The case of a Georgetown rabbi accused of secretly videotaping women in the ritual bath expanded significantly Monday when a national rabbinical board said it had known since at least 2012 of complaints by women converts of inappropriate behavior.
The news triggered an outpouring by converts and advocates for women in Modern Orthodoxy who said the case reflected deeply embedded problems with sexism.
Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest last week shocked many in the small world of Modern Orthodoxy in part because he was viewed as an active supporter of women’s equality in areas such as synagogue leadership and education. In his 25 years as spiritual leader of Kesher Israel, he had elevated women to top positions at the small synagogue, whose members have long included prominent national leaders such as former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Freundel was also one of the country’s best-known advocates for converts, and was known for going head-to-head with the powerful and strict Israeli rabbinate to try to get more U.S. conversions recognized.
But on Monday, the Rabbinical Council of America — the country’s main group for Modern Orthodox rabbis — said it had received reports going back at least two years that women working with Freundel toward becoming Jewish felt coerced into performing clerical work for him and donating money to a tribunal he led. There was also an allegation that he inappropriately acted as a co-signer on a checking account with one woman.
At the time, Freundel led the council’s group on “protocol and standards” for converts, and he was not removed.
“He made assurances that these behaviors would discontinue. A committee of rabbis and lay leaders determined that while Rabbi 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,” the statement said.
The council said that it did not tell Kesher’s leadership about the issue but that Freundel did.
Freundel attorney Jeffrey Harris declined to comment. The leadership of Kesher and the National Capital Mikvah that Freundel helped found in 2005 have not returned calls and e-mails for comment since the arrest a week ago.
Freundel has been charged by D.C. police with six counts of voyeurism for allegedly using a camera hidden in a clock radio to videotape women at the mikvah, a ritual bath used primarily by Jewish women and people who are converting to Judaism.
Officials at Towson University, where Freundel taught courses on Judaism and ethics, on Monday said they were reaching out to the rabbi’s students after learning that he may have taken many of them to Kesher Israel. Towson spokesman Ray Feldmann said Freundel’s supervisors didn’t know about the trips and that the school has “some serious concerns about the appropriateness and the appearance of impropriety.”
More female converts began speaking out Monday, including those who converted with Freundel and said he abused the power he had over them as the sole arbiter of their conversions.
Among them was Leah Sugarman, 30, of Silver Spring, who said he required her at least weekly to do clerical work at his home and sometimes at Towson, including paying bills, organizing files and taking dictation. She said he made clear “that the more he saw of me, the faster my conversion would be. I did think it was inappropriate, but I was desperate to do anything to get through the conversion process.”
There is no set timeline for conversions; a person’s readiness is determined by a rabbi-guide — who in Orthodox Judaism is always a man because women can’t be clergy. The process can take months or years.
Sugarman said Freundel made “constant” comments praising her appearance, asked about her dating life and encouraged her “not to dress so modestly,” she said.
She said other younger female converts had the same complaints and that Kesher’s leadership was informed. “They spoke with him and he promised he’d stop, but it literally never stopped, not even for one day.”
Bethany Mandel, 28, said she sought out Freundel to help her convert because he was so highly regarded as an authority. Orthodox Jews are meticulous about who oversees their conversions in part because of the skepticism of Israeli rabbis — who govern whether someone who wants to move to Israel qualifies for citizenship as a “Jew” — and the Jewish practice that children’s faith is defined legally by their mother.
Mandel said she was disturbed by the way Freundel appeared to enjoy wielding power.
“He had total control of my life, and he loved having that power over me,” she said. “I couldn’t marry, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t take a new job until the conversion was done.”
During her conversion, Mandel said Freundel approached her during a friend’s wedding. “He said, ‘Look, you could be that bride and this could be your wedding, but it’s not, and I have control over that,’ ” Mandel said.
Because Freundel was considered such a leader in Orthodox conversions and did so many, there has been great concern since last week among converts that their process could be invalidated by higher authorities. On Monday the Rabbinical Council and the Beth Din of America — a major national rabbinical court — issued a statement saying that Freundel’s conversions are valid.
Freundel’s story has been a huge topic of conversation among the Modern Orthodox, the part of Orthodox Judaism more open to the impact of contemporary trends such as women seeking high-level professions and public spiritual roles. Topics ranged from the potential for abuse of converts to the impact on Jewish sexuality of men being the ones in control of the mikvah.
The mikvah — which looks like a large tub — has a ritual, purifying purpose for men and women, such as when people get married or convert or on the holy day of Yom Kippur. Women are required under Orthodox law to immerse in it monthly after menstruating and before they have sex with their husbands. The immersion marks a new cycle of potential conception.
Freundel’s case is “the ultimate abuse of male rabbinic power, yet an unsurprising symptom of a patriarchal system that sexualizes and objectifies women in so many ways,” wrote Haviva Ner-David, an Israeli rabbi who directs one of a growing number of egalitarian “open” mikvahs that allow men or women to immerse for various reasons including recovering from illness or divorce. “A prime example is the exclusively ‘women’s mikveh,’ where all know that women are going to immerse in the nude to purify themselves for sex, but where men make the rules.”
Responding to the Freundel case, the Rabbinical Council on Monday said it was appointing a woman or group of women “to serve as ombudsman” to local tribunals that oversee the mikvah.
The council identified as a potential red flag Freundel’s practice of asking people studying to convert to take “practice dunks” — something that has no basis in Jewish practice, is not required for conversion and that, the council statement said, “would have engendered a more severe response.”
However, the National Capital Mikvah advertised until recently on its site that it “supports practice dunks for conversions.”
The Silver Spring woman said Freundel told her that she had to do two practice dunks — even though she expressed reservations. Now she thinks he was insisting so that she could be videotaped.
“At that point, it was like: ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it,’ ” she said. After she finished the second dunk, she went to the waiting room.
“I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to stay behind and lock up.’ ”
Peter Hermann and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.