What I Posted on Facebook About the Freundel Case

Discovered this blog about a convert’s experience with her converting rabbi asking her questions about her sex life. I’m beginning to think that there is something wrong with the entire conversion system. (Ruth anyone?) http://crazyjewishconvert.blogspot.co.il/2013/01/a-rabbi-asked-me-inappropriate.html

October 19 at 9:54am
OMG!! You all MUST READ Sharon Shapiro’s story about her (btw unnecessary) conversion, the thin, wet sheet that separated her naked body from the gaze of three rabbis, and the moment when they told her that she would have to remove the sheet. I’m still shuddering….. http://kolbishaerva.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/three-men-and-a-mikvah-part-2/ (sorry if this has already been shared here and i missed that)

October 19 at 11:49 am
This was just shared on a group I belong to, the text from Talmud Brachot 20a:
“Rav Giddel was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the women’s immersion sites. He said to them: Immerse yourselves in this way, and immerse yourselves in that way. The Sages said to him: Master, do you not fear the evil inclination? He said to them: In my eyes, they are comparable to white geese.
Similarly, the Gemara relates that Rabbi Yochanan was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the women’s immersion sites. Rabbi Yochanan, who was known for his extraordinary good looks, explained this and said: When the daughters of Israel emerge from their immersion, they will look at me, and will have children as beautiful as I. The Sages asked him: Master, do you not fear the evil eye?
He said to them: I descend from the seed of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no dominion, as it is written: “Joseph is a bountiful vine, a bountiful vine on a spring [alei ayin]” (Genesis 49:22).
“Ayin” can mean both “spring” and “eye.” And Rabbi Abbahu said a homiletic interpretation: Do not read it alei ayin, rather olei ayin, above the eye; they transcend the influence of the evil eye.”
The poster writes: Could this behavior actually be justified in our tradition?! And I’m thinking, YES IT IS!

October 19 at 12:57pm
Okay, this is my LAST status update on the Freundel scandal (for now), because I promised myself i would tear myself away and get back to my own work…… But I just want to share this story: Last year, I participated in the AJC Conversion Colloquium, a meeting of some 75 Jewish leaders on the Israel conversion crisis (that is, stories of conversions being reversed and not accepted, etc), in which Freundel was one of the “star” speakers, given a large cushy time slot to share his approach to conversion. He promoted himself as the key person to resolve the whole crisis btwn Israel and the US, made himself out to be the one “rescuing” converts by brokering secret deals with the Israeli rabbinate. (Seth Farber was infuriated at the whole thing, as his entire life work was trampled on, and he and Freundel had a very memorable shouting match, but Farber did not formally get the floor, so he lost. Anyway, that’s a whole other thing.) So Freundel, who headed the RCA’s conversion committee, said something that still sticks with me — about how “There are people walking around the streets of Israel who think that they’re Jewish and probably aren’t”. And to me – i was like, why should you care that way? What does that even mean that we are thinking about a Jew walking on the streets of Israel who you have determined may not be Jewish? I couldn’t get past this imagery. It all smacked of a kind of megalomania, a need to stand at the gates and determine who goes in and who does not. I remember listening to that and thinking, this entire conversion thing is all wrong. Too much obsessive rabbinic control over the people — especially women, who constitute 80% of converts.
But at the time, that’s not what I said. When it was my turn on the panel (I was one of three women speakers in the whole day), I pointed out that gender was the “elephant in the room” at the heart of the entire discussion. How the overwhelming majority of speakers were men, how decisions were made exclusively by men, how the ones disproportionately affected by these decisions were powerless women, and how disturbing it was that a roomful of men could sit in this sterile place making determinations about women’s lives without having women in positions of power. My comments went nowhere (except to Gary Rosenblatt’s story about the event), and the day continued as it was, ignoring gender and allowing men with power to engage with one another and forget about their gender privilege and those whose lives they were controlling.
I keep thinking about this, about the layers and layers of rabbinic male control over women, over our bodies and our status and our “permissibility” and our inclusion and our identity. And i’m thinking, really enough. The whole system is wrong. It’s all wrong. We are allowing men to be gatekeepers over women’s lives and identities and enough is enough. Enough is enough. This story validates our worst fears coming true. The entire conversion system is quite possibly one big male sexual fantasy. It’s time to uproot the whole system from its core.

