Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

How the Arrest of Rabbi Freundel Led to Much-Needed Discussion

Nov. 18, 2014

By Amy Powell

Shortly before Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of voyeurism for allegedly planting cameras in the synagogue’s mikveh areas, HBI’s graduate research associate, Rachel Putterman, highlighted the potential for danger in Fresh Ideas from HBI, "The Beauty and the Horror of the Mikveh."

At the time, some readers criticized Putterman for being extreme or even unrealistic. Looking back, her work was prescient. Shortly after her post appeared, the Freundel abuses came to light. Unlike so many issues in the news cycle, this one stubbornly stays alive for good reason. As Putterman noted in her piece, there is much about mikveh practices that requires close examination and change.

What seems clear in the month since Freundel's Oct. 14 arrest is that this potentially isolated incident is born of a system without the necessary checks and balances. The discussion surrounding this inexcusable breach emboldened women and men to come forward and tell numerous stories revealing abuses of power both in the realm of the mikveh and in the process of conversion. We also see reaction from governing authorities such as batei din and the Rabbinical Council of America.

Here are some articles that best highlight the much-needed discussion that has ensued in the scandal's wake:

  • Ethan Tucker on the core texts anchoring the discussion about mikveh practices and possible pathways forward in The Times of Israel, "Immersion, Dignity, Power, Presence and Gender."

  • Mayyim Hayyim's Executive Director, Carrie Bornstein in The Times of Israel, Breaking the Mikveh Monopoly, on opening the leadership of the mikveh to multiple stakeholder to avoid future scandal.

  • In Mikvah Best Practices, JOFA publishes a list of best practices from around the globe.

At HBI, we have always supported scholarly research and publishing to develop fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender worldwide. For example, Michal Roness has written, in Gender, Religion and Family Law, published in the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, about the process that led to the accreditation of the first cohort of yoatzot halacha or rabbinical law advisers who provide advice to women on how to observe the laws of family purity.

As Rabbi Freundel's case winds through the legal system, there will be more evidence revealed and more discussion. It is our hope that those that hold roles in these sacred spheres will pay close attention.

Amy PowellAmy Powell is HBI’s communications director.