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Updated: 1 hour 12 min ago

Converts say Freundel’s abuse of power extended beyond mikvah peeping

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 15:37

Rabbi Barry Freundel. (Towson University)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Rabbi Barry Freundel asked Bethany Mandel to take a “really long shower” before a “practice dunk” in the mikvah prior to her formal conversion to Judaism, the whole request seemed a bit odd, she says.

For one thing, Freundel instructed her to skip the pre-mikvah checklist, which includes things like cleaning out one’s navel, trimming nails, and getting rid of excess hair and skin. For another, she had never heard of practice dunking.

But Mandel eventually bought the rabbi’s explanation: that women performing the ritual for the first time at their actual conversions might in their nervousness and confusion turn around and mistakenly expose themselves to the three rabbis present. Mandel said she, like other women who took practice dunks, actually found the trial run helpful.

But that was before last week when 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 mikvah’s shower room. He is believed to have clandestinely filmed women showering and undressing before their 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.

Looking back, Mandel says, elements of the experience were deeply suspect.

“At first I was like, this was weird, but when he was waiting in the waiting room I thought this is just me being paranoid,” Mandel said. Now, she says, “It makes me ill.”

Peeping was not the only form of abuse that converts said they experienced at Freundel’s hands. The rabbi also demanded that conversion candidates perform clerical duties on his behalf and donate money to the Washington Beit Din, or rabbinical court. These candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.

Many felt they had no recourse but to comply with Freundel’s requests.

“My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself,” said a Maryland resident who converted in 2012 after two years of working with Freundel and spoke with JTA on the condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”

Mandel, too, had no idea when her conversion would be complete. After her practice dunk in October 2010, it took nearly two more years for Freundel to green-light her actual conversion.

“You’d meet with him and he’d at some point arbitrarily decide that you were ready to go to the beit din,” Mandel said. “There was no clear outline or timeline or requirements. I didn’t go to classes or study.”

The peeping Tom revelations, while the most extraordinary of the allegations against Freundel, have helped pull back the curtain on what may be a far more common problem in the Orthodox world: the abuse of prospective converts by the rabbis who convert them. In Freundel’s case, the rabbi allegedly abused his power both for sexual and non-sexual purposes.

The Rabbinical Council of America, which rebuked Freundel two years ago for misusing conversion candidates for clerical work, says it is reviewing its procedures to better safeguard against such exploitation.

For the women whose privacy was violated by Freundel’s alleged actions, the revelations have been shocking — but in retrospect, they said, not out of character with a man many deemed “creepy.”

One female candidate for conversion who declined to be identified for fear that her 2012 conversion could be challenged said Freundel made her ride with him to Towson University near Baltimore, where Freundel taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, to do secretarial work. The woman, who was single at the time, said the rides were uncomfortable and the work was onerous, particularly because she worked nights and needed her days free to catch up on sleep.

But she didn’t dare say no to Freundel because he held the prerogative to declare her ready for conversion.

“When you’re going through conversion, you don’t know the timeline of when you’re going to finish — there’s so much power being wielded over you, and in the interim you’re in limbo,” she said. “You can’t move, you can’t switch jobs to another location, because you have to live in the community where you’re converting. I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible.”

She said Freundel made comments that struck her as strange and inappropriate.

“He made a lot of comments that didn’t sit right for me about my appearance, about how attractive he thought I was, about whether guys were pursuing me, about my clothing,” she recalled. “I found it quite uncomfortable to be around him for long periods of time alone.”

Mandel said her own conversion process was terribly disjointed even though Freundel was part of the committee that established conversion policies and standards for the Rabbinical Council of America. Freundel was also known for being an advocate of opening up certain leadership roles in Orthodoxy to women, such as synagogue presidencies.

The RCA, 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. The organization, which serves as the main rabbinical association for centrist Orthodox rabbis in the United States, also said it would appoint women to serve as ombudsmen for every rabbinical conversion court in the country to “receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, said in an interview that it’s difficult for the RCA to police its members closely.

“Because they are scattered throughout the country, we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight,” he said.

