WASHINGTON (RNS) One year ago, unimaginable news hit a small but distinguished synagogue in the nation’s capital.
Police on Oct. 14, 2014, arrested its rabbi, an esteemed scholar who had led Kesher Israel for 25 years. The charges: voyeurism. Rabbi Barry Freundel had spied on women as they prepared for a holy act: immersion in the mikvah, the ritual bath used by married Jewish women every month, and in conversions to Judaism.
Today, Freundel is serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence in the D.C. jail, where he last month wrote a letter of apology for what he described as his “heinous behavior.”
Kesher’s congregants have grieved for a year — not for him, but for a trust shockingly broken. In that year, they have discovered reserves of strength not so apparent when the strong-willed rabbi was in charge. They have also confronted a series of existential questions about the 115-year-old synagogue they love — not new ones, but questions in starker relief now that Freundel is gone.
“It was a terrible way to feel unburdened by our former rabbi, but we are unburdened,” said Leon Wieseltier, a congregant and contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine. “There was a lot of unhappiness with him before, just as there was a lot of blind faith in him before. It was a difficult, sad but increasingly spirited and thoughtful year.”
Kesher since last October has weathered intense highs and lows, said Elanit Jakabovics, who, at 36, is both the youngest and the first woman president of the Orthodox synagogue. But it became clear, quickly, she said, that it would not only survive but could strengthen itself in the wake of Freundel’s crimes.
For this, many thank the cycle of the Jewish week and year, which does not stop for a scandal.
Police arrested Freundel on a Tuesday, two days before the Jewish holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, celebrating the new cycle of public Torah readings. That Friday, like every Friday, was Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
The timing, as it turned out, “was its own push to get us on that road to healing,” Jakabovics said.
“It was definitely a blessing in disguise where we were forced to be together. We had informal group get-togethers to just talk and just spill our emotions, and cry. There was a lot of crying,” she said. “It was really a very powerful three days.”
Kesher would continue to heal, even as the details of Freundel’s crimes — unknown to the congregation — unfolded in the national and international media. He had hidden a camera to secretly watch women as they undressed. He pushed his non-Jewish students at local universities to try out the mikvah. He refused to leave the rabbinical residence owned by the Georgetown synagogue after he was fired.
Freundel’s wife — the mother of his three children — moved out of the home long before he did, and he soon after granted her a “get,” or religious divorce.
These were distressing, but not faith-shaking, developments for most of the congregation, which is composed of 250 “family units,” some singles, others larger families.
Kesher is a modern Orthodox synagogue, meaning that its members try to closely observe Jewish laws governing almost all aspects of their lives, while working and socializing comfortably in the secular world. Some of its most famous congregants — including Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. — have struck this balance in public view.
Lieberman, for example, observing the prohibition on driving on Shabbat, would walk the three miles from Kesher to the U.S. Capitol to cast an important vote.
Well-educated in their faith, Kesher’s congregants have stepped in for the absent rabbi. They lead services, which are for the most part in ancient Hebrew. When there is a birth or death, they have relied on each other to fulfill Jewish obligations. And though Kesher wants a new rabbi, for many it has felt good to function independent of one.
“It’s as if you are a child and you’ve always listened to a parent and then you go off into the world and you start making decisions on your own,” said congregant Amy Kauffman, who represents Kesher in a group of Georgetown houses of worship that care for the homeless.
“You discover that you are capable of making your own decisions, and sometimes your decisions are better than the decisions that were made for you.”
Outsiders have also helped.
A congregation in Massachusetts, which had recently endured its own rabbinical scandal, footed the bill for a Shabbat dinner, telling Kesher how helpful it had been for its members to enjoy a meal together during the rough times. New York’s Yeshiva University sent scholars to teach at Kesher and covered their honorarium, as did Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox rabbinical school. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a vice president at Yeshiva University, made himself available by phone for counseling and questions on Jewish law. And In July, the synagogue hired Baltimore’s Avidan Milevsky as a part-time interim rabbi.
But as much as Kesher has found its bearings in the year since Freundel’s arrest, it still is not ready to search for his full-time replacement. That process begins next year, with an aim to hire Freundel’s successor in the summer of 2017. The congregation, the board and many — though not all — congregants agree: Kesher has more to find out about itself before it figures out what it wants and needs in a new leader.
The synagogue’s Orthodoxy — about 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox — is not in question. Congregants keep kosher homes, men and women sit separately during spirited services, and almost all can follow the Hebrew without glancing at the English translation in their prayerbooks. But Kesher stands on the liberal side of modern Orthodoxy, with some members open to a female rabbi or female spiritual leader by another name. Then again, some Kesher members — along with most of Orthodox Judaism — reject this idea.
Then there is the question of finances. Despite its fancy Georgetown address, and the famous names among its members, congregants say Kesher is not as well-heeled as its neighborhood may lead people to believe. Last year, just before the High Holidays and Freundel’s arrest, and with the cold weather setting in, Kesher embarked on an emergency campaign to raise $100,000 to replace its 84-year-old building’s defunct heating system.
Cash flow, say congregants, remains a problem.
And what about the next rabbi? How will the new rabbi’s job description differ from Freundel’s? Should Kesher look for someone more pastoral in approach? How open to innovation should the new rabbi be?
All the questions facing Kesher are easier to discuss without Freundel around, said Jakabovics.
“We would be grappling with them regardless, and we grappled with them before,” she said. “But they were grappled with under the surface.
“We can talk about these things openly now.”
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