundel has been accused of taping women while showering for the mikvah. It is thought that many of these tapings occurred during Freundel’s unorthodox use of “practice dunks.”

Before her conversion, Mandel felt there was room for this rehearsal mikvah dip and that it could calm fears of the unknown. So with her roommate she signed up for one in October 2010 and read up about mikvah procedure on the Internet.

She said Freundel called her the Thursday before her scheduled date and asked if she could come in earlier. She agreed and asked Freundel if she should prepare herself at home — a common practice. But the rabbi said he preferred if she get ready at the mikvah housed in the synagogue.

A mikvah. (Illustrative photo credit: CC-BY-SA Tamar Hayardeni/Wikimedia Commons)
A mikvah. (Illustrative photo credit: CC-BY-SA Tamar Hayardeni/Wikimedia Commons)

“He led me into a room and I knew from Googling that there’s a huge checklist of things to do. I asked him, ‘Do you want me to do all these things?’ The checklist is not just halachic, but these are also hygienic sorts of questions,” she said.

“He said, ‘No, just take a shower and make sure you’re really clean.’ I thought to myself, ok, but this is weird. And if everyone does this, the mikvah must be really nasty,” she laughed.

“I felt awkward arguing about it,” she explained. “He had the power over my entire life.”

So Mandel showered and dunked in the presence of Freundel’s female office administer.

“He was present, but not in the mikvah itself. He was never present when I was naked. It was weird, but I didn’t feel I was being victimized because he couldn’t see me.”

Mandel said she heard about other uncomfortable or inappropriate stories from converts. She explained the lack of complaints against the rabbi in Freundel’s absolute power over their conversions.

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

‘My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself’

“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 the condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”

Mandel, too, had no idea when her conversion would be complete. After her practice dunk in October 2010, it took until June 2011 for Freundel to green-light her actual conversion.

“You’d meet with him and he’d at some point arbitrarily decide that you were ready to go to the beit din,” Mandel said. “There was no clear outline or timeline or requirements. I didn’t go to classes or study.”

Another female candidate for conversion, who declined to be identified for fear that her 2012 conversion could be challenged, said Freundel made her ride with him to Towson University near Baltimore, where Freundel taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, to do secretarial work. The woman, who was single at the time, said the rides were uncomfortable and the work was onerous, particularly because she worked nights and needed her days free to catch up on sleep.

But she didn’t dare say no to Freundel because he held the prerogative to declare her ready for conversion.

‘I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible’

“When you’re going through conversion, you don’t know the timeline of when you’re going to finish — there’s so much power being wielded over you, and in the interim you’re in limbo,” she said. “You can’t move, you can’t switch jobs to another location, because you have to live in the community where you’re converting. I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible.”

She said Freundel made comments that struck her as strange and inappropriate.

“He made a lot of comments that didn’t sit right for me about my appearance, about how attractive he thought I was, about whether guys were pursuing me, about my clothing,” she recalled. “I found it quite uncomfortable to be around him for long periods of time alone.”

A total systemic review for the RCA’s conversion process

Even today, Mandel was warned by friends that if word gets out about Freundel’s unkosher activities and her connection to him, her conversion may not be valid.

“I don’t think we should all be silent and let conversion and the situation impact how we deal with this,” said Mandel. “There were a lot of warning signs, but everyone was afraid to say something.”

Rabbi Barry Freundel has been known as a national leader on conversion and a strict moralist. (photo credit: JTA)
Rabbi Barry Freundel has been known as a national leader on conversion and a strict moralist. (photo credit: JTA)

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.

‘We want to support a healthy conversion process’

“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” he said. “We want to support a healthy conversion process.”

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 and soliciting the beit din donations, 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.

The RCA says it appointed a committee to investigate the first complaint and concluded that while the behavior was inappropriate, there was no malicious intent. Dratch says Freundel asked many congregants, not just converts, for clerical help and donations, and the joint checking account was intended to help a prospective convert. Freundel was reprimanded and agreed to stop.

As to the train incident, the RCA says Freundel was confronted and provided a “reasonable explanation,” and there was no evidence of inappropriate behavior, but did not elaborate.

“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.”

Among those tasked by the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America with investigating Freundel were two attorneys who now lead major Jewish organizations: Allen Fagin, now the chief professional at the Orthodox Union, and Eric Goldstein, now CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. Goldstein declined to comment; a representative for Fagin said he was unavailable for comment.

The looming threat of a revoked or unrecognized conversion in Israel

Had the Freundel scandal occurred a decade ago, no one would have suspected conversions could be undone, head of ITIM Rabbi Seth Farber told The Times of Israel.

“Now it becomes a matter of public concern,” said Farber, whose work involves aiding immigrants in navigating the daunting bureaucracy of Israel’s religious authorities. He said a handful of women converted by Freundel have begun the marriage process in Israel with the help of ITIM in 2014.

Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman, recipient of the Life Achievement award for 2012. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

The looming threat of revocation of conversions in Israel has intensified since the 2008 watershed case in which the Chief Rabbinate nullified wholesale all conversions processed by former national Conversion Court head Rabbi Haim Druckman. Although the Israeli Supreme Court, a secular body, overturned the religious court’s ruling in 2012, converts — especially those who are converted abroad — are scrutinized carefully prior to rabbinate approval for lifecycle events such as weddings.

In Israel, a Jew cannot marry without rabbinate approval: There is no legal civil marriage and no recognized Jewish marriage outside of its auspices. Casting doubt on a convert’s religious status could mean his or her inability to marry — or may void an existent marriage.

“It is sad for me. We as Jews are supposed to embrace the convert. Instead they are having to live under threat… That’s a real tragedy of our generation in this last decade — a battle we shouldn’t be fighting at all,” said Farber.

JTA contributed to this report

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