The appointment of female ombudsmen, Dratch said, is meant to address this problem.

“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” he said. “We want to support a healthy conversion process.”

Critics say the RCA is not up to the task, as demonstrated by its failure to identify Freundel’s alleged misdeeds despite at least two prior complaints against him. One was about using prospective converts for clerical tasks and soliciting the beit din donations, as well as maintaining a joint bank account with a conversion candidate. In the other, Freundel was accused of sharing a sleeper compartment on an overnight train with a woman who was not his wife.

The RCA says it appointed a committee to investigate the first complaint and concluded that while the behavior was inappropriate, there was no malicious intent. Dratch says Freundel asked many congregants, not just converts, for clerical help and donations, and the joint checking account was intended to help a prospective convert. Freundel was reprimanded and agreed to stop.

As to the train incident, the RCA says Freundel was confronted and provided a “reasonable explanation,” and there was no evidence of inappropriate behavior, but did not elaborate.

“A delegation was sent to Washington to speak with Freundel,” Dratch recalled. “They came back with a recommendation that didn’t rise to a level where he had to be dismissed.”

Among those tasked by the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America with investigating Freundel were two attorneys who now lead major Jewish organizations: Allen Fagin, now the chief professional at the Orthodox Union, and Eric Goldstein, now CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. Goldstein declined to comment to JTA; a representative for Fagin said he was unavailable for comment.

A rabbinic critic interviewed by JTA said the RCA’s approach to Freundel was “totally incompetent.”

“The organization should have seen a red flag and they didn’t,” said the critic, who declined to be named because he said he did not want to be a distraction. “This is a story of a Jewish institution missing the warning signs because they answer to nobody.”

The critic compared the RCA’s handling of the Freundel allegations to the failure by Yeshiva University to reign in the inappropriate behavior of Rabbi George Finkelstein, a teacher and administrator at Y.U.’s high school for boys who over the course of three decades allegedly wrestled and hugged boys inappropriately, and the failure of the Orthodox Union to put a stop to the abuse of minors by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was exposed by reports in The New York Jewish Week and eventually was convicted in 2002 of two counts of child sexual abuse.

Freundel, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the six charges of misdemeanor voyeurism. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris of the Washington firm Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke L.L.P., did not return a call seeking comment. Freundel’s next court date is Nov. 12.

The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have affirmed that all the conversions Freundel oversaw prior to his arrest remain valid.

Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher Israel’s board president, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the address she delivered to her congregation on Oct. 15, on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a day after Freundel’s arrest, was posted on the synagogue’s website.

“There are no words to describe the shock, devastation, and heartbreak we are all feeling at this moment,” she said. “Our trust has been violated. Mikvah is an intensely sacred, private ritual space. It is also supposed to be a sanctuary — a space of inviolable intimacy and privacy, where we go to cleanse ourselves and reckon with ourselves and our aspirations to a right Jewish life. But these sacred spaces — our shul and our mikvah — have now been tarnished. Our inviolability has been violated. I am a woman; I know it could have been me.”

David Barak, a Kesher Israel congregant and former president of the mikvah, said Freundel long had been a polarizing figure even within the congregation. But Barak, who converted under Freundel in 1998 and teaches a practical Judaism class for converts, was one of Freundel’s defenders.

“Nobody came to me afterward and said hey, the rabbi’s being weird,” Barak said. “But clearly there was a whole world I didn’t see.”

He says the synagogue is handling the scandal well, noting that the Simchat Torah holiday last week was one of the synagogue’s most spirited ever.

“I think the sense at the shul is we were here before the rabbi and we will be here after the rabbi,” Barak said.

Op-Ed: What the Freundel scandal says about Orthodoxy

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 12:05

MODIIN, Israel (JTA) — With the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has been arrested for peeping at the naked bodies of his female congregants through a secret camera in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, many disturbing questions are being raised about the implications of his suspected transgressions: Does it matter that Freundel is an Orthodox rabbi? Is he just a regular (alleged) creepy pervert? Or did his position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?

