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October 20, 2014 2:50 pm

Lessons to Learn From Rabbi Barry Freundel

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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A mikvah.

The arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, spiritual leader of the Kesher Israel congregation in Washington, DC, is an event which should prompt soul-searching in the Orthodox Jewish community. The accusations, that he installed a video camera in a mikvah, and as The Jewish Channel alleges, that he asked converts to Judaism to do a “practice dunk” in the mikvah are heinous if they are found to be true. Time – and the courts – will determine if indeed he is guilty – although the court of public opinion has already decided.

This story in many ways transcends the specific allegations. Rabbi Freundel for years chaired the conversion committee of the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in the country, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA); and was the RCA’s point-person for negotiations with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate toward implementing universal standards for Orthodox Jewish conversion.

In the simplest of terms, the RCA yields too much power. As Rabbi Avi Weiss indicated some months ago, “.. power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The RCA has “established a system where only a select, relatively few rabbis are permitted to sit on conversion courts, undermining the authority of local community rabbis, and placing unnecessary stumbling blocks before serious potential converts.”

As a former press representative for RCA, and a current board member of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox women’s yeshiva, I believe this unfortunate incident should serve as a wake-up call for all Jews to recognize that changes are necessary to best serve the community. Amongst the changes needed is a move towards a more open form of Orthodoxy – less coercion and more ahavat Israel.

Given the particulars of this situation, perhaps a start can come with a heightened role for orthodox Jewish women leaders.

Women should not be pushed to the back of the bus, literally or physically, as at times the all-male leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) seems to believe.  As The Jewish Channel has reported, Freundel maintained what many rabbis described as “great power” over both the conversion process broadly, and many thousands of individual converts and candidates for conversion specifically. Whether these charges are true or not, how many women – and people will now be turned off to Orthodox Judaism.

Were not Sarah, Miriam, Deborah and other women ordained prophets in the Torah? Since when is leadership or moral authority exclusive to men? Where is it that the word of God says the authority of Torah is exclusive to men?

Within Orthodoxy and those who follow “taharas hamishpacha” (“family purity” laws), does anyone genuinely believe that a male rabbi is a more appropriate person to handle female issues than another female?

There are very complicated halachic rules for woman, and they are very personal.

Perhaps, in fact, even more women would become observant and indeed follow family purity laws if a woman helped them along. If many women prefer to use female gynecologists, there is a clear need as well for women who can provide counsel on halachic matters.

Men alone should not make decisions about what women should do and with whom they should consult about Jewish law. Many women would find it easier to approach a female “maharat” about personal issues than they would a male rabbi.

As I wrote in May 2013, “The RCA shouldn’t ignore the fact that female converts dip NAKED into a mikvah – observed by three rabbis.” In the case of Rabbi Freundel it has now been revealed to have been even worse than anyone could have imagined.

When Rabbi Goldin became head of the organization, he described his main role as “making the RCA more relevant to the Jewish community at large… as opposed to the way we’re often perceived.” He added “part of vibrant Judaism is dealing with change by facing challenges. That makes you relevant. I want the RCA to be relevant to Judaism and Jewry, and we can only do that by facing the world squarely.” The time is past due to call on the RCA to assume that supposed “main role.”

The “moral majority” of American Jewry needs to stand up and demand real changes.

Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur & author – This article solely represents the viewpoint of the author.

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