NEW YORK (JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America affirmed that any conversions performed by Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox rabbi in Washington facing charges of voyeurism, are valid.
The RCA, the main modern Orthodox rabbinical association in the United States, issued a statement Monday to assuage the concerns of Orthodox converts to Judaism whose conversion process was overseen by Freundel, who was arrested last week for allegedly installing a hidden camera in the mikvah to spy on women in the shower. The rabbi has pleaded not guilty.
However, it’s not clear that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate will honor Freundel’s conversions. In response to an inquiry from Israel’s daily Haaretz, Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Manor left open the possibility that those conversions might be invalidated.
“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is drafting a policy regarding conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel that will attempt to strike a balance between what is permitted according to Jewish law, on the one hand, and the rights and welfare of the converts, on the other,” Manor said, according to Haaretz.
Freundel has been suspended without pay from his position as rabbi at Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox congregation in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, and from the RCA, where Freundel served on its executive committee.
“The Beth Din of America — under the leadership of Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz — has concluded as a matter of Jewish law that conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel prior to his arrest on October 14, 2014 remain halachically valid and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects,” the RCA said in its statement, which also expressed sympathy with Freundel’s alleged victims and his family.
The RCA also announced that it would appoint a woman to serve as an ombudsman for converts at all the RCA’s rabbinical courts for conversion, known as batei din. The role of the ombudsman will be to field any questions or concerns from conversion candidates who feel uncomfortable raising those issues with the rabbi in charge of their conversion process.
Also, the RCA said it would appoint a commission made up of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals to review RCA conversion processes and suggest safeguards against possible abuse.
“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, told JTA in an interview.
Freundel spied on women in the mikvah at least since 2012, according to documents filed in Washington Superior Court. He allegedly hid a camera in a clock radio and installed it in the shower area of the mikvah.
Freundel was released the day after his arrest with orders to stay away from his synagogue and alleged victims.
In Orthodox Judaism, mikvah ritual baths are used for the purposes of conversion and on a monthly basis by married women at a certain point in their menstrual cycle. Some men also visit the mikvah before Shabbat or holidays.
The RCA said it had fielded one other complaint of inappropriate behavior by Freundel — that he had shared a room with a woman who was not his wife on an overnight train. But those allegations of impropriety could not be substantiated and the matter was dropped.
“The overwhelming majority of our members are people of integrity and honesty who work hard and are trustworthy,” Dratch told JTA. “From time to time we have people who violate the norms, and unfortunately suspicion has cast a very large net over a large number of people. That undermines our ability to represent out community and lead our community and do our job properly.”