Did Rabbi Barry Freundel’s position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?

On the one hand, there are some really lovely and good-hearted Orthodox rabbis who have nothing to do with Freundel and abhor the entire story; they do not deserve to be demonized by association. One bad apple — or rabbi, as it may be –  shouldn’t spoil the whole basket. Furthermore, there are sex offenders in pretty much every culture, religion, ethnic group and social class. Violence against women is ubiquitous, unfortunately, so perhaps the particulars of the offender’s social context are not relevant.

On the other hand, one cannot help but notice the multiple layers of power, authority and gender hierarchy involved in this story. After all, the scene of the alleged crimes was a mikvah, where women are naked, exposed and reliant on a system of intricate rules about their bodies that have been determined by men. Jewish women traditionally use the mikvah to immerse — fully nude — following menstruation or during conversion, and in some cases to mark significant life events. The practice of ritual immersion is usually overseen by female attendants, except in the case of Orthodox conversion, when three male rabbis also must be present to give approval.

If the allegations against Freundel are true, they confirm the worst suspicions about the status of women in Orthodoxy: that the all-male rabbinical clubs support their own members in their efforts to control women’s bodies all the time. Freundel, after all, is suspected of using his authority to grab what he wanted from unsuspecting women.

Moreover, Freundel may have targeted female converts — the subset of mikvah-goers who are most at risk of abuse. These very women often do not have enough security in their social position or Jewish knowledge to question the strange demands made by rabbis in the shower room. Thus the scandal raises disturbing questions about the social structures that give men like Freundel unfettered power over Orthodox conversion. (Freudel himself has been extremely active on the conversion issue in recent years, maintaining control of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Conversion Committee and speaking widely as an expert on conversion.)

The award-winning film “A Tale of a Woman and a Robe,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurit Jacobs Yinon, painfully demonstrates how the experiences of female converts in the mikvah violate their most basic dignity. Three male rabbis watch every woman dunk in the water, as she is naked except for a robe or sheet separating her skin from the rabbis’ eyes. Some rabbis interviewed in the film — including the Israeli modern Orthodox rabbis David Stav and Beni Lau — admit that this practice is humiliating for women, but describe their own helplessness in changing the practice.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Freundel took advantage of these women in other ways as well. The rabbi reportedly created his own “rules” for converting women that now seem to be nothing more than a smokescreen to allow him to watch them undress. The women complied because that is how the entire conversion system operates. Women who wish to be Jewish must oblige the rabbis overseeing their conversion. Some female converts who spoke with JTA said they were also asked to perform clerical work for the rabbi without pay.

There are reasons for women to be afraid of the rabbis who sponsor their conversions. Look at how Orthodox rabbis deal with the sex offenders in their midst. Even when men are convicted of crimes, there always seem to be some rabbis who inexplicably rush to the side of the perpetrator.

Rabbi Motti Elon, who was convicted by the Israeli courts of molesting boys in his yeshiva, has been embraced with open arms by many Orthodox communities inviting him to teach. Think about his poor family, cry some rabbis, ignoring the pain of the actual victims.

Similarly, Baruch Lebovits, a cantor who was convicted of some deeply disturbing sexual offenses, was supported continuously by some Orthodox leaders. We have yet to see how American Orthodox rabbis will respond to Freundel’s arrest, but I would bet that the rabbi will yet find some loyal friends among his peers.

So did Orthodoxy make Freundel a sex offender? Not directly. But it enabled him. Orthodoxy creates an awfully comfortable place for men with sexist and misogynistic predilections and is built around a tight posse of men willing to support each other no matter what the crime.

The cultural norms of Orthodoxy systematically empower men and disempower women — and encourage everyone to accept that imbalance as normal. If the Orthodox community wants to truly be a sacred, Torah community, one in which awful sex crimes do not fester, these gender norms and hierarchies must be radically changed.

(Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author of, most recently, “The War on Women in Israel: A story of religious radicalism and the women fighting for freedom,” as well as an educator, researcher and feminist activist. She blogs at JewFem.com.)

