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  • Witness: Freundel Innovated “Practice Dunking” To Record Candidates for Conversion

    by Steven I. Weiss

    Arrested Rabbi Created Unique Requirements for Female Converts
    Part 2 of an investigative series by The Jewish Channel.

    The rabbi arrested Tuesday on charges of voyeurism was recording women in the ritual bath of his synagogue going back to at least 2012, according to a woman who spoke with law enforcement Wednesday — in a practice that appears to be widespread and particularly focused on candidates for conversion. In a multi-part investigation conducted over more than a year by The Jewish Channel, at least six women told TJC of the process they underwent for conversion training with Rabbi Barry Freundel, pointing to several anomalies in his training methods — including an effort to get them alone in the ritual bath prior to conversion, in a practice they referred to as “practice dunking.”

    Until last year the highest-ranking rabbi in the country on the question of who can be considered an Orthodox Jew in America, Freundel maintained a set of practices with converts that sources alternately described as “creepy,” “weird,” “inappropriate,” and, in the words of one rabbi, “treating his candidates for conversion like personal servants” and “an enormous ethical violation” in the words of another. One convert accused Freundel of an attempt at “extortion.”

    Freundel was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in Georgetown. Instantly becoming national news, Freundel has been the pulpit rabbi at Kesher Israel, known as the synagogue where prominent D.C. players like Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, and former Senator Joseph Lieberman would attend services.

    But Freundel also has played a much larger role in the global Jewish community. Freundel for years chaired the conversion committee of the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in the country, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), where he also designed and oversaw the RCA’s system of 13 regional rabbinical courts for conversion, and was the RCA’s point-person for negotiations with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate toward implementing universal standards for Orthodox Jewish conversion in 2006. In these positions, 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.

    Part 1 of this investigation, published as a partnership among The Jewish Channel and The Daily Beast, revealed documents that show violations of marital fidelity and kosher laws by Freundel. Part 2 will discuss Freundel’s innovation of “practice dunking” for conversion candidates. Subsequent installments in the series will explore other aspects of Freundel’s conduct, especially as related to congregants.

    Among the unusual aspects of Freundel’s conversion routine was his request that many candidates do a “practice dunk” in the ritual bath, or mikvah. Several women told TJC they had worried that this was an episode of sexual exploitation — but only realized in retrospect what was likely to have occurred after Freundel’s Tuesday arrest for voyeurism.

    In a typical conversion, a woman enters the ritual bath nude as a process of spiritual cleansing, a process familiar to many Orthodox women who do the same thing every month. A conversion bathing differs in that three rabbis observe the “dunking.” But while a typical conversion maintains a woman’s modesty by keeping the woman outside the rabbis’ field of vision while she enters the ritual bath, with the rabbis typically only seeing the top of the woman’s head, Freundel’s added practice dunks modified this process.

    On at least six occasions discussed first-hand with The Jewish Channel, Freundel demanded that the women take an earlier, “practice” dunk in the mikvah, without any rabbis present. It’s a situation that left at least two women who would not be named feeling “confused,” and in one case “concerned,” but Freundel insisted that it was necessary.

    Emma Shulevitz shared her story with detectives and prosecutors Wednesday morning after realizing that details of her practice dunking were relevant to the criminal investigation. While she was undergoing Freundel’s conversion training in October of 2012, Shulevitz told TJC in a phone call, “Freundel had called me the night before, this was after five months of being in the conversion process with him…he called to say, ‘can you do a practice dunk in the mikvah tomorrow.” Shulevitz described the process that followed, in which when she actually undressed and entered the ritual bath, Freundel “waited in the waiting rooms,” where she thought he could not see her. But prior to that time, while she was dressed, “he went into the bathroom with me.” In the bathroom, Shulevitz saw an alarm clock and “I thought it was a little bit weird to have an alarm clock in the mikvah.” It has been widely reported that law enforcement alleges Freundel used a special alarm clock with a hidden camera to capture images of nude women preparing to enter the ritual bath.

