Bethany Mandel was raised in an interfaith family with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. As an adult, she found herself increasingly tugged by her Jewish roots. In her search for identity, she turned to Orthodox Judaism, hoping to convert and live life as an observant Jew. Hoping to make that conversion ironclad, she scoured the Internet for a conversion rabbi who was “the most respected, who has the most experience.”
Over and over again in her online searches, one man’s name kept surfacing — Rabbi Barry Freundel.
Now the same man has been arrested and charged with six counts of voyeurism for allegedly using a hidden camera to spy on women as they dressed and undressed at the National Capital Mikvah, a ritual bath located next door to Freundel’s Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.
Mandel specifically moved to Washington to undergo the conversion process with Freundel, who was suspended as the synagogue’s senior rabbi shortly after his arrest last week. The first time they met, Freundel handed her an extensive reading list. She devoured each of the books and began meeting with Freundel in his office up to two times per week.
Very early on, Mandel said Freundel told her that while she had a very good grasp of the information, he didn’t want to complete her conversion too quickly, as doing so might create the perception that she was only converting in order to marry.
Ten months later, in June 2011, Mandel converted to Judaism. News of Freundel’s arrest has left her hopeful that her conversion will hold in the eyes of a religious court, but “you never know,” she worried in an interview Tuesday. “Who knows what they’ll respect in 20 years if my kid makes aliyah?”
That is why Mandel, like other converts who have spoken to the Washington Jewish Week, was only partially relieved when the Rabbinical Council of America, which handles matters concerning Orthodox rabbis, declared Monday that all conversions performed by Freundel prior to his arrests “remain halachically valid, and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.”
The RCA’s statement followed a review of the criminal complaint and search and arrest warrants, as well as applicable Jewish law. Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA executive vice president, explained that conversions are considered legitimate and appropriate unless proven otherwise. He also pointed out that three rabbis sign off on a conversion, not just one.
In an effort to avoid a similar scandal from happening again, the RCA and the Beth Din of America ruled that each local Jewish court must appoint a woman or group of women to serve as ombudsman to listen to any concerns of female candidates for conversion and that any woman starting the conversion process needs to be informed about this.
The RCA appointed a commission this week of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals to review the conversion process and create safeguards against possible abuses. The committee is to report its findings by Jan. 31, 2015.
In Israel, where conversions conducted in America have always been suspect, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate at first said it would review Freundel’s past conversions before deciding whether to accept them. But on Tuesday, that body did an about face, releasing a statement that it will recognize all past conversions performed by Freundel.
“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel clarifies that the Rabbi Freundel affair has no effect on the policy of recognizing conversions performed by him in the past,” Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor wrote in a text message.
The RCA acknowledged that this was not the first time it has looked into Freundel’s behavior. In 2012, some conversion candidates “expressed that they felt coerced to perform clerical work for him in his home office” and also to contribute money to the beit din. “Further, it was discovered that he was a co-signer on a checking account with a conversion candidate,” according to an RCA statement.
Freundel was confronted and “made assurances that these behaviors would discontinue,” according to the RCA statement. At that time, the RCA decided the charges “did not rise to a level that required him to be suspended from the RCA or to be removed from his work with converts, as long as they did not continue,” the statement read.
While upholding Freundel’s conversions, Dratch came out strongly against practice dunking in the mikvah, something several converts, including Mandel, have said Freundel encouraged them to do.
“Had this come to our attention, we would have reacted,” said Dratch.
In October 2010, Freundel instructed Mandel to take a “practice dunk” in the mikvah, she said. “He was never in the room. I did not dunk in front of him.”
She asked Freundel about the check list for entering the mikvah, and said the rabbi instructed her to “take a long shower” and not worry about the formalities.
Two other converts said they took practice dunks at Freundel’s urging and felt strange about doing so. None felt confident or knowledgeable enough to question Freundel, whom they considered a towering and intimidating authority figure.
Emma Shulevitz, 27, took a practice dunk in July 2012, reciting no prayers. “He told me to return for as many practice dunks as you want,” she recalled.
While she said Freundel was not present in the mikvah, he was in the waiting room showing her where to store the personal items she had with her. He never touched her or saw her naked, she said.
Shulevitz eventually did convert, not with Freundel, but with the help of another rabbi in New York. When she told that rabbi about her practice dunk, she said, “He sort of cried. He didn’t say anything.”
Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer at the Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at email@example.com.