Allegations an American rabbi had secretly videotaped women in the ritual bath, known as a mikvah, outraged the Orthodox Jewish community. Observant Jews were horrified by the breach of the women's physical privacy and the religion's sacred space.
“It felt like every woman who has ever gone through the mikvah had been personally violated,” Sasha Kesler, a 24-year-old Orthodox woman who lives in Manhattan, said.
The mikvah is a ritual bath where Jewish women (and on occasion, men) immerse themselves in water, in accordance with Talmudic teachings. The practice typically begins ahead of a woman’s wedding and takes place each month seven days after menstruation ends, and after childbirth. It's also used in the conversion process to Judaism. The practice, according to Jewish belief, isn't a physical cleansing so much as a renewal of spiritual purity.
Rabbi Barry Freundel of the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington allegedly recorded women in the ritual bath by using an alarm clock armed with a camera. He's accused of backing up video of six women on his home computers. Since Freundel's arrest Oct. 14 (he pleaded not guilty), other allegations have emerged. He reportedly abused his power with female converts, making them perform clerical work and donate to a tribunal he led, the Washington Post reported.
“The story freaked us all out,” Allison Josephs, an orthodox Jewish woman who runs the popular blog “Jew in the City,” told International Business Times. “Sometimes one bad person can ruin things for the rest of us.”
Josephs said she has never been concerned with safety at her local mikvah. The ritual is expected to be a private matter and steps are taken to guarantee that it is. Women aren't supposed to discuss who they run into in the mikvah waiting room -- not even with their husbands. Women enter the mikvah room one at a time with a female attendant. The woman disrobes and the attendant checks her back, hands and feet for any loose hairs -- there shouldn't be any barrier between the person and the water. When the woman leaves the bath after immersing herself and saying a prayer, the attendant covers her eyes to give the woman privacy.
For many women, the mikvah ritual is already a challenging commandment to follow. “At first it was a struggle,” Kesler, who became an Orthodox Jew in college, said. “I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.”
“I didn’t immediately love this mitzvah [a Talmudic directive] the way I was supposed to.”
In New York City, some women attend mikvah discussion groups where they can voice their concerns and grievances about the practice. Kesler led one of those groups, which she says helped her turn the ritual into a “lifetime mitzvah.” But safety was never an issue.
Rabbi Sara Luria, founder and executive director of ImmerseNYC, a mikvah in New York, said she hopes the community can create guidelines for other mikvah baths to follow.
“It will be a way for women to feel they have some say on how they are treated at mikvah,” Luria said.
But there's no structure yet for implementing and enforcing such guidelines. This is the larger concern the voyeurism allegations have raised -- one that's less about nudity and more about women from the conservative wings of Judaism wanting a louder voice in the community.
“Ultimately this is about the abuse of power,” Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, who heads Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy, told IBTimes. “The change I hope emerges has to address the question of how we structure our communities in a bigger sense.”
One thing that's needed, Fox said, is a structure to help women and converts report misconduct or abuse. For a convert who has few ties within the community, it’s difficult to find out if, say, a rabbi's teaching is considered valid or his behavior is outside the norm.
“How do we encourage women to feel comfortable to report and not destroy someone’s career in the process? It’s all a piece of the issue,” Fox said.
“Some people have a way of asking around,” he said. “But when there is no person to report to or the person may be best friends with the rabbi since they were in rabbinical school together 30 years ago,” the message may never be received.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi based in Evanston, Illinois, said she thinks the accusations will launch a larger discussion about giving Orthodox and Conservative women more power -- both with the mikvah ritual and beyond.
“I think this will have a serious impact on the way mikvaot [plural of mikvah] are run, and I think that's a good thing,” Ruttenberg said. “I suspect women will be given the keys to that particular realm of Jewish life in more places. I hope so, anyway.”