It is hard to find a conversation among Jews in our area that doesn’t include the name Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Kesher Israel in Georgetown, accused of voyeurism mostly involving converts to Judaism in the shul’s mikveh that the Rabbi supervised. With close to “team coverage” from the media, there seems to be a mounting body of evidence that the accusations are true. WTOP even broke the news that the downtown kosher deli Eli’s (now called Char Bar) has removed his name from one of their signature sandwiches; that’s how many “legs” this story has. But what does your faithful servant, a rabbinic colleague as well, think about this? Forgive the length of this column; there is a lot to say and I will scarcely scratch the surface.
This is a very sad business for everyone involved, especially the victims. As one colleague, Gerald Skolnick (past president of my rabbi union) wrote in The New York Jewish Week, “Under any circumstances, voyeurism perpetrated against unknowing women is criminal, and also a profound violation. But a number of factors make this alleged case a particularly egregious offense. In Jewish tradition, the mikvah, or ritual bath, is the preeminent symbol of purity and spiritual cleanliness. Although men also may use a mikvah to elevate themselves to a higher level of spirituality, as many do before Shabbat, for women it most often represents a symbolic cleansing before marriage, after the spiritual impurity of a menstrual period, or after a lost pregnancy. It is a sacred exercise, a time for being restored to spiritual wholeness. To think of that exercise being sullied by an unknown invader of sacred space is simply awful. [Further] When a woman is immersing in the mikvah to complete a process of conversion to Judaism, our tradition tells us that this represents nothing less than a rebirth, and the creation of an entirely new person, with a new identity: a briah chadashah. To debase that moment with a hidden camera is to both subvert and pervert the very idea of the holiness of a Jewish soul, and reduces it to a tawdry peep show.”
A few things about this story stand out for me on a personal level. I know Barry Freundel pretty well, speak with him a number of times a year. I guess I don’t know him that well. He has been a familiar face at Beth El; he is one of the Orthodox rabbis who relates to the rest of us in a respectful manner. He is especially known to two decades of graduates of our Adult Bnai Mitzvah classes who always ranked his medical ethics lectures as the best of all the sessions. I feel badly for his family, especially his wife, and I feel badly for him. Assuming the charges are merited, he has a serious illness that has had repercussions for many. I am also struck by the singular lack of support from any quarter. Not from his congregation which he served with distinction for decades. Not from his colleagues – usually people in a profession circle the wagons a little, not here.
On a professional level, this troubling story has generated a number of concerns that I would put under the rubric “the rabbi congregant relationship.” One fellow gym rat found this story to perfectly fit his own childhood rabbi, about whom he has only bad memories. More than a few people think this tragedy speaks to the “unchecked power” of rabbis, that there are rabbis who are operating without adequate supervision from the lay leadership that hired them, and that absent that supervision, they might arrogate unto themselves power and privileges to which they are not entitled, and which might harm those they serve. There are undoubtedly rabbis who are given too free rein; there are others who lament the degree to which their lay leadership is too involved in their work, making them feel micro-managed. Both are realities in the field, and neither is ultimately good for the communities we serve. But the issue runs far deeper than just “keeping an eye on the rabbi.” It is also about the complicated relationship between rabbi and congregant (potential converts included), and the all-important challenge of maintaining healthy and clearly defined boundaries between the clergy and those whom we serve.
Quoting Rabbi Skolnick again, “For a variety of reasons, some congregants want to see their rabbi as a paradigm of perfection, and they are all too ready to attribute to him/her qualities of personality and character that he/she may not possess, or deserve. For an equally eclectic variety of reasons, some rabbis may be all too willing to accept that kind of adulation, and allow those congregants to feed a deep-seated need for gratification. The model of ‘rabbi as guru’ is indeed a dangerous one, but it requires both the rabbi and the congregant to be needy, each in their own way. But what Rabbi Freundel seems to have done should not be treated as a global statement about the unchecked power of the rabbinate. Sadly, the rabbinate was the arena in which his sickness manifested itself. There’s a serious distinction to be made here, with attendant implications, about the rabbinate as a whole.”
Is it possible that Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds may serve to cast all rabbis in a negative light? Has he made our work that much harder, and the trust that we need to work successfully with congregants that much more difficult to achieve? I don’t know. But I do hope that dismay over his alleged actions does not cloud perceptions about rabbinic work or the great care exercised by the overwhelming majority of its practitioners.
Ponder all this, and have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Next week at this time I expect to be riding out of Jerusalem towards Beer Sheva (and Eilat) on the Hazon-Arava Ride. Remember I blogged about it last year? The blogs and clever recruitment efforts convinced almost a dozen of my faithful readers to join me this time. Going over each mile of the daily ride with them may cut into my blogging time. We shall see. Bill Rudolph