This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of my conversion to Judaism.
As for so many others, my process of entering into the Orthodox Jewish community was long and arduous. And sadly, like so many others, I became a victim of sexual assault while on the course of my journey. (I mention the assault only because I could not have written this article without reflecting upon that experience.)
My conversion was not a horror story. My attack was not perpetrated by anyone involved in the process. On the contrary, I hold those who assisted in my conversion in the very highest esteem. And to get it out of the way, I am not one of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged victims, though I both studied and worked with him, and painfully, even referred female converts to him.
My personal reflections on the man are beside the point for the moment. My concerns pertain to the integrity of the conversion system in toto: a system in which I have been a participant, a system through which I have guided others, and a system to which I commit my life’s work.
That system is broken.
With the RCA’s formation of a panel to review the current conversion process, we begin the necessary process of examining procedures that have helped numerous candidates, including myself, but failed too many men and women. As one who experienced the vulnerability of conversion, the helplessness of sexual violation, and the satisfaction of guiding others through their journeys to Judaism, I offer some thoughts on how we might want to frame this troubling case.
1) Sexual abuse, including voyeurism, is primarily about power and secondarily about sex.
Accusations of serial abuse during a mysterious initiation ritual make great fodder for news outlets. However, the less titillating, more ubiquitous, and truly urgent problem is the potential for abuses of power by religious courts who perform conversions.
Firstly, If we see Freundel’s alleged voyeurism as a case of power abuse, rather than a case of sexual abuse, we may place it within a long standing pattern of behavior—bullying, threatening, intimidation and self-aggrandizement—some of which was legal, some (perhaps) illegal or unethical, but all of it troubling. In the future, we might be quicker to interrogate a clergy member’s relationship to power and control. We might better train our clergy and laity to identify and interrupt both sexual and non-sexual microagressions. Individuals who habitually cross the bounds of personal space and social propriety are not all sexual offenders, but we must be vigilant.
Secondly, describing Freundel’s alleged transgressions in primarily sexual terms renders the sinner too conveniently “other.” While few among us have been personally accused of sexual misconduct, an uncomfortably large number of us should ask, “What infractions have I committed in my use of power and influence?” and, “When have I turned a blind eye to the abusive behavior of others?” Framing this case as an abuse of power lets fall the barrier between the accused and the accusers, making uncomfortable self-reflection possible.
2) Employ the rhetoric of collective guilt cautiously.
Several articles have made varieties of the “we are all guilty” claim. I sympathize with the sentiment, but urge caution in employing the rhetoric of collective guilt. The last thing any victimized person needs to hear is, “we are all guilty.” For leaders and laity, parsing the issue of blame and responsibility is genuinely nerve-wracking and requires brutal honesty. If overused, the unqualified “we are all guilty” message becomes unhelpful background noise to this difficult meditation.
One of the most terrifying truisms about leadership is that you cannot have guilt in the absence of responsibility and you cannot have responsibility in the absence of power. We can argue about how and why disenfranchisement occurs, but those who are excluded from leadership cannot be blamed to the same extent as those who currently hold authoritative positions. It’s interesting to note how, in this case, the extremes of power and powerlessness in voyeurism correlate with the extremes of power and powerlessness in conversion. These extremes are the crux of the issue. The language we use to describe this case must accurately capture the topography of power. Mapping power dynamics is the first step towards analyzing existing policy and constructing something better in its place.
3) Giving women the “keys to the mikveh” is necessary but not sufficient.
One corollary to the axiom, “power is a prerequisite for guilt” is that putting any person—man or woman—in a position of power unlocks the potential for misuse of that power. It is naïve (and blindly heteronormative) to assume that involving women nullifies the risk of sex scandal or power abuse. Re-framing this incident more broadly will encourage us to seek solutions that go beyond sex and gender.
To be clear: women’s involvement—as permitted by Jewish law– is absolutely necessary. Having women present at the mikveh ceremony, having women formally educate female conversion candidates, or having them serve in the role of ombudspeople are all great suggestions. But, I have two concerns. First, unless women are involved in actually crafting policy, we are paying lip service to their inclusion.
Secondly, plugging women into a broken system won’t fix the system, and I speak here from painful experience. Over the past few years I had the opportunity to shepherd and mentor converts who were working with the Washington, D.C. beit din. Working with Rabbi Freundel, I served as a resource for candidates, teaching them, answering their questions, and facilitating their relationship with the beit din. Sadly, even my direct involvement was not enough to protect the alleged victims.
4) Threats of nullifying existing conversions must end.
A convert pays dearly every time her judges are judged. Why? Because trust—at least, a variety of trust—is elicited in light of shared norms and predicated upon the spoken or unspoken assumption that these norms will remain constant. Once these norms no longer exist, or once they are shown to have never existed, trust is shattered. As a conversion advocate, I chose to work with the RCA rather than with ad hoc batei din largely because I thought their Gerus Protocol and Standards offered the best chance for the candidates broad communal acceptance and minimized the chance that they would be asked to “re-convert.” There is nothing more painful than having to be dragged back underwater because the last time you stood naked in front of judges somehow wasn’t enough.
