Forget the Man, Fix the System

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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