JERUSALEM (RNS) A major crisis between American and Israeli rabbis was averted Tuesday (Oct. 21) when Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it will not question the validity of conversions performed under the auspices of a modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington who was arrested on charges of spying on women in his synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath.
Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood faces six misdemeanor charges of voyeurism after a hidden camera was found hidden in a digital clock radio in his synagogue’s mikvah. Freundel, 62, also chaired the conversions committee for the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America.
Because Jewish law, or halakhah, requires witnesses to conversions to be above reproach, some have questioned whether the conversions Freundel oversaw were illegitimate. On Tuesday, the Chief Rabbinate — the sole arbiter of Jewish law in Israel — said no: They are legitimate.
Ziv Maor, spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, said that “after a thorough review of the halakhah, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel now announces that all past conversions of Rabbi Freundel will not be affected by recent events. The converts are acknowledged as Jews.”
The decision was a clear reversal from just a day before, when Maor told the newspaper Haaretz that the rabbinate was “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.”
According to a source familiar with the rabbinate’s deliberations, the rabbinate backtracked after deciding that the misdeeds of one of the three rabbis needed to convert someone to Judaism was insufficient grounds to invalidate a conversion.
The chief rabbis “also had to take into consideration that the rabbis in the Rabbinical Court of America are some of the leading Jewish law authorities” in the world, said the source, who requested anonymity in order to speak about confidential discussions. “And they clearly took into account the position of the converts.”
Had the rabbinate actually drafted the policy, it would have put Israel’s religious establishment on a collision course with both the RCA and Beit Din of America, the leading modern Orthodox rabbinical bodies in the U.S., which on Monday declared Freundel’s converts kosher.
After convening an emergency meeting Sunday, the RCA said conversions performed by Freundel prior to his Oct. 14 arrest “remain (legally) valid,” and that “prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.”
The Israeli and American rabbis have waged many turf battles since the ever-stricter rabbinate’s decision nearly a decade ago to no longer automatically recognize the conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis outside Israel.
News of Freundel’s alleged crimes sent shock waves through the American Jewish community and sparked outrage that a rabbi would spy in a mikvah, a place where women ritually purify themselves after their menstrual cycles, childbirth and other life cycle events. Some men use the mikvah prior to the Sabbath and holidays.
Prospective converts, both male and female, must immerse in the mikvah as the final step in their conversion, a process that requires at least a year of intensive study and adherence to Judaism’s commandments.
Freundel reportedly targeted prospective female converts, who could not become Jewish without his authorization.
“He used his power against the most vulnerable women in the most sacred of spaces,” said Elana Sztokman, a Jerusalem-based author and feminist activist. “If the charges are confirmed he used these women as sex toys while they depended on him for their Jewish and communal identity.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an Israeli organization that helps people, including converts, fight for recognition of their Judaism from the Chief Rabbinate, said he had spent much of Tuesday lobbying the rabbis not to question Freundel’s conversions.
“After years of attempting to convince the Rabbinate to appreciate the vulnerability of those who have gone through Orthodox conversions, it is gratifying to see their recognition of the right of Diaspora rabbis to determine personal status for people in their communities,” he said.
Speaking from New York, Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, said “the strong relationship” his organization has with the Chief Rabbinate helped to clarify the converts’ status.
“We are very pleased the state of uncertainty and anxiety felt by many converts can now be laid to rest,” he said.