The case of a prominent Georgetown rabbi accused of voyeurism has offered a rare glimpse into the secretive way in which the liberal wing of Orthodox Judaism often handles rabbi misconduct, triggering calls by critics for more transparency and accountability.
A few days after Rabbi Barry Freundel’s Oct. 14 arrest on charges alleging that he put a secret camera in a ritual bathhouse, the 1,000-member Rabbinical Council of America said it had investigated two prior unrelated complaints of misconduct against Freundel — one in 2012, the other in 2013 — but never informed his synagogue.
The 2012 case accused Freundel of abusing his power over female conversion candidates, coercing them to do clerical work and donate to his projects. In 2013, he was accused of traveling in a sleeper train with a woman who wasn’t his wife. To some, the secrecy surrounding the complaints echoed that in previous cases handled by Modern Orthodox leaders.
In recent years, leaders of the RCA — the world’s largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis — and several closely affiliated institutions have been accused of mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct by prominent rabbis.
The outcry prompted the RCA to professionalize how it handles misconduct complaints of a sexual nature. But it still uses an ad-hoc system to address complaints that are not of a sexual nature.
“The system of oversight is unknown, and that’s what needs to change,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “Rabbinic institutions need to figure out how to relay complaints and concerns about rabbinic authority, abuse, problems with synagogues.”
The alliance, which works to expand opportunities for women within Orthodoxy, said in a statement Friday that the Freundel case should be used “as a catalyst to address those imbalances that have grown in our community.”
Leaders of the New York-based RCA acknowledge that the council’s system for investigating misconduct is flawed.
“I have not worked with anyone interested in covering things up. They want to do the right thing,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, who as executive vice president holds the RCA’s top staff position. “But [Modern Orthodox rabbis] have evolved as a community in terms of openness and transparency and a willingness to move forward.”
In a 2005 case, the RCA expelled a rabbi from an esteemed family who was accused of sexually harassing women who came to him for marriage counseling. A year earlier, advocates for the victims in that case slammed council leaders who had handed over to the accused an internal report naming women whose confidentiality had been promised.
In 2012, more than 30 former students at Yeshiva University High School publicly accused two rabbi-educators at the Orthodox institution in Manhattan of sexually abusing them decades earlier. The accusers said top RCA members knew about the cases for years. The council put out a statement condemning the abuse but never publicly addressed the fact that victims had alleged a coverup.
The RCA is seen as holding significant power among the Modern Orthodox, controlling standards for which converts are recognized, writing position papers that are seen as binding on topics from bioethics to what foods or products are considered kosher, and serving as overall arbiter of which leaders and views are in or out.
But there is an inherent limit to the reach of the RCA. Modern Orthodoxy is an ideology, not a denomination, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention, with a hierarchy. Its followers, who make up the more flexible part of Orthodox Judaism, are much more likely to look to their local rabbis and other Jewish community leaders than to the RCA. There are also strong cultural norms against disrespecting or challenging one’s rabbi.
“Every congregation contracts with its own rabbis,” Dratch said. “There are situations we’re not aware of on a local level. We’re a rabbinical membership organization; we don’t have the resources to be the policemen of the entire American rabbinate.”
The council receives fewer than a dozen total complaints a year, according to Dratch, and most details of investigations — down to their findings, even in the very rare case when a member is expelled — are kept private.
Dratch said the system for dealing with complaints of a nonsexual nature is not spelled out in detail. It essentially calls for the council’s executive leaders to convene an internal ethics committee, called a Vaad Hakavod. The members of the committee and what they do to investigate isn’t laid out explicitly. The RCA constitution says the committee “shall conduct any hearings or investigations it deems appropriate.”
After the controversy over how the marriage counseling case was handled, the RCA in 2004 created an extremely detailed system for dealing with sexual-misconduct claims. For example, it calls for the immediate appointment of two people, one male and one female, who are not members of the council and who have training in the area of sexual abuse, to determine whether there is enough evidence to be referred to a five-member team that includes mental-health and legal professionals outside the RCA.
Dratch would not give any details of the nature of the complaints the council has investigated of late or whether any rabbis — besides Freundel, who has been suspended — were penalized.
The Freundel case is unfolding against a backdrop of great change within Modern Orthodoxy, a group that makes up just 3 percent of U.S. Jewry.