Mayor of Rome Accompanying High Schoolers on Trip to Auschwitz

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 12:00

Mayor Ignazio Marino of Rome is in Poland leading city high school students on the annual “Memory Journey” Holocaust education trip to Auschwitz and Krakow.

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Rabbi Freundel Conversions Are Valid, Israeli Chief Rabbinate Says

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 11:55

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate said it will recognize all past conversions performed by Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Washington rabbi charged with voyeurism.

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Israeli Chief Rabbinate: Freundel’s conversions are valid

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 10:40

(JTA) — The Israeli Chief Rabbinate said it will recognize all past conversions performed by Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Washington rabbi charged with voyeurism.

On Tuesday, the Rabbinate clarified that it was joining the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America in affirming the validity of the conversions, a day after the Rabbinate said it would be examining their validity.

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel clarifies that the Rabbi Freundel affair has no effect on the policy of recognizing conversions performed by him in the past,” Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor wrote to JTA in a text message.

Maor also wrote that until further notice, the Rabbinate will not recognize future conversions performed by Freundel.

“I’m pleased to see that the Rabbinate clarified the matter and acted relatively quickly in order to alleviate any further suffering on the part of Rabbi Freundel’s victims,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM Jewish Life Advocacy Center, which pushed the Rabbinate to recognize the conversions.

Rabbis Barry Freundel and Leib Tropper Ensnared in Scandals Tied to Conversions

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 07:00

Disgraced Rabbi Barry Freundel is accused of grave violations of rules regarding conversions. Why didn’t rabbinical authorities impose better oversight after a previous scandal?

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Saying YES to Youth

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 05:00

by Rosanne Selfon

Over 100 years ago, 156 American women representing 5,000 women in 51 sisterhoods gathered to found the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), renamed Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) in 1993. These women united to fortify their Jewish identities, perform mitzvot, and collectively support the Reform movement. One of their first endeavors was to establish a scholarship fund to benefit Hebrew Union College (HUC) students. Not only did the women successfully raise scholarship money, they built the Sisterhood dorm on HUC-Cincinnati’s campus. Their largesse expanded during the Great Depression when they financially rescued the college. To this day, WRJ is HUC’s largest cumulative scholarship donor.

In 1955, NFTS determined that broader support for youth was essential. The women established the YES Fund to underwrite youth activities, educational projects, and special initiatives. The acronym YES became the fund’s familiar name (Y for youth, E for education, S for special projects). Women’s generosity to the YES Fund continues today.

During the last decade of the 20th century, WRJ produced a video to showcase its accomplishments, in which Rabbi Alan Smith, former director of the UAHC (now URJ) Youth Department, comments,

Ask any of the kids what the YES Fund is, and they can immediately tell you—YES means Youth, Education, and Special Projects. The YES Fund makes things happen. Every kid in NFTY knows what the YES Fund is.

Was Rabbi Smith correct? Well, perhaps he exaggerated just a bit.

Why would teenagers know anything about the YES Fund, sisterhood, NFTS or WRJ? NFTYites know their history. They proudly note that NFTY was created due to persistent women. For many years, Jean Wise May, daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, badgered Union leaders, lay and professional, to maintain youth on the Union’s agenda. Her distinguished pedigree often gained her entry into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated Union leadership. May, a member of the first women’s college basketball team, was a proven powerhouse who advocated for women’s suffrage and even women’s ordination. Taking on the Union’s leadership to create a national Reform youth movement became her passion—she simply wore them down!

In 1926, Jean Wise May convinced NFTS leaders to establish a committee to foster an organization of temple-based youth groups; it became a permanent committee a year later and funding followed. The women also understood the necessity of creating leadership-training opportunities. In each instance, funding always followed ideas.

In 1930, NFTS earmarked $5,000 to support the salary of a full-time youth division at the Union. In 1937, the NFTS Board of Directors endorsed the creation of a national youth movement. Never underestimate the power of a single person, let alone thousands of Jewish mothers.

