The Jewish Week has published a devastating article by Stephanie Doucette, who until quite recently was converting to Judaism under the auspices of Barry Freundel, the Washington D.C. rabbi arrested for voyeurism earlier this month.
If you’re unfamiliar with the details of this disturbing story, here’s a quick rundown: Freundel was the rabbi at a prominent Modern Orthodox congregation called Kesher Israel from 1989 until October 2014, when it emerged that he had hidden a camera in the bathroom of the shul’s mikvah and secretly recorded female congregants before their immersion, a level of predatory creepiness that is off. the. charts. How Freundel started doing this and got away with it for so long is confounding, but also totally banal and predictable: he’s a rabbi in a traditional, Orthodox, male-dominated community, and he was responsible for the spiritual and religious guidance of the community’s most vulnerable—women converting to Judaism. It’s a situation that is ripe for exploitation, as multiple sources point out in this Times of Israel article.
But back to Doucette, who has bravely penned a honest, frank account of her dealings with Freundel. She is one of several prospective converts who was encouraged to a take bogus “practice dunk” in the mikvah before the actual event, and is waiting for find out if she was filmed:
At first, upon hearing of the voyeurism charges, all I felt was anger. Anger that he may have videotaped me. Anger that he may have videotaped countless converts, married women and students. Anger at wondering if he felt joy over knowing how many people he has hurt. How could this have happened? Why did people not take complaints made against him more seriously? Why had people ignored me when I discussed my issues with him?
After a week, my anger gave way to a full depression. I began to find myself obsessing over this, going over every detail of the past year and a half. The only part of my conversion process that I cannot go back to in my mind are those immersions. I remember bits and pieces, but I don’t know if I can ever allow myself to fully remember. How can I, when I know someone may have videotaped and watched me? I have begun to find myself crying at random times throughout the day, whether it be sitting in a Starbucks or picking out dinner at the grocery store. I don’t know how to dress anymore. Even undressing in the privacy of my own bedroom is difficult right now. I can only wonder what other potential victims might be going through.
I urge you to read the full article here—it’s understandably distressing, but it also ends of a note of strength and agency. Doucette has chosen to speak out for her children, and “for future generations,” in a spirit of transparency and openness. “If potential victims like myself don’t speak out then tragedies like this will only continue happen,” she writes. “Sexual abuse is a problem that occurs in every religious group, but it only continues when those communities fail to speak out.”
(Image: Mayyim Hayyim, 2009. Tom Kates)