Modern Orthodoxy has been under enormous strain in the past decade, as it sees Reform and Conservative Judaism to its left and other parts of Orthodox Judaism to its right become more influential. Modern Orthodox rabbis are under greater pressure to take positions on such issues as whether women can lead prayer groups and whether conversion candidates should be rejected if they are already dating a Jew (what some might see as a sign that there is an ulterior motive for the conversion).
Freundel made conversion standards and working with converts his focus; such work was in his contract with synagogue Kesher Israel, and he is believed to have converted hundreds of people to Judaism. As Orthodox leaders in the United States and Israel pushed harder to centralize power over conversions, Freundel aligned himself with the conservatives and rose in 2006 to the head of the council’s committee charged with establishing regional conversion tribunals and uniform standards.
According to Dratch, “a few” female conversion candidates working with Freundel brought complaints to the council in fall 2012 that they had “felt coerced” by him to perform clerical work in his home office and to contribute money to the local conversion tribunal he ran. One said he was a co-signer on her checking account.
The complaint fell into the ad-hoc category when it came to the investigation.
Council leaders created an investigative committee made up of rabbis and laypeople who, Dratch said, were sent to Washington to speak with Freundel.
Dratch said that no actual report was created but that Freundel told committee members he didn’t single out the conversion students in requests to do clerical work and to give money. He told them that he urges everyone in his small, volunteer-led congregation for the same kind of help.
It was not clear with whom the committee members spoke, if anyone, beyond the women who complained and Freundel. Several longtime members of Kesher Israel said it is not true that Freundel asks the entire congregation for that type of help.
The committee, according to a council statement, determined that “while Freundel’s actions were inappropriate (and were a violation of his position) they 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.”
Freundel said such demands would stop, although one convert who performed such work said they didn’t.
Dratch said the arena of conversions is sensitive because a rabbi converting someone has total control over when the person is deemed ready to become Jewish. It can take months or years or can be cut off.
“By its very nature, a conversion candidate is very vulnerable, and there is a power imbalance,” he said.
Dratch said council members didn’t tell Kesher Israel leadership in part because they felt it could unfairly harm Freundel’s reputation.
Another council leader who was privy to the investigation said rabbis’ work with converts isn’t necessarily done through their synagogues and they didn’t see any reason to alert Kesher Israel.
Freundel himself told Kesher Israel, the council said in a statement.
Kesher Israel’s board of directors released a statement last week saying that in 2012, Freundel told the synagogue’s president, Elanit Jakabovics, “of concerns unrelated to his recent arrest that the Rabbinical Council of America had deemed a ‘closed matter.’ ”
Since Freundel’s arrest, Jakabovics has not returned e-mails and calls.
“In hindsight, we wish for a lot of things, don’t we? I don’t know there is anything we could have done to have foreseen or prevented what happened,” Dratch said.
Another council member who is knowledgeable about the 2012 investigation into Freundel said the council discussed removing him immediately as head of the conversion committee but opted not to because of fears that it would be misinterpreted given the intensely divisive climate around conversions.
Earlier in 2012, the council was about to shift leadership, and Freundel led a move to unseat the expected new head. Council leaders said a key election issue was the tension between the more permissive and restrictive wings. Freundel had positioned himself on the more restrictive side of a bitter fight and lost. As a result, he probably would have been removed anyway from his committee chairmanship the following year.
A few months later, when the complaints about Freundel arose, the member said, the council feared that the Georgetown rabbi would politicize a punishment over an issue it didn’t see as severe.
“We had no reason then to think he was a sick guy. We said, ‘Okay, he’s going to be removed anyway.’ If we removed him right away, he’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re taking revenge,’ ” the member said. “Today, it’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback.”
Then, in August 2013, a man in the D.C. area alleged to the council that Freundel had traveled on an overnight sleeper train with a woman who was not his wife. The man, who spoke to The Washington Post as well, said he had obtained the travel data through his job and couldn’t provide documentation or he would be fired.
According to a council statement, because it couldn’t obtain the evidence, “there was no fair way that the RCA could act on them . . . there was no opportunity for due process.”
A few months earlier, the man had taken the complaint to a major D.C.-area rabbinical group, of which Freundel was vice president. Because it wasn’t able to see the evidence, the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington said in a statement, it discussed the allegation “in a limited manner with Rabbi Freundel, who refuted the general accusation.”
Neither body spoke to Freundel’s synagogue about something they considered pure rumor.