How does the YES Fund enable today’s youth? Most recently, WRJ pledged $75,000 to fund NFTY6 Fellows, an innovative program designed to target sixth graders. After Hurricane Sandy, WRJ provided $10,000 to underwrite attendance at NFTY events for teens affected by the hurricane. Last summer, WRJ granted $5,000 for girls’ scholarships to attend the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in its inaugural year. Youth programs and projects like these are underwritten by the YES Fund donations every year.

How does this affect individual teens and their families? Consider Stacey Kapushy and her daughters Maddie, a senior, and Sammie, a freshman who live in Lancaster, PA, which has a small Jewish population, a strong Reform congregation, a rabbi who passionately advocates for youth, and an engaged sisterhood. Maddie, president of her local temple youth group, has attended Camp Harlam, multiple NFTY events, and EIE High School in Israel. Sammie, new to NFTY this year, has attended Camp Harlam, Six Points Sports Academy, and Six Points Sci-Tech Academy. Both girls have received significant financial support enabling their participation.

“The WRJ Sci-Tech Scholarship allowed me to focus on science, to be with girls who had that same focus, and to find a connection point in our Jewishness,” said Sammie. “This is the place I want to return to, my escape.”

Maddie notes, “Sisterhood provided accessibility to all of my experiences. I wouldn’t have been able to participate without its financial support. Stipends have made a huge difference for my family.”

And what does Mom Stacey, a full-time working, single mom who is currently sisterhood president, say?

Because of the Yes Fund and the generosity of our sisterhood, I am rearing two daughters whose Jewish identity has been intentionally developed. They will grow up to be contributing members of society, strong, confident and morally grounded. They have experienced a tutorial in giving back. I know they will pay it forward when they can. Thank you WRJ and sisterhood for the critical life lessons you have taught my daughters.

Indeed, the YES Fund impacts NFTYites individually as well as collectively. The YES Fund reflects our priorities: women understand that the future of the Jewish people resides in creating a passion for Judaism in young people. In the next hundred years, WRJ pledges to continue what its founding matriarchs initiated, a partnership with our youth to build a dynamic Jewish future.

Rosanne Selfon served as WRJ President from 2005-2009. Most recently, she was WRJ Centennial Chair and is a lifetime member of the WRJ Board of Directors. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees since 1994 and today is Chair of the Camp Harlam Council and Vice-Chair of the NAC, North American Camping and Israel Programs.

Correction: In the September 9th edition of 10 Minutes of Torah, “Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self”, there was an oversight in noting Mitzvah Corps Portland’s partnership with Tivnu: Building Justice. Tivnu offers a gap year program in Portland for young adults interested in a Jewish, hands-on approach to social justice.

Jerusalem Bus Ads Featuring Women in Prayer Shawls Vandalized

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 18:18

Several public buses featuring photos of young women wearing kippot and prayer shawls were vandalized in Jerusalem.

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Israeli Chief Rabbinate Will Review Rabbi Freundel's Conversions

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 18:15

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is reviewing the validity of conversions performed by Rabbi Barry Freundel — despite the U.S. ruling that the ‘peeping’ rabbi’s conversions ‘remain halakhically valid.’

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Jerusalem bus ads featuring young women in prayer shawls vandalized

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 16:53

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Several public buses featuring photos of young women wearing kippot and prayer shawls were vandalized in Jerusalem.

The buses had their tires slashed and ads defaced with spray paint in the haredi Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. Haredi men were responsible for the vandalism, according to reports.

The bus advertisements, launched last week by the Women of the Wall group, feature Israeli girls aged 11 to 14 wearing a prayer shawl and holding a Torah scroll in front of the Western Wall. The ad reads in Hebrew: “Mom, I too want a bat mitzvah at the Kotel.”

Some 50 percent of the Women of the Wall bus advertising has been vandalized since the campaign began a week ago, according to the Cnaan marketing company.

“It is sad to yet again see the ultra-Orthodox citizens take the law into their own hands and use Judaism as an excuse for the use of force, threat and violence against women,” Women of the Wall director Lesley Sachs said in a statement. “We call on ultra-Orthodox leadership to strongly denounce this act of violence and all others.”

