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L.A. Rabbis seeking to reassure mikveh users of facilities’ privacy

In the wake of a scandal in which a Washington, D.C., Modern Orthodox rabbi was arrested for allegedly spying on women undressing before immersing in a mikveh connected to his synagogue, Los Angeles-area rabbis are calling the situation a “unique case” and taking steps to put the users of local ritual bathhouses at ease.
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October 23, 2014

In the wake of a scandal in which a Washington, D.C., Modern Orthodox rabbi was arrested for allegedly spying on women undressing before immersing in a mikveh connected to his synagogue, Los Angeles-area rabbis are calling the situation a “unique case” and taking steps to put the users of local ritual bathhouses at ease. In Los Angeles, Rabbi Richard A. Flom, an authority on the mikveh and a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly executive committee, said the mikveh at American Jewish University (AJU) is secure enough that people who use it for conversion, monthly rituals of cleansing, and personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important occasions need not worry about someone illicitly watching them while they undress and immerse themselves in the pool. 

“We don’t want anyone to be turned off from utilizing [the AJU mikveh] or any other mikveh because of these allegations. It’s probably a unique case that this story is about. At least, I hope so,” Flom said during a phone interview on Oct. 15. “We don’t think anything like that could happen here, because we have multiple supervisors here checking everything.” 

Rabbi Barry Freundel, 62, leader of the Modern Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., was arrested on Oct. 14. He has denied allegations, filed a day later, that he video-recorded at least six women showering at his synagogue’s mikveh. Freundel pleaded not guilty to six counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, and was released without bond. Freundel “allegedly placed a hidden camera and recorder … inside … the changing-preparation area,” according to the website Failed Messiah, which reported that the rabbi allegedly hid the recording device inside a digital clock. 

During an emergency meeting convened on Shemini Atzeret, Oct. 15, one day after the rabbi’s arrest, Freundel was quickly suspended by the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), where he had served on the executive committee. “If he is found guilty, this is a terrible, despicable act, and he needs real help,” Rabbi Elazar Muskin, national vice president of the RCA and spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City, told the Journal during a phone interview. 

On Oct. 20, the RCA announced that it would uphold conversions performed by Freundel prior to his arrest, announcing that the Beth Din of America had concluded that the conversions remain “halachically valid” and “prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.” In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate also said on Oct. 21 that it would continue to recognize all past conversions performed by Freundel. 

Kesher Israel Congregation has posted a statement on its website that strongly denounces Freundel’s behavior. “This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the statement from the synagogue’s board of directors reads. 

Flom said mikvaot are a place where women and men willingly undress fully, under the assumption that no one is watching, and he described Freundel’s alleged actions as “unfortunate.” Flom did not want to speak further about Freundel out of respect for lashon harah, Jewish gossip laws. 

Still, he said, “I have to tell you, in all honesty, I suspect there have been questions about this kind of thing for decades in regard to mikvaot. The utilization of it is a private and personal experience, and people are vulnerable when they do it.” 

The mikveh at AJU is one of several in Los Angeles. Others include the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard and Chabad of Brentwood’s mikveh for women. The facilities, generally speaking, serve women following their menstrual periods; male and female converts; and others. 

In the wake of last week’s news-making arrest, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation in L.A., as well as leaders of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, have engaged in talks about delivering a message to the community that would reinforce that the mikveh is a safe space, despite what has taken place on the East Coast. 

Kanefsky, whose congregation includes members who use the mikveh at the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, denounced Freundel’s actions, saying, “This was simply the same kind of abuse of power and surrender to the most base tendencies that we see in religious figures, in political figures, in all kinds of situations.” 

Kanefsky also urged those following the aftermath of Freundel’s arrest to focus less on the rabbi and more on his alleged victims. 

Women comprise the entire staff at the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, a “community mikveh,” and thus does not belong to any synagogue, Vivian Lurie, president of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, said during a phone interview on Oct. 20. 

“We are scheduled to have a meeting this  week with the area rabbis to decide what kind of reassurances we can give to the community,” Lurie said. “We happen to be having a scholar in the field coming in a few weeks, and it will probably be incorporated into the seminars that will be available. 

“The whole concept of using the mikveh is in and of itself a privacy one. That’s why the story is so shocking and undermining. The whole concept is you do this mitzvah completely in privacy and it’s not anybody’s business. That’s why the intrusive nature of this breach is so upsetting,” she said. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, who leads the Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, believes more needs to be done to safeguard the privacy of converts. The rabbi published a blog, headlined “Rabbis, Scandal, Voyeurism — and Protecting Converts to Judaism From Abuse,” Oct. 16 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

“Clearly we are not doing enough to prevent oppression and demonstrate our love towards converts. That needs to change immediately,” Fink wrote. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, spiritual leader of the Pico Shul, a traditional community that draws large numbers of young professionals to its weekly Saturday morning services, denounced Freundel’s alleged actions. The Los Angeles Orthodox rabbi described the mikveh as “a sacred place where women and those entering for conversion should feel very safe and protected. To have that sacred space violated is not just a criminal misdemeanor, it is a crime against Judaism’s most important communal institution.” 

The mikveh is such an important part of Jewish tradition that Jewish law requires a Jewish community to build a mikveh even before it builds a school or a synagogue. “In the eyes of Jewish law, a group of Jewish families living together do not attain the status of a community if they do not have a communal mikveh,” Chabad. org states. 

“The mikveh,” Kanefsky said, “is the lynchpin of marital intimacy within the Orthodox community, and because marital intimacy is sacred and holy, therefore the mikveh is holy.” 

The meeting between Mikvah Society of Los Angeles leaders and several Los Angeles Modern Orthodox rabbis, including Muskin, Kanefsky and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation, was scheduled to take  place on Oct. 22, after this newspaper’s press time.

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