On Oct. 14, Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington D.C., was arrested on charges of voyeurism. He stands accused of placing hidden video cameras in the shul’s mikvah. In an address to the congregation, Elanit Jakabovics, the shul’s president, said, “The truth is, we don’t know the extent. We don’t fully know what happened.”
A few months ago, we wrote in these pages about the case of Evan Zauder, a teacher at a Jewish day school in New Jersey who earlier this year pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and enticement of a minor in January 2013. In particular, we called out Jewish community leaders who wrote letters on his behalf asking a judge for a lenient sentence. We argued that in asking for leniency for the perpetrator, these letter-writers were effectively ignoring the trauma of the victims. Ultimately, our essay concluded, it is up to all of us to hold our leaders accountable to create a safe environment for our vulnerable neighbours.
Rabbi Freundel was a leader in his community. He was not only a rabbi, but a friend, mentor, and teacher to many. Many have noted in the days since his arrest that the rabbi was beloved and thought highly of, within and outside Washington.
And yet, when faced with allegations that he committed a heinous crime (Rabbi Freundel has pleaded not guilty), Jewish community leaders did not hesitate. Indeed, they acted with haste. They did not weigh the pros and cons of reporting him, nor did they spend precious time debating the potential consequences of a false allegation. In similar circumstances others could have denied it, passed along information to a beit din, made excuses, or warned the rabbi that this information had come to light. In some past incidents of impropriety, this is precisely what has occurred.
Instead, Kesher Israel alerted the proper authorities. This was the right move.
Kesher Israel’s leaders chose to put the victims first. For this they are to be lauded. They have shown great compassion and a deep understanding of how our community should act in these sorts of unfortunate incidents. As a child, one of us was sexually assaulted by a fellow classmate during a terrifying sleepover. Many years later, we were forced to confront that episode when we discovered the attacker was employed as an attendant at a community mikvah on the east coast of the United States. The memory of that night, coupled with the power a mikvah attendant holds over vulnerable, naked women, was enough for us to make a call.
Unfortunately, we then learned first- hand how unprepared many Orthodox rabbis are when it comes to handling this kind of situation. Granted, we were presenting a legally ambiguous situation – there was no police report, the statute of limitations had long expired and we were both children at the time – but after describing that horrifically long night, it became clear that the rabbi of the congregation was hesitant to make a decision and accept the moral responsibility we expect from religious role models in these situations.
Religious leaders – be they rabbis, teachers, camp counsellors or mikvah attendants – are in positions of power. With that comes a moral responsibility. If one portrays – or has – a history of abusive tendencies, moral ambiguity, or destructive and manipulative behaviour, should they be allowed to remain in those positions? Should a rabbinical association be allowed to withhold information from a community? There are reports the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) did just that when allegations of impropriety surrounding Rabbi Freundel first surfaced in 2012.
Was Rabbi Freundel’s reputation more important than the women he allegedly mistreated? Was the inevitable embarrassment of his practices more important that the number of people for whom the mikvah experience has now been forever tainted?
There is no guidebook for morality, no lecture specific enough to cover every type of abuse that may arise. Our community leaders will consistently be faced with cases of abuse – both ambiguous and obvious. And that begs the question: Will our communal and rabbinic leadership rise to the occasion and learn from their mistakes?
Kesher Israel has shown us what true leadership is. The jury is still out as to whether the RCA will follow suit.
Rahel Bayar, is a child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who has lectured extensively on preventing abuse within the Jewish community. Meira Bayar Ellias is a licensed independent clinical social worker who has worked extensively with victims of trauma.