I wasn’t going to talk about Rabbi Barry Freundel. I really wasn’t. When I have occasion to reference a news story within the community, I tend to obscure the names of the involved parties because I find it unseemly to air our dirty laundry in public. When I do reference a current event, I give enough information that anyone with a thimble-full of computer savvy could spend thirty seconds on Google and get the full story. But, despite my preference not to name names, I can’t dance around the Freundel case. It’s too big and too well-known.
The story, in case you’ve been on vacation in Addis Ababa, is that a prominent rabbi in the Washington, DC, area was arrested for allegedly spying on women in the mikvah with a hidden camera. This crime was not limited to the married women in his community; Rabbi Freundel was in charge of conversions for his part of the country, and conversion also entails immersion in a mikvah.
Yes, we have a religious obligation to judge others favorably and there is a civil presumption of innocence but the evidence against Rabbi Freundel is significant. A hidden camera was found in a clock radio that he was seen installing. The instruction manuals for hidden recording devices were found in his home. Reportedly, the police recovered the video footage he shot. Converts have come forward with stories of “practice immersions” that he organized (not a real part of the conversion process). One woman even recalls being told not to put her water bottle in front of the clock that was later found to contain the concealed camera. So things look pretty bad for Rabbi Freundel.
And that means that things look bad for all of us because this is a huge chillul Hashem. A chillul Hashem – literally a “desecration of G-d’s Name” – is when a Jew acts inappropriately. This makes observers think badly of Jews as a whole, Judaism in general, the Torah, and/or G-d Himself. The more religious the Jew, the more prominent the Jew, the more heinous the crime – all of these make for a bigger chillul Hashem. If there were a chillul Hashem alert, this story would have sirens blaring, lights flashing, and troops being mobilized. It’s off the scale.
I still wasn’t going to comment on this case until I read the following: one of the victims told a newspaper that she could never feel secure in a mikvah again. That’s it for her; she’s done with mikvah.
Now I have to say something:
Don’t throw the baby out with the mikvah water.
I totally get what you’re feeling. I truly empathize. About 25 years ago, I was robbed at gunpoint on the New York City subway. For about two weeks after, I was extremely paranoid on my daily commute. That feeling tapered off after a while and eventually it went away altogether. Since then, I have not been the victim of a mugging, nor have I witnessed one. Yes, once burned twice shy, but eventually the reality sets in that the overwhelming number of people with whom we interact are not going to shoot us, stab us or club us over the head. They’re just going to work, the same as you and I are.
The same is true in the Freundel case. What Rabbi Freundel is said to have done is indefensible. It was an invasion of privacy. It was an abuse of his authority. It was a breach of the trust that his congregants and the converts he mentored placed in him. It was also so rare as to be a statistical anomaly. You would have been hard-pressed to find another mikvah with a hidden camera before Rabbi Freundel’s arrest and it would be even less likely now. (How many mikvahs do you think did sweeps for surveillance devices after hearing about this case? And in the unlikely event that anyone did have such a thing in place, I would bet that they removed it with all due haste.)
Bad stuff happens in this world and sometimes people in our community are involved. Children are molested. Money is embezzled. It’s inexcusable. It’s a chillul Hashem. But it’s also rare.
Orthodox Jews are not “all alike, this one just got caught.” Institutions are not necessarily riddled with corruption just because one bad apple was discovered. Just as most people on the subway will not try to shiv me and take my wallet, the overwhelming number of rabbis are not trying to cheat the government, touch your children or spy on you in the mikvah. Remember, “Dog bites man” isn’t newsworthy. It’s “Man bites dog” that gets the headline because it’s unusual. These cases are prominent because they’re rare.
What happened in the Georgetown mikvah is terrible in so many ways. People have every right to be upset and feeling a little gun-shy is a natural reaction. I’ve been there. But I hope that as the emotional wounds heal, you will come back to the mitzvah of attending the mikvah. As grave as Rabbi Freundel’s transgressions were, no effect could be more tragic than tainting this beautiful ritual and distancing a woman from a process that unites a man and a woman with each other and with their Creator.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.