The Mind and the Heart: Reflections on the Rabbi Freundel Story

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13 Nov 2014

Kesher_Israel_-_GeorgetownAs one of a small group of children who grew up as members of the Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC, where Rabbi Barry Freundel served as rabbi, I have found myself in a unique position over the past several weeks.

Although I was never a victim, Rabbi Freundel was the rabbi of my shul. I heard his drashot (sermons) in shul every week. I may have called him once or twice regarding shaylot (questions pertaining to jewish law).  I studied for my bat mitzvah with his wife.  The rabbi seen in all the pictures accompanying the articles surrounding his case was not someone foreign to me.  He was one of a handful of rabbis that I knew growing up.

As for the mikvah? While I never saw the mikvah myself, I remember sitting in shul as a child and hearing the weekly updates of any minute developments that took place over the long stretch of time that it took for the mikvah to be completed. It was to be the only mikvah in the nation’s capital. It would save women a trip out to Silver Spring, a 30-minute drive, and allow them to fulfill this mitzvah on Friday nights. There was much money raised, much time invested, and much excitement over this mikvah. We were proud to call it the ‘National Mikvah.’

As I drove in my car one day a few weeks ago I began to weep.  I wept for all the women who had come to Rabbi Freundel to convert that he had victimized. I wept for the honor and modesty of the Jewish woman who makes every effort to conceal her mikvah night from everyone except her husband and those few women she bumps into at the mikvah. I thought of the many women who had walked into the mikvah in Georgetown with the innocent desire to fulfill a mitzvah and who now feared that they too had been victimized.  And finally, I wept that an Orthodox rabbi had been the one to cause all of this misery. What a twisted reality.

Did Rabbi Freundel and I always see eye-to-eye on matters of Jewish outlook? No. Was he my rabbi, my posek that I ask/ed concerning matters of Jewish law? No. Did I think he was an honest and trustworthy person? Yes. On a personal level this is what was the most shocking. The rabbi of the synagogue I grew up in, Rabbi Barry Freundel, could no longer be trusted. He led a double life. One as rabbi of a shul and one transgressing many prohibitions of the Torah.

Where was the busha (embarrassment)? What had become of all of his vast Torah knowledge, knowledge he could quote backwards and forwards at “Ask the Rabbi” sessions in shul? Where was his understanding of the higher standards that a rabbi must adhere to?

Chazal (our sages) teach us that when suffering befalls the Jewish people we should ask not just why, but what? What can I do? How can I, even in the midst of this horrible news, turn this into a catalyst for growth in my religious life?

This horrific news has led our community to many new initiatives and rethinking of prior standards and protocols. All of these changes are crucial and I pray that they will stop such scandals from occurring in the future.

But I also believe that this event should lead us to communal and personal introspection for lay leaders and rabbinic professionals alike.

Let me explain further.

To our communities:

Sometimes, factions of our respective communities[1] value intellectual prowess in our rabbinic leaders over any other personality trait. While limmud Hatorah and knowledge of Torah should cultivate a religious personality who lives with Yirat Shamayim (fear of the Almighty) and is internally focused on matters of Avodat Hashem, this cannot be seen as a cause and effect relationship. Communities suffer spiritually when their rabbis place more value upon sounding “intellectual” and “erudite” in their weekly drashot than helping their congregants in their service of G-d.

There is a famous story of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev that I believe we all would gain from reading one more time:

“It is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev that he once summoned all of the Jews to assemble in the town square the next day at noon because he had an announcement of the greatest importance to make.

He ordered that the merchants were to close their shops, that all the nursing mothers were to bring their infants, and that everyone, with no exceptions, was to be there to hear the announcement. The people wondered what the announcement could be. Was a pogrom imminent or a new tax? Was the Rabbi going to leave? Or was he perhaps seriously ill? Did he know the time when the Messiah would come and was he going to reveal it?

At noon the entire community was present with no exceptions and everyone waited with baited breath to hear what the Rabbi would announce. Precisely at twelve the Rabbi rose and said: “I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, have gathered you here today in order to tell you that there is a God in the world!”

At first the people were perplexed. Was this the big announcement that they had left their homes and closed their shops to hear? Had the Rabbi convened them only to tell them something that every school child already knew? But then, as they thought about it, they began to say to themselves: “Indeed, what could be more important than to know there is a God in the world.”[2]

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is telling his congregants, “Yes, it’s very nice you are in shul, that you have come here to daven, but why are you here? Are you here to hear a smart drasha? Are you here to shmooze about the latest developments at work? What brings you here? You are here to pray to G-d, to develop a relationship with your Creator.”

By including this story I am not positing that all Orthodox intellectuals should give up their ways and turn into Chassidic rebbes. Rather, I am suggesting, what is already true in so many communities, that we should appoint rabbinic leaders who are not only intellectual giants but are people of refined personal character, religious devotion, and integrity.

To the rabbis:

I was blessed this past spring to see my husband and so many of his friends, chevrutot, and colleagues receive Semicha (rabbinical ordination) at the RIETS Chag HaSemicha. There are many distinguished rabbis amongst this group and we are thankful to be part of such a community. Sometimes, and hopefully on rare occasions, rabbis are no longer interested in living with the religious idealism and commitment that it takes to be a school or community rabbi. I hope in these cases that they learn from the mistakes of Rabbi Freundel. If they can no longer live up to the standards that are expected of a rabbi they should leave the profession before they make a mockery of it.

To us as individuals striving to be better ovdei Hashem:

While Rabbi Freundel’s transgressions were on a large scale this event has led me to examine the smaller scale “double lives” that we all live. How does my use of time, and especially my free time, reflect my core religious values and goals? How do the teachings of Chazal impact the way I interact with my family members even in the tensest of times? Do I translate the Torah I have learned into Torah that I live?  Do I live with a consciousness of G-d or am I practicing Torah Judaism by rote? At the core of my being what do I want and what excites me? I pray that each one of us during this year is able to bring together the work of the mind and the work of the heart, to turn that which we know intellectually into that which we live in our internal religious world and express in our outward family and communal lives.

[1] I am in no way pointing fingers at the Kesher Israel community but am speaking more generally.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.