Roy Moore Reminds Me of My Rabbi
By Bethany Mandel
New York Times
November 15, 2017
|Rabbi Barry Freundel leaving a Washington courthouse in 2015 after pleading guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism. |
In 2014, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Barry Freundel led the congregation of his Washington synagogue in pursuit of humble repentance before God. Ten days later, he was arrested and charged with dozens of counts of voyeurism. Ultimately, the rabbi was accused of having surreptitiously videotaped more than 150 women on hidden cameras in the bathroom of the mikvah, the ritual bath.
I was one of them.
That bath, adjacent to the synagogue, was where I immersed myself upon completing my conversion to Orthodox Judaism in 2010. It turned out that this clergyman I trusted had set up a camera inside a clock radio that taped me and other women as we undressed. His fall became one of the biggest stories in the Jewish world that year.
In the past few days, in the wake of the accusations that Roy Moore, the ostentatiously religious Republican running for Senate in Alabama, sexually assaulted teenage girls, the case of Barry Freundel is all I can think about.
There is something particularly insidious about being victimized by a man who claims to be righteous. When someone like Barry Freundel violates you, you aren’t just robbed of your dignity and your safety. You are also robbed of your faith and, very often, of your religious community, which can view you as the real betrayer of the faith for speaking out.
At least that’s what happened to me.
When I was introduced to Rabbi Freundel in 2009, I was 23 and eager to become officially Jewish. He was one of the most prominent modern Orthodox rabbis in the country, in large part because he had settled a turf war between the Israeli rabbinate and diaspora authorities over the validity of American conversions. He was the gatekeeper for conversions nationally and had a monopoly on conversions in Washington.
One morning several years after my conversion had been completed, a friend emailed with a short news item that my rabbi — whose name was still on my holiday card list — had been arrested. In an instant, all of the strangest moments of my conversion experience made sense.
I was one of only four women to come forward and tell their stories, and because of my public role as a writer, I became his most well-known victim. I drove from my home in New Jersey with my toddler and newborn to speak at his sentencing hearing in 2015 in Washington, where he was sent to more than six years in prison.
It’s hard to describe the depth of my feeling of betrayal. As a convert, I wasn’t just another student of Rabbi Freundel. My faith and practice — my Judaism — was shaped by his words, deeds and thought. For those of us victimized by trusted religious leaders, every day is a struggle to disentangle our negative associations of beautiful rituals from the ugly abusers who taught us about their meaning.
An Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Freundel was fixated on the minutiae of Jewish law. He drilled his converts in the proper blessings to say over a banana or a pretzel, and the order in which they should be recited should we happen to eat both at the same meal. This kind of knowledge was the bedrock of my conversion experience. But how could I continue to make myself care about such details when it became clear that the man who taught them to me valued knowing the blessing for a specific food group over behaving like a decent human being?
Despite having grown up as a Jew (my father was Jewish, but according to Orthodox law only the children of Jewish mothers are Jewish), there were many aspects of observant Jewish life that were new to me until the year I spent converting. The foundation of so much of my religious practice is inextricably tied to that period of my life, and thus, to Rabbi Freundel. I have not been to services in years because the tunes sung on Shabbat remind me so much of him.
Every public victim of a famous sexual predator must endure uncomfortable conversations with strangers and, thanks to the internet, never knowing if the person you’ve just met already knows your story. But when you accuse a religious figure, there’s a whole other kind of discomfort, one that comes from the friends, family members and other religious leaders who consider speaking out about a religious crime as airing dirty laundry for the entire world to see.
While Rabbi Freundel had few defenders in the Jewish community after his fall, there were plenty of people — fellow rabbis included — who very quickly made light of him, made him into a punch line, in the process minimizing his crime. Others thought his prison sentence was overkill — after all, we hadn’t been physically assaulted.
A significant number of friends, relatives and religious leaders have never once mentioned the case to me, despite my role as its most public victim. Orthodox Jews already face an uphill battle in the modern world, they say, and drawing attention to these sordid stories makes that hill that much steeper. These people also prefer not acknowledging what happened to me and so many other women because it’s more comfortable to pretend it never happened.
I too once felt that way. I preferred not to see the abuses in the community I had voluntarily joined as an adult because witnessing my community’s willful blindness to those abuses could send me over the edge. Being the victim of a sexual crime stripped me of that luxury.
In a strange way, having the crime committed against me captured on tape was a blessing: Prosecutors noted that Rabbi Freundel could clearly be seen setting up the camera and taking it down. Nobody could attach the qualifier “if true” to my charges. The evidence unearthed by the police was irrefutable.
For Roy Moore’s accusers, who say they were preyed upon 40 years ago when they were 14 to 18 years old, hard evidence like this does not exist, and so they face the pain not only of coming forward, but also of being disbelieved and disparaged. Mr. Moore says he doesn’t even know Beverly Young Nelson, who accused him on Monday of assaulting her when she was 16, never mind the fact that it appears he signed her yearbook.
In the meantime, Mr. Moore’s wife has posted a letter signed by 50 pastors, written during the primary season. (Though some of those pastors are saying that they do not, in fact, support Mr. Moore.) “We are ready to join the fight and send a bold message to Washington: dishonesty, fear of man and immorality are an affront to our convictions and our Savior and we won’t put up with it any longer,” the letter says. “We urge you to join us at the polls to cast your vote for Roy Moore.”
For these believers, losing Mr. Moore means losing an outspoken voice for traditional Christian values. He rose to prominence in the evangelical world for giving up his bench as a judge not once, but twice, for placing his religious beliefs ahead of his judicial duties. Last month The Washington Post reported on a poem Mr. Moore recited at a rally at a Baptist Church: “You think that God’s not angry that this land is a moral slum? How much longer will it be before his judgment comes?”
His defenders argue that not voting for Mr. Moore, and therefore losing a Republican Senate seat and possibly control of the Senate, could lead to worse outcomes for Christians than simply holding their noses and electing him to office.
They could not be more mistaken. The damage that will be done to the Republican brand and those Christians who watch their religious leaders stand by Mr. Moore will be irreversible. If he wins, the Republicans may have a reliably conservative vote in the Senate, but one thing is guaranteed: Religious leaders who defend him risk their flock being infected with the same disenchantment I was after the arrest of my rabbi.
Religious leaders often fret that such creeping faithlessness puts society at risk more than any political ideology. As a prominent evangelical put it in a 2006 Washington Times column: “Our peace and happiness as well as our prosperity depend not on any political party or any great leader, but rather upon our return as a nation to faith in Almighty God.”
It’s a lovely message, but one that’s too often discredited by its messengers. The man who wrote that column? Roy Moore.