Mikveh Scandal Underscores Need To Regulate Rabbinate

It’s been a rough post-Yom Kippur for Jews in Washington, D.C. What shook me most about the Freundel scandal — our “Water”gate — is how many people said, “I’m shocked but not surprised.” Really?

Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was arrested for voyeurism last week, is an articulate scholar with a reputation as a forceful leader who put down other rabbis and congregations and could be fierce about institutions and practices he did not like. (The allegation is that, making use of a hidden camera, he watched women in his synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath.) A friend who heard the news observed, “Beware the rabbi who protests too much.” If the allegations are true, this was not a crime of intimacy. It was a crime of power. Crimes of power happen when power is unchecked. Another friend said, “The problem is that the rabbinate is still a deregulated industry.”

We tend to look at rabbinic crimes that traumatize congregants and break up families as terrible one-off misdemeanors that have little to do with us and nothing to do with normative behaviors in congregations. They are an aberration, of course, and we should never blame the victims. We can question, however, if we are doing enough to “regulate the industry.” Many synagogues are hesitant to institute real feedback loops, oversight committees and annual performance reviews for rabbis. We often let rabbis transcend professional evaluation until they fail us and fall far below expectation.

Feedback is often given with contract negotiations, but are true measures of accountability put into place? And how often do such negotiations take place? If you have an annual performance review in your job, so should your rabbi. A rabbi is there to serve a congregation — that’s you. You need to let the rabbi know if he or she is doing a good job. If there are any red flags, they must be identified swiftly and without hesitation. One woman in a leadership seminar asked about giving feedback to her rabbi who lacked skills in pastoral care.

“When is your rabbi’s contract up?”

“He has a life contract.”

“My advice: move soon.”

Be wary the board that claims its rabbi has been in place for ages and is, therefore, trustworthy. Most of these scandals happen because a rabbi is a little too comfortable and too secure in position. Anyone with a healthy balance of insecurity and intelligence would rarely take such risks. In the book “Primal Leadership,” Daniel Goleman and his co-authors write that the more senior leaders are, the more feedback they need, and the less feedback they get.

Mary Faulkner in “Supreme Authority,” analyzes the systemic issues that create the conceptual possibility for abuse within the Catholic Church:

1. “Identification of what is working or not working is done by the leaders. People’s experiences are not used to help define reality, which is assessed only from the perspective of those on top…”

2. “What the people need is determined by the leaders.”

3. “Leaders are the only ones who know how to get things done. Regardless of what information the worker might have because of his or her close relationship with the situation, educational background, experience, or just plain intelligence, the leader knows best.”

4.  “Communication is one-way only: from leaders to subordinates. All communication originates at the top and is passed down through the ranks.”

5. “Accountability is one-way: up from people to leaders…”

6. “Opportunity for leadership is reserved for certain types of people, often based on race, gender, or religious affiliation.

To reverse these dangers is to reverse the culture dramatically and offset the balance of power. Needs and problems must be determined in partnership. Mutual accountability must be equally distributed between leaders and congregants. Communication must be two-way. Leadership qualifications must be more open. This won’t stop abuse, but it will make it a lot harder.

Let’s face it, if you wrote a novel about a rabbi who stared at female congregants in the mikveh by using a clock radio that doubled as secret video surveillance, no one would believe you. And no one would buy the book. A few years ago, I wrote a nonfiction book about scandal in the Jewish community following Madoff and the New Jersey sting operation that involved a number of rabbis. No one bought that either. I went to 19 cities on a book tour to talk about the need to strengthen ethics in our organizations and leadership. This past year, the publishing house Jewish Lights sent the stats for “Confronting Scandal.” It sold 33 copies. When it comes to looking at our ugly selves, we’re just not that interested. Yes, it’s been a rough post-Yom Kippur for Jews in D.C. But don’t think it can’t happen where you live.

Some of my best friends are rabbis. They are some of the best people I know. They are suffering. Deep trust has been broken by a colleague of theirs. Let’s help our rabbis by professionalizing their evaluation process and by questioning hierarchical practices that encourage power over humility.

Erica Brown’s “Jew By Voice” column appears in the Back of the Book slot the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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