    “I put my water bottle for drinking on the counter in front of that clock, and he said, ‘oh, don’t do that, don’t put that on the counter,” Shulevitz said. Having never been to a mikvah before, Shulevitz didn’t know if Freundel’s requests were regular practice. Since then, however, “I’ve been to other mikvahs and no one tells you what you can put where.”

    At least five other women have told The Jewish Channel that they were similarly asked to do a practice dunk in the years between 2008 and 2012, and that they complied.

    Bethany Mandel said she did a practice dunk while converting in 2011, and that “I know someone who was asked to do two, I know someone who was asked to do none.” Mandel said Freundel explained his reasoning for requiring the practice dunks, that he required them because of an experience with a prior convert, who in nervousness over the dunking process “stood up and turned around, and like full-frontal exposed herself to the rabbis…he wanted to do practice dunks so that people wouldn’t expose themselves on [ritual bath] day.” Two converts who requested anonymity for fear of having their conversions questioned said they had similar experiences. They said that they had little problem with it at the time, because the lack of any rabbi present meant they couldn’t understand how they could be exposed in a sexual manner. That attitude changed for some on Tuesday. “Now that I know there was a camera [in the ritual bath], looking back, I feel like there was something very strange about [Freundel's demand],” one convert said. Her conversion took place in 2012, too.

    For Shulevitz, reading press reports about the alarm clock and embedded camera led her to seek out law enforcement to provide her testimony.

    An RCA member rabbi who is an expert on conversion said that he had never heard of any rabbi requesting a candidate do practice dunks, and that “every conversion I’m familiar with” has simply involved that one ritual immersion at the end of the conversion process, when a female ritual bath attendant is typically present, and modesty is sought with three rabbis witnessing the process. The rabbi said “if you asked me, not in the context of Barry Freundel, if you asked me if that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t dismiss it completely,” and that he’d endorse any innovations in the conversion process “that could attenuate the nervousness [of a conversion candidate], I would do it.” However, “obviously in context of [Freundel's arrest]” the rabbi said, he’d perhaps evaluate the practice-dunking ritual differently, stressing that he did not yet have enough knowledge of Freundel’s arrest to pass judgment.

    October 15, 2014 | No Comments »

    Up Close: October 13, 2014

    by TJC Staff
    Play

    This week on Up Close, celebrating the rights to dissent and outspokenness.

    First, one of the figures most known for using First Amendment rights to further justice in the United States is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Public television and radio host Tavis Smiley talks about the last year of King’s life, which is the subject of Smiley’s latest book, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Year.

    Then, what happens when criticism of the American political system comes from those born outside the United States? Carnegie Melon University’s Prof. Andreea Deciu Ritivoi looks are some of the most outspoken foreign critics of the U.S. — and the backlash against them — in her new book, Intimate Strangers: Arendt, Marcuse, Solzhenitsyn, and Said in American Political Discourse.

    Watch the complete episode of Up Close on TJC on-demand on cable in the TJC Original Series/Interviews category. You can also watch highlights from the episode in the video above, or listen to the complete audio of this episode at the top of this post or by subscribing to our weekly audio podcast at http://feeds.feedburner.com/tjcupclose or on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tjcs-up-close/id807702211.

    October 13, 2014 | No Comments »

    Up Close: October 6, 2014

    by TJC Staff
    Play

    This week on Up Close, the surprising ways how much and what we eat can affect our lives beyond our waistlines, and why what we thought we knew about dieting might be all wrong.

    First, the obesity epidemic has impacted American culture in all sorts of ways, but what about when it comes to our romantic relationships? Kaiser Health News reporter Sarah Varney discusses her book XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis is Complicating America’s Love Life.

    Then, when it comes to trying not to get fat, Americans tend to avoid eating fat. But what if that thinking is wrong? This is precisely what journalist Nina Teicholz argues in her book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, explaining her theory that the science behind our thinking on diet and nutrition is deeply flawed.

    Watch the complete episode of Up Close on TJC on-demand on cable in the TJC Original Series/Interviews category. You can also watch highlights from the episode in the video above, or listen to the complete audio of this episode at the top of this post or by subscribing to our weekly audio podcast at http://feeds.feedburner.com/tjcupclose or on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tjcs-up-close/id807702211.

