Rabbi Voyeur Violated Conversion Candidates

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Rabbi Barry Freundel didn’t just make conversion candidates take practice dunks in the mikvah where he allegedly spied on them in the shower — he also compelled them to do clerical tasks and donate money to the local rabbinical court.

NEW YORK — When Rabbi Barry Freundel asked Bethany Mandel to take a “really long shower” before a “practice dunk” in the mikveh prior to her formal conversion to Judaism, the whole request seemed a bit odd, she says.
 
For one thing, Freundel instructed her to skip the pre-mikveh 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.
 
But Mandel 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, D.C.’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the mikveh’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.
 
Looking back, Mandel says, elements of the experience were deeply suspect.
 
“At first I was like, this was weird, but when he was waiting in the waiting room I thought this is just me being paranoid,” Mandel said. Now, she says, “It makes me ill.”
 
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 with JTA on 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 eight months for Freundel to greenlight 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.”
 
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.”
 
One 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 he 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.
 
“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.”
 
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. 
 
A rabbinic critic 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 because he said he did not want to be a distraction. 
 
The critic compared the RCA’s handling of the Freundel allegations to the failure by Yeshiva University to reign in the inappropriate behavior of Rabbi George Finkelstein, a teacher and administrator at Y.U.’s high school for boys who over the course of three decades allegedly wrestled and hugged boys inappropriately, and the failure of the Orthodox Union to put a stop to the abuse of minors by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was exposed by reports in The New York Jewish Week and eventually was convicted in 2002 of two counts of child sexual abuse.
 
Freundel, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeurism. 
The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that all the conversions Freundel oversaw prior to his arrest remain valid.

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