10/22/2014

A Memory Jog on R. Barry Freundel, the RCA, and the Rabbanut

Jogging my memory by reviewing the whole history of the Rabbanut-RCA crisis that led to the revamping of the conversion system, I came across something significant (I collected the best posts from that era under the label "best of giyur")

In June 2006, Rabbi Barry Freundel and Rabbi Heshy Billet traveled to Israel on behalf of the RCA to meet and negotiate with the Rabbanut on conversion policy. There were some people close with Rav Elyashiv, notably R. Nachum Eisenstein and his Vaad Haolami Leinyonei Giyur, who wanted to make sure the negotiations failed so that the RCA is not recognized and so that a new initiative, the EJF, would be the address for conversions in the US.

To that end, they whispered some terrible things about Rabbi Freundel in the ears of Rabbanut officials. What is the worst thing they found to say about him, this group of rabbis with an interest in completely ruining Barry Freundel's reputation?

That his shul has a women's prayer group, even against the ruling of his rebbi, R. Hershel Schachter.
There are some important takeaways:
  1. The man was 54 years old and had a squeaky-clean reputation. Not everyone loved him, but nobody had any dirt on him. There was nothing. [UPDATE: It seems that there was some bad behavior at the beginning of the 2000s, maybe earlier; this doesn't detract from the main point - that his reputation was squeaky clean.]
  2. He enjoyed enough respect amongst his colleagues that he was selected to lead the negotiations with the Rabbanut.
  3. The initial reports about bad and bizarre behavior - which certainly pointed to control issues but were not sexual in nature - would have been addressed within the context of a lifetime of exemplary behavior [by reputation if not fact]. I still think that I would have responded to his treatment of prospective converts as cheap or slave labor more harshly and removed him from conversion on that basis, but I understand why colleagues familiar with his reputation would have given him the benefit of the doubt and simply asked him to desist.
  4. I do not claim to know how truly dark is the heart of any man, and I can't claim that I would resist the temptations of power if I had them. The moral of the story - the moral that I will keep coming back to, again and again - is that no person can be entrusted by our community with that much power over over another person.
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