From the Archive: Kesher Israel’s murdered rabbi

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 14:40

Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest last week on voyeurism charges wasn’t the first time Washington’s Kesher Israel was ensnared in a sordid crime case.

In 1984, Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz — Freundel’s predecessor in the Orthodox shul — was brutally murdered in his Georgetown home. The Poland-born Rabinowitz, who had served Kesher Israel for 34 years, was found stabbed and bludgeoned in his home.

The crime was never solved. Read JTA’s coverage at the time.

The tragedy and its immediate aftermath was addressed more comprehensively in this article in the Baltimore Jewish Times.

29 projects debut on expanded Slingshot guide highlighting innovation

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 12:59

NEW YORK (JTA) — An alternative Hebrew school program in New York City, a digital repository for Jewish texts and a synagogue-based bakery in Tulsa, Okla., that employs mentally ill adults are among the 29 Jewish groups listed for the first time in the annual Slingshot guide to innovative Jewish projects.

The 2014-15 guide published Monday features 82 of what it touts as North America’s “most innovative” organizations and projects.

This year the list, previously limited to 50 groups, expanded dramatically. In addition, Washington and Midwest editions and a supplement highlighting women’s organizations also were published.

Despite the added slots, Slingshot officials said in a news release, this year’s process for selecting organizations and projects “has been more competitive than ever before, as the total number of applicants has dramatically increased.”

Launched in 2005 by a group of donors in their 20s and 30s, the Slingshot guide evaluates North American Jewish organizations based on “their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector, and their effectiveness at achieving results.”

Leaders of included groups have described the guide as a “stamp of recognition” akin to being listed favorably in a Zagat restaurant guide.

Newly included groups are the Altamont Bakery; Asylum Arts; Beit T’Shuvah: Youth Services; Eshel, Inc.; The iCenter; iEngage-The Engaging Israel Project; Jewish Disaster Response Corps; Jewish Kids Groups; Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington @ Adas Israel; The Jewish Journey Project; Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel
Jewish Student Connection; Jewish World Watch; JScreen; JLens Investor Network; LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture; LE MOOD; Makom; Online Jewish Academy; RespectAbilityUSA; Righteous Conversations Project; Ritualwell; Shabbat Tent; Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC); SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity; SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva; TAMID Investment Group; The Sefaria Project; and TI Fellowship.

The full guide, including supplements, can be downloaded at http://www.slingshotfund.org/order/

Rabbinic Group Knew of Rabbi Barry Freundel Conversion 'Violations' in 2012

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:49

The leading Modern Orthodox rabbinical association says that it knew in 2012 that Rabbi Barry Freundel acted inappropriately in his role overseeing conversions, but that it chose not to bar him from working with converts and did not inform his synagogue.

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RCA affirms validity of Freundel’s past conversions, but not Israeli Rabbinate

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:10

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America affirmed that any conversions performed by Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox rabbi in Washington facing charges of voyeurism, are valid.

The RCA, the main modern Orthodox rabbinical association in the United States, issued a statement Monday to assuage the concerns of Orthodox converts to Judaism whose conversion process was overseen by Freundel, who was arrested last week for allegedly installing a hidden camera in the mikvah to spy on women in the shower. The rabbi has pleaded not guilty.

However, it’s not clear that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate will honor Freundel’s conversions. In response to an inquiry from Israel’s daily Haaretz, Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Manor left open the possibility that those conversions might be invalidated.

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is drafting a policy regarding conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel that will attempt to strike a balance between what is permitted according to Jewish law, on the one hand, and the rights and welfare of the converts, on the other,” Manor said, according to Haaretz.

Freundel has been suspended without pay from his position as rabbi at Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox congregation in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, and from the RCA, where Freundel served on its executive committee.

“The Beth Din of America — under the leadership of Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz — has concluded as a matter of Jewish law that conversions performed by Rabbi Freundel prior to his arrest on October 14, 2014 remain halachically valid and prior converts remain Jewish in all respects,” the RCA said in its statement, which also expressed sympathy with Freundel’s alleged victims and his family.

