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Last week, when my husband called to tell me about the arrest, I just kept saying, “What? Huh?” I was so confused.
Did he look in someone’s window and it was misinterpreted? Did someone have it out for him and make a baseless complaint?
In the days after the arrest, the Washington, DC police have reported that they found multiple digital files of women disrobing on Rabbi Barry Freundel’s computer. He is accused of placing at least one hidden camera in the changing rooms at the National Capital Mikvah in Georgetown (next door to the Rabbi’s congregation).
A mikveh is a ritual bath, primarily used by women for spiritual cleansing. Immersion takes place in the nude. Jewish married women go before their weddings and then each month after menstruation; men also occasionally go for spiritual cleansing, particularly before Yom Kippur (but never while women are there). In addition, men and women who are converting to Judaism use the mikveh at the very end of the conversion process.
Now, I no longer live in the same world in which I lived just last week. I live in a new reality where the sky is falling and the earth is flat, where my head is spinning from confusion. I spent the night after the Rabbi was arrested staring at my ceiling to make sure it didn’t fall down. If Rabbi Freundel could be accused of taping women disrobing in the mikveh, how could I even trust the laws of gravity?
As a Kesher Israel congregant for over a decade, I never saw any inkling of this behavior. I pride myself on my ability to ferret out creeps. As a woman, I depend on that ability to protect myself. In fact, there was one Rabbi who went to jail for sexual offenses several years ago who I sized up in the first five minutes after I met him.
I don’t know anyone who initially heard about Rabbi Freundel's arrest and said, “Yeah, I thought he was creepy and predatory.” Not one. Even people who were never fans of his detached and formal personality didn’t believe he would do anything like this until more evidence surfaced.
I used the National Capital Mikvah before my wedding and for the first years of my marriage. Rabbi Freundel is a witness on my ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and spoke under my chuppah (wedding canopy). I remember thinking, He knows us so well and really cares about making our day special. Unfortunately, we may not have known him so well.
I moved to the suburbs six years ago (and joined a new synagogue with a new rabbi), but maintained an affiliate membership at Kesher Israel. I was still in touch with the Rabbi and his family and even recently started to see him participate in the leadership at my children’s private Jewish school.
Rabbi Freundel is not only the 25-year Rabbi of the prominent Kesher Israel congregation in Georgetown (whose members include former Senator Joe Lieberman and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew), he is also a locally and internationally respected professor of ethics and expert on conversions and other areas of Jewish law. He is a giant in the Modern Orthodox world. And, as some people will tell you, he knew it.
The Rabbinical Council of America (The RCA) is the governing body for most Modern Orthodox rabbis. They now tell us that two years ago women converting with him reported inappropriate behavior. Again, if this IS true, I find some comfort in being fooled as a community, rather than as an individual. I am DIScomforted hearing that he allegedly took advantage of the most vulnerable in the community, and that the people to whom they reported the behavior never informed his congregation.
Even though I know I wasn’t one of the women taped, my sense of safety has been shattered. As women, we depend on our gut instincts to protect ourselves in so many situations, like at parties, blind dates, bars and even with co-workers who want to have a word with us in private. It’s part of our armor against a world that, unfortunately, often wants to take what we don’t want to give.
We all have stories about when our gut instincts were right on, when they weren’t (or when we didn’t listen to them) and the consequences. I thought my ability in this area was stellar but now I don’t know.
However, I am finding a way to get back up and prepare myself for future situations in which I need to use my instincts to judge someone's character and also make sense of my own relationship with this Rabbi.
I arrived in Washington, DC -- and to Kesher Israel -- in 1998 as a newly graduated 21-year-old. Rabbi Freundel was a beacon of religious and personal leadership for me and many others making religious decisions as young adults. I loved working on the Gore-Leiberman campaign by day and seeing Senator Leiberman on the sabbath at the synagogue. Sabbath meals with the Rabbi, his family, and other congregants, anchored my week and provided a new community in a new city.
Just because the Rabbi is now accused of taking advantage of women, doesn’t mean he took advantage of me or that he didn’t have a positive influence on my life. And just because he may have been a bad apple doesn’t mean all rabbis are or that I will never know when someone else is a creep in the future.
I write this, still with a confusion that has literally left every room around me spinning for the past week. What was sacred now feels profane. What was private now feels shameful.
When a man lords his power over a woman, whether by making her do clerical work or reminding her that he holds all the power over her conversion (as was alleged to the RCA), even without one touch or one voyeuristic peek, that man is showing himself to be a predator and should be removed from his position of power. I believe that if women in positions of power (such as the Kesher Israel president) were fully aware of the issues previously reported to the RCA, they would have recognized the personality traits of a predator. (In all fairness, the RCA didn’t have a lot of evidence or information with which they could take action.)
People who do things like this are good at hiding them and that’s why they often get away with it for so long. In this case, at least the local community was never complicit in sweeping allegations of inappropriate behavior under the rug.
Ironically, the synagogue board, once they became suspicious, did exactly what Rabbi Freundel had advocated for after an abuse scandal and cover-up in the national Jewish community a number of years ago: They didn’t call a rabbi. They called the police!
The community we lived in, just a week ago, no longer exists. A new reality is here where nothing is what it seems and we can’t trust our instincts about the people closest to us. How do we move on from here? Even as my initial reaction was to wonder if there were any men left in this world that are not disgusting predators objectifying women for their own power and satisfaction.
Today we are all strangers in a strange land, wandering through an unfamiliar desert, unsure of when our community will be anchored around a respected leader once again. Maybe it won’t. Maybe what we need to do is hold on to one another, tight enough to create our own anchor and balance the boat with more women in power.