Rabbi scandal undermines a sacred space

Rabbi scandal undermines a sacred space

Mikva operators seek to assure women their privacy is protected

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

A door from the men’s mikva leading to the women’s area is now kept locked at all times, according to new protocols at the Essex County Ritualarium.
A door from the men’s mikva leading to the women’s area is now kept locked at all times, according to new protocols at the Essex County Ritualarium.

The mikva, or Jewish ritual bath, is supposed to be a place of utmost sanctity. It is where women go to observe the laws of “family purity,” immersing themselves after a period of separation from their husbands. It is where converts must go to mark their new Jewish identity. It is a place, according to the Boston-based mikva Mayyim Hayyim, where Jews go “to celebrate moments of joy, to heal after times of sorrow or illness, or to commemorate transitions and changes.”

But in the wake of allegations that a Washington, DC, rabbi installed tiny cameras to spy on women using his synagogue’s ritual bath, mikva administrators here and around the country are addressing security issues and/or reassuring women regarding their security. 

“After the news broke, some women in the community were understandably shaken, and we wanted to allay their concerns about our own mikveh as quickly as we could,” wrote Pnina Popack, president, and Cheryl Munk, women’s treasurer, of the Essex County Ritualarium in West Orange, in a note to NJJN

“We took a very proactive approach in West Orange and immediately took steps to ensure the safety of our women and our mikveh,” the e-mail continued. 

These steps, decided upon jointly by the rabbinic advisory staff of the mikva and Munk and Popack, included engaging a security firm to sweep the facility to make sure that there was nothing to compromise women’s feelings of security. 

In addition, they not only had the locks changed but are also now using locks whose keys cannot be copied without proper identification. A letter to the community from the mikva supervisors states that they are now reassessing who will have access to the keys. 

“We will continue to assess on an ongoing basis if any other necessary security measures need be taken. As always, our primary concern is that women feel safe and secure when using the mikveh,” wrote Munk and Popack.

Other area mikvaot, including Mikvah Chana in Livingston, Mikveh Mei Menachem in Rockaway, Mathilda Goldflies Mikvah in Elizabeth, and Mikvah Yisroel of Springfield, did not respond when NJJN reached out to them for comment. 

Earlier this month, Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent Orthodox leader and rabbi at Washington’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the mikva’s shower room. He is accused of having clandestinely filmed women showering and undressing before unconventional “practice dunks” and the monthly immersions that married Orthodox women perform following menstruation. 

Freundel has been charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and suspended without pay from his job. 

The allegations have not only shaken regular users of mikvaot, but those involved in overseeing or undergoing conversions. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, which suspended Freundel’s membership following his Oct. 14 arrest, says it has appointed a committee to review its entire conversion system to determine if and where changes are needed to prevent rabbinic abuse. 

Meanwhile, the head of an Orthodox yeshiva for women is arguing that male rabbis need not be present for a female convert’s ritual immersion.

In Orthodox conversions of women, the male judges are poolside at the mikva, and the woman enters wearing a loose-fitting robe. When she’s ready to disrobe, the judges turn away and a “mikva lady” witnesses the actual immersion. In a Reform conversion, the judges may stay in an anteroom while a mikva attendant witnesses the immersion.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, is preparing a teshuva, or Jewish legal opinion, saying that Jewish law does not require a male rabbi to be in the room of the ritual bath to witness the immersion of a female convert. Fox expects to publish the teshuva within the next week through Yeshivat Maharat, which focuses on training and ordaining women as Orthodox clergy.

Fox said that he and others at Yeshivat Maharat would also push to give highly trained women a greater role in preparing and shepherding women through the conversion process rather than leaving such preparation as the sole province of male rabbis.

“A power hierarchy exists,” Fox told JTA. “Our goal is to shift that hierarchy.”

Mayyim Chayyim, whose founders include Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, is in part an attempt to create a mikva that is not controlled by a single rabbi or congregation. A nonprofit, it has a board of directors, a supervising rabbi, a multidenominational clergy advisory committee, and 160 volunteer “Mikveh Guides” who are trained to facilitate immersions. Men and women are encouraged to take part in its management.

Putting “diffuse leadership into the hands of many, including women, is what will ultimately allow power and ownership to live where it should: in the hands of the individuals using the mikveh themselves,” wrote Carrie Bermant, its executive director, in a recent blog for the Times of Israel

NJJN also contacted a handful of local clergy, whose responses to the allegations against Freundel are summed up succinctly by Cantor Matt Axelrod of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. “To me it seems like an isolated, one-time occurrence — certainly a disturbing incident — but nothing that I think should enter into anyone’s decision to enter a mikva,” he said.

This article includes reporting from JTA.

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