By Uriel Heilman
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Though it’s been more than a year since Rabbi Barry Freundel was hauled away in handcuffs for installing secret cameras at his synagogue’s mikvah, his crime still casts a shadow over his longtime Orthodox congregation, Kesher Israel.
Three civil lawsuits are pending against Kesher by women who presumably used the ritual bath adjacent to his Washington synagogue and were filmed by the rabbi while undressing (the women are identified as Jane Does in the lawsuits). The congregation, which is struggling financially, has yet to begin a search for Freundel’s permanent replacement. And many congregants are still grappling with a range of complicated feelings related to the betrayal by their rabbinic leader.
“It’s like the person you put on a pedestal urinated on you,” said one longtime congregant who asked not to be named. “I don’t think the effects are done. These effects go through the generations.”
Despite Kesher’s challenges, many community members and leaders say the congregation turned a corner with Freundel’s sentencing in May to 6 1/2 years in prison – 45 days for each of the 52 voyeurism counts.
“There was a tremendous sense of dread before the sentencing – What if he only gets a year? What if he doesn’t get anything?” recalled Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher’s president.
“It seemed like a fair sentencing,” she said. “People were ready to move on, and that helped.”
A few weeks later, the synagogue hired Avidan Milevsky, a clinical psychologist from Baltimore who is also an ordained rabbi, to be its interim, part-time clergyman. He still lives in Baltimore but spends every other Shabbat in Washington and comes twice during the week.
“I was warned by so many people, even on my [trial] weekend there: Don’t do this. It’s so complicated. In so many different areas there were difficulties and pain,” Milevsky told JTA. “But I realized they needed someone really unique who can infuse both the background in rabbinics and in mental health. Sometimes God sends us messages. In some ways it was a bit of a calling. My experiences really coalesced to be able to assist the community.”
Milevsky, who started at Kesher in late July, would not offer any details about what kinds of conversations he has had with congregants still struggling with Freundel’s betrayal. But he said his main strategy has been to listen, give them what they need and try to disentangle Orthodox Judaism from the troubled character of Freundel.
“Highlighting and conveying the beauty of Torah Judaism and completely detaching that from the image of what this former leader engaged in – that’s really a big part of the work,” Milevsky said. “It’s not a specific moment that’s going to create that. It’s not one event or sermon or email. It’s a long, long process. That’s how trauma works.”
Congregant David Barak said people have warmed to Milevsky, who is “very different in tone and substance” from Freundel.
Even before the voyeurism was discovered, Freundel had been a divisive figure. He could be gruff, feuded with other rabbis and was more focused on national issues than his own congregation, critics in the congregation have said.
“People were not happy with him,” Jakabovics said bluntly, noting his vocal opposition to a nearby “partnership minyan,” Rosh Pina, in which women lead some prayers and which drew some Kesher congregants. “That partnership minyan was a splinter from Kesher. He took a very hard line against it, and that caused issues. It pitted friends against friends.”
After Freundel’s arrest, there were women who stopped going to the mikvah, Jakabovics said, and the congregation lost a few members.
But because Kesher regularly experiences extremely high turnover – owing to the area’s high proportion of transient students and young people and the expense of nearby housing – Jakabovics said it’s not clear how many, if any, quit out of principle. (There is no other Orthodox synagogue within walking distance.)
“People experienced a whole host of emotions and went through different crises, but I think it was more a crisis between them and the office of the rabbi, not necessarily about shul,” Jakabovics said. “A lot of people come to shul for the social-communal aspect of it. That was a very big thing that helped us through the last year.”
Alyza Lewin, a trustee of the mikvah and a Kesher congregant, said mikvah attendance has held steady at 30-40 women per month.
Lisette Garcia, a Washington attorney who has been a regular at Kesher since late 2013, said the greatest sign of recovery was a congregational baby boom of five to seven newborns in the space of about two weeks nine months after the Freundel guilty plea in February.
“I look at it as a reward for people who even in the face of this kept ‘taharat hamishpacha,’” Garcia said, referring to mikvah observance. Under the Jewish laws of taharat hamishpacha (Hebrew for “family purity”), married couples abstain from sex during the wife’s period of menstruation and until her immersion in the mikvah.
Overall, congregational membership is up slightly from last year, to 250 from 225, and about 25 percent of current regular synagogue-goers are fresh faces who came after Freundel left, according to Jakabovics. Over the last year, the congregation has mended fences with other Washington institutions with which Freundel feuded, several congregants noted, including the Rosh Pina partnership minyan, the local Chabad, the egalitarian DC Minyan and the “Open Orthodox” Ohev Sholom-National Synagogue seven miles away.
On a visit to Kesher for a Shabbat in late December, the sanctuary pews were filled with young people, and there were two services each on Saturday morning and Friday night. The only hints of the scandal were the absence of Freundel’s photograph from the congregation’s wall of rabbis and an empty chair on the pulpit. With Milevsky off that Shabbat, a congregant delivered the sermon. Kesher calls it the People’s Pulpit.
Kesher isn’t quite ready to hire a new permanent rabbi. Over the next six months, the congregation first must figure out “what we’re looking for, who we are and what we stand for,” Jakabovics said. The plan is to launch a search in the summer and find someone to start by the summer of 2017. (One condition of Milevsky’s contract is that he is ineligible for the permanent position.)
Aside from the emotional baggage, Kesher has a few other challenges. The congregation doesn’t have much cash or moneyed donors, and hundreds of thousands of dollars are needed to renovate the rabbinic residence, which Freundel and his family occupied for 25 years and left in a state of disarray. After Freundel finally vacated the house, it took five or six truckloads to cart out all the junk.
And with the three lawsuits still hovering over the congregation, Kesher can’t rule out the possibility of having to pay a big legal settlement. The National Capital Mikvah, which is also named in the lawsuits, is a separate legal entity that is controlled by its own board of directors.
A few weeks ago, the mikvah held a celebration to mark its 10-year anniversary. Lewin, the mikvah trustee, spoke at the event but didn’t mention the elephant in the room. She talked instead about how the mitzvah of mikvah is an opportunity to put one’s busy life on hold and remember the blessing of family.
The way the Kesher community has come together as a family in the wake of the Freundel event has been a blessing, too, Lewin said.
“The community shared a difficult experience and then emotionally bonded over it,” she said. “Our mikvah, in ways we never could have anticipated, has brought our community much closer together as a family.”
Uriel Heilman is JTA’s senior writer and former managing editor.