In my opinion, broad community consensus on matters of personal status serves the best interest of Orthodox converts. In conversions, religious courts act as proxy for the entire community. But when courts become points of contention, their halakhic function and meaning are undercut. I worry that this scandal will completely shatter the consensus built around the essentially helpful Gerus Protocols and Standards. If we are to re-build trust between conversion candidates and the rabbinate, we must find a way to build consensus without consolidating too much power in a small group of rabbinic authorities.
I mark the fifteenth anniversary of my first conversion as a student and teacher of Torah. I am married with two beautiful children. I live in a vibrant Orthodox community. In short, I couldn’t be happier. I have so much more to lose now than I did fifteen years ago. If my conversion were challenged today, I would lose—at least temporarily—my family, my tranquility, my marriage, my identity, and my trust in my community. We are obligated to do everything we can to ensure that no convert ever faces such crippling loss.
We are angry, and we should be. When Freundel was arrested on October 14th, I couldn’t stop watching the story unfold—I’d press refresh on my browser hourly. I’m not at all proud of it, but I felt a deep need to watch Freundel’s downfall from afar, perhaps as payback for the many acts of surreptitious watching he (allegedly) performed. Regardless of the legal outcome, the anger, hurt and distrust sewn by one man will linger…and linger…and linger. The pace of healing is not dictated by the news cycle. But we owe it to converts everywhere to attend to the broken system. It’s time.
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I know that attending the Yeshivat Maharat graduation is the “right thing to do” but it is easy to forget, until I am there, how incredibly important it is to my own spirituality and notions of what Orthodoxy can be. This past Sunday was Yeshivat Maharat’s second graduation and as Rabbi Avi Weiss noted, seconds are pretty big in the Torah, i.e. Noah, Yitzchak, etc. Seconds validate that firsts are not a flash in the pan.
Sunday was that kind of big day. There will soon be five practicing, Orthodox, female clergy who have been ordained by Yeshivat Maharat. They will be working in synagogues in Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Montreal and on the West Coast. This year’s incoming class of seven students is the largest class so far. What strikes me each time I see them is: how natural, warm, wholesome, and unmotivated by ego they are. It just seems so right.
For me, the highlight came when Rabbi Daniel Sperber, unable to contain himself, talked about the “generic criticism” that innovations in leadership and ritual in Orthodoxy have been getting. As he noted, the traditional role of halakha was to solve problems that arose. Halakha was never meant to be static or petrified as people now demand. Hence the root—halekh—to go, to move forward—makes that abundantly clear and yet is so distant from where we are today.
For those who weren’t at the graduation, I suggest that you watch it online—it should give you renewed hope in the vitality of Orthodoxy. For those who were there, and some who were not, I look forward to seeing you next year for the “Chazakah graduation,” the third graduation.
Mazal tov Maharats Rori and Victoria, Rabba Sara and team. May you go m’chayil l’chayil, from strength to strength! We need you!
It is funny to celebrate the 120th anniversary of our synagogue when Judaism tells us that 120 years should mark the completion of a lifetime. Yet, at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, as we embark upon the celebration of our 120th year, we are not only far from completion, but rather, find ourselves at the cutting edge of issues facing women and Judaism.
It surprises people to learn that a 120-year-old synagogue in the Midwest is on the forefront of Orthodox feminism.
Bais Abraham Congregation hosted one of the first women’s tefillah (prayer) groups in the country, a group that still continues to this day, nearly forty years later. The tefillah (prayer) group has been a venue for countless Bat Mitzvahs across the community – including welcoming young women who were not permitted to speak from the bimah (stage) in their own synagogues. Moreover, for as long as I can remember, Bat Mitzvah girls have been invited to give the sermon before the entire congregation.
Many of the programs that we organize at “Bais Abe,” as we affectionately call our synagogue, integrate women into the community in innovative and comprehensive ways. In 2010, when a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis decided to scribe a Megillat Esther, it was Bais Abe’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner who encouraged the women to pursue the project. He created a series of classes to teach the women the halakhot (Jewish laws) of writing megillot and served as a rabbinic advisor and champion throughout the process. In 2013, Bais Abe took on the cause of agunot at its major fundraising event. From that campaign emerged a community-wide post-nup signing event, spearheaded by Bais Abe and co-sponsored by all the Modern Orthodox congregations in St. Louis. Nearly forty couples signed the RCA post-nup agreement, raising awareness of the plight of agunot. The national publicity from this event created a spark and we now see dozens of other synagogues planning similar events.
I was proud to serve as president of Bais Abe (2010-2012), the first female president of an Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis, and possibly even across the Midwest. Most striking to me about the experience is that the election was not seen as part of a feminist agenda or viewed as controversial; it was simply finding the right person for the job, and at the time, the right person was female.
Even more revolutionary is that our little synagogue in St. Louis – we boast less than one hundred families as members – is one of only a handful across the globe that has hired a woman to join its Orthodox clergy team. In 2013 we hired Rori Picker Neiss, soon to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, to serve as our Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement, a clergy-level position. Rori delivers drashot (sermons) from the pulpit, teaches in the religious schools, answers questions on halakhic (Jewish legal) matters, and offers pastoral counsel. She is changing the face of Orthodox Judaism in St. Louis.
Bais Abe has been a partner with JOFA on many programs over the years. The next time you find yourself in the Midwest, please come and visit. You will find yourself right at home at Bais Abe!