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D.C. Voyeurism Case Stirs Debate About Religious Conversion

The religious Jewish world has been rocked by a scandal at an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. in which the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Georgetown–where former Sen. Joe Lieberman and current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew both pray–has been arrested and charged with voyeurism. Rabbi Barry Freundel is accused of placing video recording devices in the women’s mikvah, or ritual bath, a gross abuse of privacy and faith.

It is difficult to understate just how grotesque a violation of trust Freundel’s alleged crimes represent. While religious Jews of both sexes may use the mikvah at various times, for both male and female converts the act of full immersion in a bath filled with natural water is a crucial ritual of transition. It is completely abhorrent to think that someone would take advantage of the most vulnerable and precious new members of the community.

I have been to Kesher Israel on a number of occasions. It is a bustling, exciting place–not least because of the political celebrities who wander through its doors. It seems particularly important to the project of modern Orthodoxy, attracting young professionals and intellectuals, particularly those interested in government service. It has also been, perhaps, a rare symbol of the coexistence of political left-liberalism and religious tradition.

One can imagine the devastation felt by members of that synagogue, particularly those who approached Rabbi Freundel for conversion. Unfortunately–and, perhaps, inevitably–the allegations against the rabbi have opened up a broader debate about Orthodox Jewish conversion in general. 

My friend Bethany Shondark Mandel–one of Freundel’s victims–has written that many converts feel ostracized. I think her generalizations go too far.

Speaking from the experience of my own family, I can say that our experience has been quite the opposite, and we know many others–especially through Chabad–who have had very positive, meaningful conversions, whose value is enduring. 

 I do not think the rules of conversion–which require the community to provide the support Mandel said she lacked–need changing. Rather, they need enforcement by people of integrity and empathy.

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