The arrest last week of Rabbi Barry Freundel on six charges of voyeurism has shaken his congregation, Kesher Israel in Georgetown, as well as the Jewish community of greater Washington and the Orthodox world at large. Freundel had influence far beyond his synagogue and the mikvah, or ritual bath, next door, from where he allegedly videotaped women undressing and showering, and the allegations — the rabbi pleaded not guilty to the charges last week — have understandably led many women to question an ancient Jewish practice for fear of being violated when they are most vulnerable.
But what has not been noted is that in contrast with the years-long cover-ups that typically accompany clergy misdeeds, the Freundel case was not swept under the rug. When the leadership of the National Capital Mikvah became aware of suspicions surrounding Freundel’s behavior, they reported the matter to the police and cooperated fully in the subsequent investigation.
After the rabbi’s arrest on Oct. 14, organizations with which he was associated quickly issued condemnations and cut ties. The synagogue suspended him without pay, while the mikvah removed him as its rabbinical supervisor. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), through which Freundel wielded power over the state of Orthodox conversions in the United States, suspended his membership and ousted him from positions of leadership. His name no longer appears on the website of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, where he was vice president.
The very troubling charges against Freundel have apparently shocked relevant organizations enough for them to rethink their operations. In addition to announcing that Freundel’s conversions are indeed kosher, the RCA will now appoint a woman or a group of women to act as ombudsmen on every woman’s conversion case, since Orthodox conversion court judges are all male.
And the Mikveh Emunah Society, which oversees two Washington-area mikvahs, issued new policies and security arrangements that show they are serious about not letting what happened in Georgetown happen in suburban Maryland. From now on, any male volunteer or maintenance worker must be accompanied into the ritual bath facility by a woman; the society will also employ an independent security firm to inspect its facilities and offer guidance on future security needs.
We approve of these developments and see in them a model for how ritual baths around the country can cleanse the stain of the Freundel case and protect their users from further invasions of privacy. It would be an unquestionable betrayal of conscience to allow the sanctity of a time-honored Jewish practice to be forever tarnished by failing to learn the lessons of what allegedly occurred in Georgetown.