    October 6, 2014 | No Comments »

    Week in Review: October 3, 2014

    by TJC Staff

    Obama and Netanyahu speak at the UN; Christian Niedan takes a trip to the Museum of Metropolitan Art to see artifacts from lands of the Hebrew Bible; Meredith Ganzman makes fish n’ chips with Jewish Broadway actor Aaron Lazar in a preview from the new episode of ROW J; and a peek at Steven I. Weiss’ UP CLOSE interview with Sarah Varney, author of “XL Love: How Obesity is Complicating America‚Äôs Love Life.”

    October 2, 2014 | No Comments »

    Up Close: September 29, 2014

    by TJC Staff
    Play

    This week on Up Close, how economics and finance affect our lives and our country, and how to get more people talking about these numbers.

    If most of us were asked about the major financial scandals of recent years, we’d point to those that led to the economic downturn of 2008 to 2009. But there’s been a boatload of scandal since then, as discussed by Bob Ivry, editor at Bloomberg News, in his book, The Seven Sins of Wall Street.

    But many times the discussion of economic and financial problems leads people’s eyes to glaze over, thinking they can’t understand the numbers in play. Oakland University Professor Barbara Oakley thinks we can learn to do so pretty easily, and explains how in her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science.

    And then finally, an interview from some time ago that sheds light on these matters. Steven I. Weiss geos back-and-forth with Andrew Schiff, a member of a family that has gone to extreme measures to protest the economic structure here in America. He’s a co-author on the re-release of a book his father wrote, How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes.

    Watch the complete episode on TJC on-demand on cable in the TJC Original Series/Interviews category. You can also watch highlights from the episode in the video above, or listen to the complete audio of this episode at the top of this post or by subscribing to our weekly audio podcast at http://feeds.feedburner.com/tjcupclose or on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tjcs-up-close/id807702211.

    September 29, 2014 | No Comments »

    Week in Review: September 26, 2014

    by TJC Staff

    Israel has shot down a Syrian warplane. President Barack Obama holds a conference call with more than 900 American Rabbis. Meredith Ganzman talks to President Obama’s half-brother, who’s also Jewish. Christian Niedan reports on a memorial service for Forward columnist and author Leonard Fein. Steven I Weiss gets “up close” with Andrew Schiff about his book “How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes.”

    September 24, 2014 | No Comments »

    Week in Review: September 26, 2014

    by TJC Staff

    Israel has shot down a Syrian warplane. President Barack Obama holds a conference call with more than 900 American Rabbis. Meredith Ganzman talks to President Obama’s half-brother, who’s also Jewish. Christian Niedan reports on a memorial service for Forward columnist and author Leonard Fein. Steven I Weiss get “up close” with Andrew Schiff about his book “How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes.”

    September 24, 2014 | No Comments »

    Up Close: September 22, 2014

    by TJC Staff
    Play

    This week on Up Close, a look at the real-life hasidic community in New York and a fictionalized account of the Kabbalistic tradition in Israel.

    First, New York Times reporter Joseph Berger shares insight into New York’s hasidic community, gleaned from decades of reporting. His book is The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America.

    Then, author Ruchama King Feuerman on the surprise success of her second novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, and why the facts of life in Jerusalem’s Kabbalistic community can be even stranger than her fiction.

    Watch the complete episode on TJC on-demand on cable in the TJC Original Series/Interviews category. You can also watch highlights from the episode in the video above, or listen to the complete audio of this episode at the top of this post or by subscribing to our weekly audio podcast at http://feeds.feedburner.com/tjcupclose or on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tjcs-up-close/id807702211.

    September 22, 2014 | No Comments »

    Week in Review: September 19, 2014

    by TJC Staff

    Rabbi Michael Broyde — the subject of an award-winning TJC investigation that revealed he had created fake online personas — returns with a new synagogue in Atlanta; Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is the new head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance; Meredith Ganzman gets a look at the tiny Jewish community of Lisbon, Portugal; and a peek at Steven I. Weiss’ Up Close interview with Joseph Berger, author of The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles With America.

