Change, Pushback In Wake Of Mikvah Scandal


Last Thursday night, a meeting at Drisha Institute, a local program of advanced Jewish textual study for women, attracted an eclectic crowd of 45 community members, clergymen and women rabbinical students. The topic du jour was boundaries on rabbinic authority, and the mood was upbeat.

“There’s been an implosion in our community thanks to one bad egg,” said one attendee, referring to Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox rabbi from Washington, D.C., who allegedly planted video cameras in the local mikvah to watch women bathe in the nude. He asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The scandal has prompted a whirlwind of responses and already led to what some are calling unprecedented changes. The most significant one is a decision by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest council of Orthodox rabbis worldwide, which has established a committee to review its conversion process. It consists of six men and five women whose professions include an attorney, educator, psychotherapist and a Yoetzet Halacha, who advises women on family purity laws. The change represents the largest appointment of women to an RCA committee in the group’s 80-year history, according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a former RCA president and rabbi in Englewood, N.J., who will chair the committee. The group will review the Beit Din of America’s Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS), which Rabbi Freundel played a key role in creating, and will suggest safeguards against possible future abuses.

The establishment of the RCA review committee “has been on books for a long time,” said Rabbi Goldin. “What happened in D.C. just added to the urgency of the matter.”

Despite widespread enthusiasm in the Orthodox community, within the RCA, the appointment of the new committee has already met some resistance. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the RCA and rabbi of largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., resigned as head of the conversion court of Bergen County, N.J. He declined to speak to The Jewish Week, but on his personal blog he expressed concerns that the new committee will “water down the standards” for conversion.

Rabbi Pruzansky asserted that the RCA conversion policies in place for the last several years were working well and accused the Council of bending to media pressure and promoting “the agenda of feminists.”

“The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions for women,” he wrote. He questioned whether there is a role for women in reviewing the conversion process, which he said is a “purely rabbinical role.”

Updating his blog in response to The Jewish Week’s initial online story last Thursday about his resignation, the rabbi was upset that the post misidentified the conversion court from which he stepped down (a correction was posted later the same day) and with a phrase that said he had “shared the company” of Rabbi Freundel on the RCA executive committee. The phrase was not intended to suggest, as Rabbi Pruzansky inferred, that he was “somehow … connected to the alleged malfeasance in D.C.”

(According to their rabbinic colleagues, though, the two rabbis were politically aligned in an unsuccessful challenge to the 2012 RCA slate of officers, calling for the group to resist more open approaches to Orthodoxy. Had Rabbi Freundel’s campaign succeeded he would have been president of the RCA at the time of his arrest.)

In his post, Rabbi Pruzansky compared The Jewish Week and its publisher to Julius Streicher and Der Sturmer, the central vehicle of the Nazi propaganda machine, noting that both “dealt a lot with Jews. Same business, I suppose. That’s bad company to be in.” (See Editorial on page 6.)

Responding to Rabbi Pruzansky’s claim that the previous GPS system was working well,” one female convert called his remarks “bogus.”

“The problem with GPS is that it wasn’t followed,” she said, preferring to remain anonymous in order to protect her privacy. “Rabbi Freundel wrote that code, and he didn’t even follow his own standards. If this scandal taught us anything, it’s that no one is beyond the pale of suspicion. Some healthy mistrust could have done the Jewish community a lot of good in this situation,” she said.

Skylar Bader, a female convert who pens the popular blog “You’re Not Crazy: Becoming Orthodox Without Questioning Your Sanity,” thought Rabbi Pruzansky’s concerns “completely missed the point.”

“The real problem is that the RCA failed to follow-up on the myriad of complaints they received about Freundel” long before his arrest, she said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, agreed that systematic reform is necessary when it comes to standards for conversion. He drafted a call for three rabbis who are there to confirm that the woman fully immersed herself — to stand outside the room and rely on a woman to witness the immersion.

Several Orthodox rabbis told The Jewish Week it is already common practice for them to stand outside the room and be told by the female mikvah attendant when the convert has completed her immersion.

Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky, director of a rabbinical studies program for women in Israel, said in a phone interview conducted in Hebrew that “the idea of a woman immersing in a mikvah before men, even if she is covered from head to toe, is disturbing.”

She noted that she published an article in 2007 in the Akdamot Journal of Jewish Thought advocating for several alternatives to the practice of men being present in the room when a female convert immerses in the mikvah.

In addition to these moves, several institutions are also making changes.

Young Israel of Woodmere, a Modern Orthodox synagogue with 1,000 families, has appointed a committee of male and female health professionals and legal experts to draft a protocol for how to deal with allegations of sexual abuse that may arise.

Yeshivat Maharat, the first American yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy, drafted a teshuva (rabbinic response to a question of Jewish law) this week advocating reform of the practice of three male rabbis being present when a female convert immerses in the mikvah.

And the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), an organization of Orthodox rabbis that serves as a more liberal alternative to the RCA (accepting, female Orthodox clergy as full members, for example), is evaluating its conversion processes with hopes of appointing women to managerial roles.

Though significant strides have been taken to advance women’s roles within the American Orthodox Jewish community, it has yet to train women as full judges who can serve on religious courts. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue and the current chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, a network of Modern Orthodox yeshivot, is taking that next step. Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum College in Jerusalem began instructing its first cohort of women judges (dayanot) in 2012. The rigorous seven-year program will train its first cohort of 14 women to make independent rulings on Jewish law and convene their own all-female religious courts.

“The only historical problem of women serving as judges is the concern that their decisions won’t be accepted in a world where men assume halachic leadership,” he said in a phone interview. “That norm is changing.”

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, feels that the change hastened by Rabbi Freundel’s arrest is “here to stay.”

“People who never would have identified as ‘liberal’ or ‘feminist’ are supporting this,” she said, referring to the RCA’s new involvement of women. “Everyone is in support of giving women a seat at the table, and encouraging women to speak their minds,” she said.

Weiss-Greenberg, who sat with other her fellow community members at Drisha’s open space forum, addressed the group’s frustration and angst with optimism.

“We shouldn’t have needed a scandal to see progress. But, at the end of the day, that’s what we got. There’s been movement, there’s been change. That’s the silver lining.”