Part 2 of an investigative series by The Jewish Channel.
The rabbi arrested Tuesday on charges of voyeurism was recording women in the ritual bath of his synagogue going back to at least 2012, according to a woman who spoke with law enforcement Wednesday — in a practice that appears to be widespread and particularly focused on candidates for conversion. In a multi-part investigation conducted over more than a year by The Jewish Channel, at least six women told TJC of the process they underwent for conversion training with Rabbi Barry Freundel, pointing to several anomalies in his training methods — including an effort to get them alone in the ritual bath prior to conversion, in a practice they referred to as “practice dunking.”
Until last year the highest-ranking rabbi in the country on the question of who can be considered an Orthodox Jew in America, Freundel maintained a set of practices with converts that sources alternately described as “creepy,” “weird,” “inappropriate,” and, in the words of one rabbi, “treating his candidates for conversion like personal servants” and “an enormous ethical violation” in the words of another. One convert accused Freundel of an attempt at “extortion.”
Freundel was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in Georgetown. Instantly becoming national news, Freundel has been the pulpit rabbi at Kesher Israel, known as the synagogue where prominent D.C. players like Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, and former Senator Joseph Lieberman would attend services.
But Freundel also has played a much larger role in the global Jewish community. Freundel for years chaired the conversion committee of the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in the country, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), where he also designed and oversaw the RCA’s system of 13 regional rabbinical courts for conversion, and was the RCA’s point-person for negotiations with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate toward implementing universal standards for Orthodox Jewish conversion in 2006.
In these positions, Freundel maintained what many rabbis described as “great power” over both the conversion process broadly, and many thousands of individual converts and candidates for conversion specifically.
Part 1 of this investigation, published as a partnership among The Jewish Channel and The Daily Beast, revealed documents that show violations of marital fidelity and kosher laws by Freundel. Part 2 will discuss Freundel’s innovation of “practice dunking” for conversion candidates. Subsequent installments in the series will explore other aspects of Freundel’s conduct, especially as related to congregants.
Among the unusual aspects of Freundel’s conversion routine was his request that many candidates do a “practice dunk” in the ritual bath, or mikvah. Several women told TJC they had worried that this was an episode of sexual exploitation — but only realized in retrospect what was likely to have occurred after Freundel’s Tuesday arrest for voyeurism.
In a typical conversion, a woman enters the ritual bath nude as a process of spiritual cleansing, a process familiar to many Orthodox women who do the same thing every month. A conversion bathing differs in that three rabbis observe the “dunking.” But while a typical conversion maintains a woman’s modesty by keeping the woman outside the rabbis’ field of vision while she enters the ritual bath, with the rabbis typically only seeing the top of the woman’s head, Freundel’s added practice dunks modified this process.
On at least six occasions discussed first-hand with The Jewish Channel and The Daily Beast, Freundel demanded that the women take an earlier, “practice” dunk in the mikvah, without any rabbis present. It’s a situation that left at least two women who would not be named feeling “confused,” and in one case “concerned,” but Freundel insisted that it was necessary.
Emma Shulevitz shared her story with detectives and prosecutors Wednesday morning after realizing that details of her practice dunking were relevant to the criminal investigation. While she was undergoing Freundel’s conversion training in October of 2012, Shulevitz told TJC in a phone call, “Freundel had called me the night before, this was after five months of being in the conversion process with him…he called to say, ‘can you do a practice dunk in the mikvah tomorrow.” Shulevitz described the process that followed, in which when she actually undressed and entered the ritual bath, Freundel “waited in the waiting rooms,” where she thought he could not see her. But prior to that time, while she was dressed, “he went into the bathroom with me.” In the bathroom, Shulevitz saw an alarm clock and “I thought it was a little bit weird to have an alarm clock in the mikvah.” It has been widely reported that law enforcement alleges Freundel used a special alarm clock with a hidden camera to capture images of nude women preparing to enter the ritual bath.
“I put my water bottle for drinking on the counter in front of that clock, and he said, ‘oh, don’t do that, don’t put that on the counter,” Shulevitz said. Having never been to a mikvah before, Shulevitz didn’t know if Freundel’s requests were regular practice. Since then, however, “I’ve been to other mikvahs and no one tells you what you can put where.”
At least five other women have told The Jewish Channel that they were similarly asked to do a practice dunk in the years between 2008 and 2012, and that they complied.
Bethany Mandel said she did a practice dunk while converting in 2011, and that “I know someone who was asked to do two, I know someone who was asked to do none.” Mandel said Freundel explained his reasoning for requiring the practice dunks, that he required them because of an experience with a prior convert, who in nervousness over the dunking process “stood up and turned around, and like full-frontal exposed herself to the rabbis…he wanted to do practice dunks so that people wouldn’t expose themselves on [ritual bath] day.” Two converts who requested anonymity for fear of having their conversions questioned said they had similar experiences. They said that they had little problem with it at the time, because the lack of any rabbi present meant they couldn’t understand how they could be exposed in a sexual manner. That attitude changed for some on Tuesday. “Now that I know there was a camera [in the ritual bath], looking back, I feel like there was something very strange about [Freundel's demand],” one convert said. Her conversion took place in 2012, too.
For Shulevitz, reading press reports about the alarm clock and embedded camera led her to seek out law enforcement to provide her testimony.
An RCA member rabbi who is an expert on conversion said that he had never heard of any rabbi requesting a candidate do practice dunks, and that “every conversion I’m familiar with” has simply involved that one ritual immersion at the end of the conversion process, when a female ritual bath attendant is typically present, and modesty is sought with three rabbis witnessing the process. The rabbi said “if you asked me, not in the context of Barry Freundel, if you asked me if that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t dismiss it completely,” and that he’d endorse any innovations in the conversion process “that could attenuate the nervousness [of a conversion candidate], I would do it.” However, “obviously in context of [Freundel's arrest]” the rabbi said, he’d perhaps evaluate the practice-dunking ritual differently, stressing that he did not yet have enough knowledge of Freundel’s arrest to pass judgment.