The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is reviewing the validity of conversions performed in recent years by Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox American rabbi charged with secretly filming women in his synagogue’s ritual bath, Haaretz has learned.
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“We are appalled by the accusations against Rabbi Barry Freundel and wish to stress that the acts attributed to him are atrocious and strictly against Jewish law,” Ziv Maor, the spokesman of the Chief Rabbinate, said in response to a question from Haaretz.
“We offer our deepest sympathy to any victims. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is 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.”
Freundel, the rabbi of Kesher Israel, a prominent Modern Orthodox congregation in Georgetown, was charged last week with six counts of voyeurism. According to complaints filed against him, the 62-year-old rabbi, who has pleaded not guilty, had been secretly recording female converts showering and immersing themselves in the synagogue’s mikveh since 2012.
Today, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an umbrella organization for the Modern Orthodox movement in the United States, announced that all conversions ever performed by Freundel were valid.
“Today the RCA is able to announce that the Beth Din of America - under the leadership of Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz - has concluded as a matter of Jewish law that conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel prior to his arrest on October 14, 2014 remain halakhically valid and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects,” it said in a statement. “This ruling follows a review of the charges contained in the court documents that have been released to date (including the criminal complaint, search and arrest warrants, and accompanying affidavits) and applicable Jewish law with respect to the status of prior conversions.”
Freundel headed the Washington D.C.-area rabbinical court, and it is estimated that in that capacity he oversaw dozens of conversions since 2012. At least four women he converted have moved to Israel in the past year to marry.
Should the Chief Rabbinate reach the conclusion that conversions performed by Freundel are no longer valid, sources said, the matter would be addressed with the rabbinical court responsible for the Washington D.C. area where the ousted rabbi served. Only those conversions performed during the period when Freundel allegedly had hidden cameras installed in the shower stalls near the synagogue’s mikveh, or ritual bath, would be reviewed, they added, noting that the validity of those performed before was not in question.
In its statement, the Chief Rabbinate defended its procedures for recognizing conversions performed abroad in light of the scandal. “This unfortunate issue does not indicate any fault in the way the Chief Rabbinate of Israel acknowledges conversions performed by rabbis and rabbinical courts abroad,” it said. “ A person allegedly managed to deceive distinguished institutions, such as the RCA and Georgetown University, and he allegedly managed to deceive us, too. This unfortunate situation does not require a revision our recognition procedures.”
The Chief Rabbinate is the final authority on who qualifies as a Jew for purposes of marriage in Israel. The women converted by Freundel who now live in Israel could have their religious status changed if the Chief Rabbinate demands a new ruling and the rabbinical court in America refuses to acquiesce. In theory, if they are no longer considered Jewish, this could invalidate their marriages, since only marriages between members of the same religion – except in isolated cases – are recognized in Israel. It could also affect the religious status of their offspring.
Jurisdiction over conversions has long been a source of tension between religious leaders in Israel and the Diaspora. The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize conversions performed by rabbis affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements abroad for the purpose of marriage in Israel and has even called into question conversions performed by some more progressive Orthodox rabbis in America.
Until a year ago, Freundel had headed the conversion committee of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which formulated policies and standards. After his arrest last week, he was dismissed from his synagogue, and the RCA suspended his membership.
Itim, an organization that helps individuals navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy, reached out this week to four of the women converted by Freundel who now live in the country, hoping to reassure them that the scandal would not affect their status and that it would advocate on their behalf. “The Chief Rabbinate would be strongly advised to allow the RCA and the rabbinical court in America to sort through this issue on their own without looking over their shoulder,” warned Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of Itim. “Issuing a request like this will mean torturing dozens of people.”
Until 2006, Orthodox conversions in the United States were performed within local congregations. After the Chief Rabbinate in Israel refused to recognize some of these conversions, the RCA established 11 regional conversion courts in the United States. All conversions overseen by these RCA-affiliated courts are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. Not all Orthodox conversions in America, though, are handled by these regional courts, and some are still performed by community rabbis.
Today the RCA announced two measures aimed at creating “an avenue for greater comfort and accountability in the conversion process following this most unfortunate episode.” From now on, every one of its rabbinical courts will appoint a woman to serve as an ombudsman and address concerns of female candidates for conversion. “Prospective converts will be assured that their standing in the conversion process will not be compromised by communicating with the ombudsman, and that any such communications will remain confidential to the extent possible,” it said. In addition a special commission, comprised of rabbis and lay people, will be appointed to review the conversion process and “suggest safeguards against possible abuses.”
Last week, as reported in Haaretz, the Interior Ministry delineated for the first time in writing its criteria for approving conversions performed abroad for the purpose of citizenship applications. Under the Law of Return, Jews who are recognized as such by the Interior Ministry are eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel as well as a package of financial benefits. But the definition of a Jew for the purpose of citizenship differs from the definition of a Jew for the purpose of marriage in Israel. For the purpose of citizenship, a Jew is someone with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse. For the purpose of marriage, a Jew is someone with a Jewish mother or someone who has undergone an Orthodox conversion recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
According to the Interior Ministry’s new criteria, converts who apply for citizenship in Israel are required to have participated in nine-month-long conversion courses (or no less than 300 hours in classes), during which time they are active members of “recognized” Jewish communities. A “recognized” Jewish community is defined for this purpose as an established community affiliated with one of the recognized Jewish movements (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.), or alternatively, one recognized as such by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Now that the new criteria have been published, the Interior Ministry is no longer bound by rulings of the Chief Rabbinate concerning which conversions are valid for citizenship purposes.