Barry Freundel was sentenced this past Friday, May 15, 2015 to 6 1/2 years incarceration for 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism. His victims were women who had come to him to convert to Judaism and had trusted in him, only to have that trust violated in an incredibly egregious fashion. I empathize with them as a convert and as a survivor of sexual assault, with both identities quite interwoven.
I underwent a conversion through the Conservative movement seven years ago. My experiences in that movement have been very positive. However, I did attempt, and quit, an Orthodox one with the Rabbinical Council of America a few years ago, after concerns about my standing with the Chief Rabbinate. Some of my experiences with the beit din were very abusive and counter everything that we as Jews are told about how to treat the convert, let alone people in general. And, I have learned from multiple individuals that my experiences were not at all unique. When I heard about what happened to the conversion candidates of Freundel, I wasn’t shocked.
After about a year of study, I had a meeting with the beit din, with my rabbi present. I was told that I needed to brush up some on brachot and kashrut. Otherwise, I was told, I was doing well. I studied, and we met again several months later, this time without my rabbi present.
The meeting this time had a vibe to it that was uneasy. I managed to answer every question about brachot and kashrut perfectly. Then, one of the rabbis started rocking back and forth in his chair. I sensed that something was wrong. The av asked me to leave the room. When I was called back in, the rabbi who had been rocking back and forth asked me point blank, “Have you ever thought about engaging in an alternative lifestyle?” All I could do was yelp out “What??”
What proceeded to happen after that was like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. I was drilled with questions on my sexual history and identity, whether or not I had gay friends, what my views on different sexual issues are, and other things that were extremely invasive and inappropriate.
Like some of Freundel’s victims, I am a survivor of sexual assault. This trauma led me to be very confused and ashamed about my sexuality later on. This battery of questioning left me feeling traumatized all over again. I felt pushed to say things that nobody has any business hearing unless they’re my therapist or a very close friend or lover.
None of what happened on that day is required on the official curriculum for conversion with the Rabbinical Council of America. Still, many other candidates who dealt with the RCA have told me that they underwent similar questioning, and a blogger has written about undergoing it as well. The members of a beit din will lead candidates into thinking that they have signed away all rights to say “no” to this because the key to their happiness lies in the beit din’s hands. Rabbis can be no better, as we now see. One of Freundel’s victims explained when talking about the sick things she was ordered to do:
“[I]magine … that this one man stands between you and your true self? You would do almost anything to win his approval. And he is world-renowned, and trusted, and has been part of the community forever, so when he says you should practice for the day that you are waiting for, you do it.”
I kept saying over and over out loud when this and similar “requests” were made of me that I had nothing to hide. Today, in my right mind, I would never let anyone treat me that way.
I’m not surprised that some of Freundel’s victims testified that they now suffer from depression and drug abuse. I had recurring nightmares while I was still attempting that conversion, starting after that one horrible day. The nightmares stopped as soon as I walked away.
Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.
Header image courtesy of Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post.