    September 19, 2014 | No Comments »

    Broyde-Led Effort Opening New Synagogue in Atlanta

    by Steven I. Weiss

    Rabbi Michael Broyde, who resigned from the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in America in January rather than face an ethical inquiry into his use of fabricated rabbinic identities over nearly two decades, is now leading an effort to launch a rival synagogue to the one he founded two decades ago — just half a block from the synagogue he founded.

    Broyde is one of three rabbis serving as a rabbinic council, or vaad, for a new Orthodox synagogue opening at 2003 Lavista Road in the Atlanta neighborhood of Toco Hills; it is half a block from the new building under construction for the Young Israel of Toco Hills, founded in 1994 with Broyde as its first rabbi.

    Broyde was replaced as rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in 2008, with the congregation electing Rabbi Adam Starr, a fellow graduate of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Broyde maintained an increasingly prominent role on the international Orthodox scene after that time through his published scholarship, his role as an authority on specific matters of Orthodox Jewish law, and by serving as a rabbinical court judge on the largest rabbinical court in the United States, the Beth Din of America. Eighteen months ago he was named one of the top 50 rabbis in America. Broyde is also a law professor at Emory University’s law school, where he is also a senior fellow at the university’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion; Emory’s law school is ranked 19th in the United States by U.S. News & World Report.

    But Broyde resigned his role as a judge on that rabbinical court and faced a significant diminution in his rabbinic reputation when reporting by The Jewish Channel in mid-2013 revealed his use of multiple rabbinic identities to join rival rabbinic groups, obtain access to their internal correspondence, write to scholarly journals touting his own work, and engage in numerous internet discussions. Broyde’s conduct was described by the then-president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, as “extremely disturbing.” TJC’s subsequent reporting found that Broyde had provided false claims of rabbinic ordination for one of his rabbinic identities and that Broyde had many connections with another fabricated character, an 80-year-old scholar named David Keter, who had been used to provide false evidence that would buttress Broyde’s published scholarship. An Emory University investigation into the latter declared, “the Committee did not find evidence to substantiate the allegations that Professor Broyde created the Keter pseudonym,” though TJC’s reporting showed that the university’s investigators did not attempt to contact the man who had the most interaction with Keter, editor of the scholarly journal Tradition, Rabbi Shalom Carmy.

    In the months since, Broyde’s name has occasionally popped up in news reports, finding that Broyde’s biography continued to claim he was a judge on the Beth Din of America. As recently as this past winter, Broyde was still listed as an instructor of rabbinical judge candidates at an institution Broyde founded, the Atlanta Dayanut Institute.

    The new synagogue Broyde is leading, which has been temporarily named the New Toco Shul, is launching without a permanent rabbi, according to an announcement from the synagogue’s president, Yaacov Freedman, a producer at the TV network HLN. Instead, it is being led by a “Rabbinic Vaad” that consists of Broyde and two colleagues who are both rabbis and also affiliated with Emory University. Rabbi Don Seeman is a former assistant rabbi to Broyde and is an associate professor of religion at Emory; according to dozens of sources, Seeman has been a vocal advocate for Broyde within Emory, the Orthodox rabbinate, and the Atlanta Jewish community. Rabbi Shlomo Pill is a PhD candidate in Broyde’s law and religion department at Emory’s law school, and a graduate of Broyde’s rabbinical judge training program.

    The synagogue’s announcement declared that it will apply for membership in the largest Orthodox synagogue membership association, the Orthodox Union, “once a permanent board of directors is elected.” The synagogue’s holiday schedule lists four classes to be taught by Broyde in the coming month, two by Pill, and one by Seeman.

    The synagogue’s interim board includes a staff writer at the local Jewish newspaper, the Atlanta Jewish Times, Suzi Brozman, and local community members Akiva Gimpelevich, Mordechai DeLuca, Ilana Gimpelevich, Jodi Lewis Lipsitz, and Rhondda May.

    The synagogue’s building, a private home, is owned by Miriam and Izahk Abramov, according to Dekalb County property records, and was listed for sale in September of last year for $269,000, according to Zillow.com.

    September 16, 2014 | 17 Comments »

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