After Voyeurism Scandal, Questions About Orthodox Rabbis' Control of Female Conversions -- David Gottlieb

Barry Freundel, the senior rabbi at Kesher Israel, a Washington, D.C., modern Orthodox synagogue, was fired by his congregation last week, almost two months after his arrest on charges of voyeurism

By David Gottlieb|December 11, 2014

Barry Freundel, the senior rabbi at Kesher Israel, a Washington, D.C., modern Orthodox synagogue, was fired by his congregation last week, almost two months after his arrest on charges of voyeurism. Rabbi Freundel’s arrest caused a fault line to appear in the Orthodox Jewish community—one which extends into the wider Jewish world.

On one side of the rift are those who believe that Freundel was an exception to the rule that rabbis are above reproach, and that even in the rare instances when they are accused of wrongdoing, the charges should be adjudicated by a Beit Din, or Jewish rabbinical court, and not by secular authorities or institutions.

On the other side are those who find him emblematic of a larger problem—tight circles of exclusively male authority that govern virtually every aspect of Orthodox communal life, including female conversions. Adherents of this view also voice the opinion that no authority, religious or otherwise, should be above the law of the land.

Freundel was charged with six counts of voyeurism after he allegedly concealed a camera in a clock radio so that he could videotape women using a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath. The mikveh is used primarily by women, and its access is regulated according to detailed halakhic (Jewish legal) Taharat Mishpachah, or laws of family purity. In the Orthodox community, the masters of these laws, and the guardians of the ritual space of the mikveh, are men.

Women converting to Orthodox Judaism conclude the conversion process with submersion—without clothing—in the mikveh. As a prominent figure in the D.C. Orthodox community, Freundel served on the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and oversaw its protocol and standards for conversions. He thus was positioned to have almost total control of women seeking to convert under his guidance—a control, said several of his charges after he had been arrested, that he appeared to use at his whim and for his personal pleasure.

Freundel’s arrest came at a time when concerns about sexual abuse and official intimidation in the Orthodox community were receiving increasing media coverage. Traditionally, tight-knit Orthodox communities have handled such matters internally, due largely to the halakhic prohibition against mesirah, or turning a Jew over to secular authorities. The Freundel case, however, shone a spotlight on the vulnerability of women undergoing conversion, and on the ability of authority figures to abuse the sacred space of the mikveh.

Women who underwent or were undergoing conversion under Freundel’s direction were uncertain whether the rabbi’s requirements for “practice dunks” in the mikveh prior to conversion, or his remarks about their attractiveness, were beyond the bounds of propriety, and they did not know where to turn. Some who did confide to authority figures or female community members were urged to keep their complaints to themselves.

After the Freundel episode became public, other conversion candidates came forward to complain about the opacity of the conversion process and about the seemingly exclusive control of male rabbis over women seeking to convert (men also convert to Judaism, but Jewish descent traditionally is traced matrilineally, and Orthodox Judaism forbids intermarriage).

Bethany Mandel, who completed her conversion under Freundel’s guidance, penned a “bill of rights for Jewish converts.” Writing for the Times of Israel blog, Ms. Mandel said that the Freundel episode should compel Orthodox communities to treat the women in the process of converting as full-fledged community members, and as individuals in need of guidance and support. Without full standing, Ms. Mandel noted, “We have no safe governing body for individuals to turn to if we feel we have been victimized, manipulated, or lied to by our rabbis. The RCA is not this body.”

Others said that the Freundel episode demonstrated the need for the Orthodox community to give more authority to women. A good start, wrote Chana Henkin, would be to give women the keys to the physical space of the mikveh. Rabbanit (the formal designation sometimes used for a female rabbi) Henkin, founder and dean of the Jerusalem-based Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, wrote:

Mikveh is a holy and private space for the community’s women, and it is a place where not just water runs deep. Consider a space overflowing with the prayers, vulnerability and emotions of women in fertility treatments, women recovered from or in treatment for cancer, women hoping for better in their marriages, less observant women trying out a religious ritual for the first time, victims of domestic or sexual abuse, and women dealing with all the commonplace challenges of life

The mikveh, then, while a space of intense vulnerability, a zone of transition, longing, and recovery, and a ritual step toward sexual intimacy with one’s spouse, is also a space to which male authority figures have always had access. In the wake of Freundel’s arrest, the RCA convened a committee composed of six men and five women, including two converts, to review its conversion processes. The RCA also affirmed that the conversions Freundel had completed remained valid. 

Freundel’s dismissal from his pulpit will conclude a painful public chapter for the Kesher Israel congregation, but the work of protecting the female convert, and of reaffirming the sanctity of the mikveh, is just beginning. 


Aviv, Rachel. “The Outcast,” The New Yorker, November 10, 2014.

Blau, Yosef. “The role of rabbis in combating abuse in the Orthodox community,” Jerusalem Post, November 16, 2014.

Boorstein, Michelle. “Prominent DC rabbi accused of voyeurism presents a disturbing paradox,” Washington Post, November 8, 2014.

Heilman, Uriel. “After Freundel Scandal, Converts in Waiting Complain of Unexpected Obstacles,” Jewish Daily Forward, October 28, 2014.

Henkin, Chana. “Give the mikveh keys to women,” Times of Israel blog, October 19, 2014.

Mandel, Bethany. “A bill of rights for Jewish converts,” Times of Israel blog, October 20, 2014.

Oppenheimer, Mark. “In a Scandal, New Attention to Mikvahs,” New York Times, October 24, 2014.

Rabbinical Council of America, “RCA Announces Committee to Review Conversion Process,” Rabbinical Council of America website, October 29, 2014.

“Rabbi Barry Freundel fired by his D.C. synagogue, Kesher Israel.” JTA: The Global Jewish News Source, December 1, 2014, News Brief.

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Author, David Gottlieb, is a PhD student in the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is also co-founder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, Inc., a philanthropic nonprofit developer of affordable housing and provider of supportive services. His Twitter handle is @dnormang.




David Gottlieb

Author, David Gottlieb, received his PhD in the History of Judaism from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2018. He is a member of the teaching faculty at Spertus Institute and is the author of Second Slayings: The Binding of Isaac and the Formation of Jewish Memory (Gorgias Press, 2019).