News of a prominent D.C. rabbi's voyeuristic transgressions has induced those involved with local mikvahs to raise awareness of their leadership structure and policies in an effort to assuage concerns.
Rebecca Cohen and others involved with plans to build a mikvah in Center City have long envisioned women in leadership roles — but in the wake of a voyeurism scandal at a mikvah in Washington, D.C., that goal has taken on greater urgency.
Last month, Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the shower room of the mikvah at his prominent D.C. synagogue. He also allegedly forced female conversion candidates to do clerical work such as opening his mail and answering emails, and required them to make donations to a rabbinic court.
With news of Freundel’s transgressions still reverberating through the Jewish community, Cohen and others involved in local mikvahs are concentrating on raising awareness of their leadership structure and policies.
“How do we formalize it to ensure that women know that they are protected?” said Cohen, who will serve as a director of the women’s mikvah, which is expected to open next year. “We’re taking those extra precautions to publicize exactly how safe it is.”
“There are enemies from within and enemies from outside our population,” she said, “and this is not going to stop anytime soon, so we can only be our own best advocates and continue to look out for each other.”
Like Cohen, concerned Jewish leaders around the country are thinking about ways to make sure that Freundel’s alleged actions do not create stigma around mikvah, a sacred institution in Judaism. In the Orthodox community, where it is considered an essential part of life, one rabbi emphasized its centrality by noting that if a community has limited money, “you build a mikvah first,” even before a synagogue.
There are eight ritual baths in the Philadelphia area — and plans for two others are in the works. Mikvahs are used for a variety of purposes, including as part of the conversion process, but are particularly important for women, who, according to halachah, or Jewish law, are obligated to use the bath at the end of each menstrual cycle.
As often happens in the wake of a scandal, the question for local Jewish leaders now becomes one of scale: Were Freundel’s alleged actions an anomaly or indicative of a larger problem?
Several rabbis affiliated with local mikvahs say the news was shocking, but they don’t believe it’s necessary to construct additional institutional walls because of one rabbi who breached ethical and legal boundaries. At the same time, officials of at least three area mikvahs sent out letters in the wake of the scandal, describing the security and precautions taken to protect users privacy and modesty, and offering to answer any questions.
At Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, which operates one of two non-Orthodox-affiliated mikvahs in the area, Rabbi Neil Cooper wrote a letter for anyone who visits the Conservative synagogue’s mikvah in an effort “to assure their privacy, their sense of modesty, that nothing like that could happen or would happen at our mikvah.”
“I think it is on the minds of a lot of people,” Cooper said. “When you read a story like that, they ask the question, ‘Could something like that happen elsewhere?’ ”
Referring to the Freundel scandal, Cooper said he could not “recall anything occurring within the Jewish community in my 35 years in the rabbinate which equals the potential damage of these actions.”
The conversion process in particular can create a “tremendous disparity in power” between a rabbi and a vulnerable potential convert who often has little knowledge of conversion rituals, he said.
One of Freundel’s converts, Bethany Mandel, wrote a bill of rights published in the Times of Israel for converts after news of the scandal broke. “We have no safe governing body or individual to turn to if we feel as we have been victimized, manipulated or lied to by our rabbis,” she wrote.
“People are not aware of what to expect, what will be asked of them, and how will I know when the line is being crossed,” said Cooper. “This is stuff that people who are converting to Judaism are very concerned about.”
In discussions with other organizers of the Center City mikvah, Cohen said people asked, “Can you believe what happened? This is disgusting. Everywhere there is someone in power; there is someone abusing power.”
Cohen emphasized that a mikvah should be safe and comfortable for women not only for religious purposes, but also for practical concerns. The attendant at a women’s mikvah is always a woman, and if she sees signs of abuse, she “guides the woman to a safe space, to the police.”
Local Orthodox rabbis said it’s “crazy” and “very strange to understand” how Freundel could take advantage of these women who looked to him as the person holding the key to their entry into Judaism.
“I really can’t imagine anybody who would behave in that way; it’s just so against what we’re used to that I really have no explanation,” said Rabbi Dov Aaron Brisman, who leads Young Israel of Elkins Park. Brisman also oversees immersions for Orthodox conversions at a mikvah in Northeast Philadelphia.
Brisman, who said he met Freundel several times, as well as people who had converted under his supervision, said others in the Orthodox world considered his conversions “almost impeccable” in terms of following Jewish law.
As far as Brisman is concerned, the scandal represents a problem with an individual, not a need for change within the system.
In theory, rabbis overseeing mikvahs connected to conversions “could sneak, we know how to get in and we know when nobody is there,” said Brisman. But if people “have the right integrity and the right behavior and they do everything they can not to see what they shouldn’t see and behave in the right way, then there’s no need” for additional safeguards.
Despite the uproar over the Freundel case, it does not appear to have caused any dramatic dips in the use of local mikvahs, according to those who run area mikvahs.
At the Joseph and Martha Melohn Bucks County Mikvah, a woman’s ritual bath, the news from Washington isn’t “even on the radar screen,” according to Rabbi Moshe Travitsky, director of the mikvah.
There were already strict precautions in place before Freundel was arrested, he said. For example, men are not even allowed to drive their wives or be in the parking lot at night, which is when women use the mikvah. The rabbi answers questions about Jewish law as it relates to the mikvah, but he typically does not even know the name of the person asking; the inquiries either come to him via the mikvah attendant, who is a woman, or his wife.
“Thank God our mikvah is very busy, and I don’t think this is going to have any bearing on it,” said Travitsky, who founded the mikvah in 2001.
He said he does not plan to make any changes to procedures at the mikvah.
“Are there crazy stories that happen in the world? Sure there are crazy stories,” he said. “But again, I don’t know whether it really did happen or it didn’t, and it’s not my intention to investigate it. Thank God, there are a lot of normal people here, and we’re not looking into these crazy modes of behavior.”
Likewise, Brisman said he has no plans to change anything about his conversion process, including guidelines at the mikvah.
“If something would come out nationally, imploring that we make changes, we would think about what to do and how to do it,” said Brisman, “But right now, I don’t think it’s affected us at all.”
Before news of the scandal emerged, Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El said he often got questions from conversion candidates based on the misconception that a rabbi would watch them as they immersed in the mikvah.
Amy Fredrick, who was raised Protestant and is preparing to marry her Jewish fiance, said she didn’t know anything about a mikvah until taking Cooper’s class. She said she’s “mostly” excited about the ritual and is expected to convert in May.
“There’s a little bit of nervousness around the whole idea of will I be ready? Will I do it correctly?”
Meanwhile, Cohen and others continue to move forward with plans for converting Vilna Congregation in Society Hill into a mikvah. They have raised $180,000 of the estimated $300,000 cost and expect to open by the High Holidays in 2015.
“We have to learn a lesson from everything in life and this is something now that we need to be extra vigilant about,” said Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, who leads the Vilna Congregation and is also involved with the mikvah plans. “But it cannot in any way detract from the task at hand, which is to make sure” the Center City mikvah is built “in as beautiful a way as possible and in as safe a way as possible.”