The RCA also announced that it would appoint a woman to serve as an ombudsman for converts at all the RCA’s rabbinical courts for conversion, known as batei din. The role of the ombudsman will be to field any questions or concerns from conversion candidates who feel uncomfortable raising those issues with the rabbi in charge of their conversion process.

Also, the RCA said it would appoint a commission made up of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals to review RCA conversion processes and suggest safeguards against possible abuse.

“We wanted to create all kinds of opportunities for potential converts to feel safe to share their discomforts and concerns,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, told JTA in an interview.

Freundel spied on women in the mikvah at least since 2012, according to documents filed in Washington Superior Court. He allegedly hid a camera in a clock radio and installed it in the shower area of the mikvah.

Freundel was released the day after his arrest with orders to stay away from his synagogue and alleged victims.

In Orthodox Judaism, mikvah ritual baths are used for the purposes of conversion and on a monthly basis by married women at a certain point in their menstrual cycle. Some men also visit the mikvah before Shabbat or holidays.

The RCA said it had fielded one other complaint of inappropriate behavior by Freundel — that he had shared a room with a woman who was not his wife on an overnight train. But those allegations of impropriety could not be substantiated and the matter was dropped.

“The overwhelming majority of our members are people of integrity and honesty who work hard and are trustworthy,” Dratch told JTA. “From time to time we have people who violate the norms, and unfortunately suspicion has cast a very large net over a large number of people. That undermines our ability to represent out community and lead our community and do our job properly.”

Tale of Two Sermons on Israel

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 06:00

EDITORIAL: The high holidays presented a challenge to rabbis who felt the need to address Israel. Two sermons show the difficulty and possibility involved.

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Anti-Semitic Graffiti Sprayed On Temple Mount

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 12:09

Graffiti equating the Star of David with a swastika was found painted on the Temple Mount.

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Israeli follower of fugitive rabbi drowns in Belgian river

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 12:04

(JTA) — A follower of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, an accused sex offender who fled Israel, drowned in Belgium while swimming in a river near Antwerp.

The body of Nissim Levy, 27, was buried last week in his hometown of Ashkelon, the news website ashqelon.net reported Saturday.

Levy was in Belgium to be near Berland, head of the Shuvu Bonim religious seminary. Last year Berland fled Israel amid allegations that he sexually assaulted at least two female followers, including a minor.

Berland, who is living in a southern suburb of Amsterdam with scores of his supporters, apparently was in the Antwerp area for the weekend.

Israel has requested his extradition from the Netherlands, where Berland was arrested last month at the airport upon his arrival from South Africa. Since fleeing Israel, he has taken up residence in the United States, Switzerland, Morocco and Zimbabwe, often with dozens of followers.

Levy’s body was sent to Israel with help and funding from the Shomre Hadass Jewish community of Antwerp, according to the Hebrew-language Behadrei Haredim news website.

His family also contacted another Jewish community, the haredi Orthodox congregation Machzikei Hadass, for assistance, the website reported, quoting an unnamed member of Shuvu Bonim who claimed that the congregation declined to help.

Rabbi Pinchas Kornfeld of Machzikei Hadass denied the claim, telling JTA, “The deceased’s family asked us for assistance and we offered to cover all expenses for burial in the Benelux, but we also said that we would need a third party to cover the costs attached to sending the body to Israel, which are substantial.”

Rabbi Freundel's Synagogue Responds to His Arrest

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 09:27

The president of Kesher Israel synagogue gave a heartfelt reaction to Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest on voyeurism charges — in a speech that did not mention Freundel by name even once.

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Ex-Gangster Turned Hasidic Rabbi Busted for Impersonating Cop

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 15:01

When Latin Kings gang member Roberto Eddy Santos was released from prison, he assumed the identity of a rabbi — before going on to pose as a police officer.

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Food Truck Pastor

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:01

On neighborhood sidewalks in St. Paul, Minnesota, Rev. Margaret Kelly, a Lutheran pastor, brings meals, prayer services, and a sense of community to the hungry and homeless with a food truck church.

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