October 19 at 3:05pm
THERE’S MORE: I just chatted with an RCA rabbi who has been personally pleading with the RCA for the past TWO YEARS to take Freundel off of the conversion committee because there are apparently MANY testimonies to the fact that he manipulated and abused female conversion candidates. “I knew he was abusive to converts and I had been trying to pressure the RCA to deal with it for 2 years…… His abuse included intimidation, manipulation, forcing them to work as free assistants in his office to ‘expedite’ their process……He doted way too much on certain girls he picked as favorite…..If i had a nickel for every young female conversion candidate who came to my doorstep because she was afraid of him, felt manipulated by him or whatever, i’d be a rich man…Too many of them were afraid to come forward for fear of having conversions stopped or revoked… oh, and the best part…he would go to them and ask them for money to the tune of thousands of dollars so he could make sure their conversions ‘continued to be recognized’.” The RCA, rather than deal with Freundel, ostracized the complaining rabbi, dubbing him “not orthodox” and dubbing the women “crazy”. The rabbi is now talking anonymously to reporters. This story is indeed confirming the worst suspicions of the Orthodox leadership and the systematic abuse of women.

News from the front: Tonight the woman D.C. chief of police [Cathy Lanier] is meeting in an open session up at Ohev Shalom [another Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington] with women concerned about how the police will be using the photographs that are going to be part of the case against Barry Freundel. It seems clear that the only way for women to be protected and safe is to have women in key positions of power, both in and out of the Jewish community.

October 21 at 9:31am
Dear Friends —

I’m sure you’ve all been following this awful story of Rabbi Barry Freundel, a man who was arrested for placing hidden cameras in the women’s ritual bath of his synagogue, using unsuspecting women as his own personal sex toys. Testimonies emerging over the past few days are painting an awful picture of a powerful man who abused and exploited vulnerable women in many different ways, not just sexually. I’m sure this makes everyone shudder. I know I do. Some moments I want to throw up, some moments I want to cry. It is awful on so many levels.

But there’s more. Freundel also headed the conversion committee for the RCA, the overarching Orthodox rabbinic group. Freundel was single-handedly working on the negotiations with the Israeli rabbinate over whose conversions would be deemed “kosher” by the Israeli rabbinate. Leaving aside for a moment the many ways that this situation is outrageous, I would like to focus right now on the particular situation of Freundel’s converts. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has announced that it is now considering invalidating all of Freundel’s conversions. This would be so a travesty on so many levels. Essentially it would destroy the lives of Freundel’s victims, putting their entire Jewish identity into question, forcing them to be interrogated by rabbinic judges, forcing them to go through all of the all over again. As if they haven’t suffered enough. It would effectively mean punishing the victims — the female converts — for Freundel’s crime. Making them needlessly suffer again and again for wanting to be Jewish. Punishing them for having had the misfortune of encountering a sex predator disguised as a rabbi.

I feel so strongly that we as a community must rally around the converts right now. We must let Freundel’s victims know that they are protected and accepted and that there are people in the Jewish world who want their suffering to end. It is the most basic precept in Judaism. The Torah says 36 times that we must protect the stranger. This is what that is all about. This is what the essence of Torah is about.

I created a petition to try and get the rabbinate to accept the conversions. I realize that it feels like such a little thing — will the rabbinate listen to us? Will they care? Do we have any impact at all? I know, it feels like we are up against this behemoth of religious corruption. And yet, we must do this. At the very least, make this gesture to let the victims know that they are not alone.

Please sign and please share

Elana Sztokman

Elana Maryles Sztokman, PhD, is the author of The War on Women in Israel: A story of religious radicalism and the women fighting for freedom. (Sourcebooks, September 2014) and The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2011) and Co-Author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013).