Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, received an urgent phone call this week from a young woman in his community.
“She told me her mikvah day had arrived, but she couldn’t go because she was ‘nauseous,’” said Rabbi Schonfeld, who spent significant time calming her fears. Her response was provoked by what happened in Washington D.C, he said.
Rabbi Schonfeld was referring to the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel on Oct. 14. He is facing six charges of voyeurism after allegedly planting recording devices in the local mikvah.
“Now, some of my congregants are terrified to go to mikvah,” said Rabbi Schonfeld. “They’re taking this scandal personally.”
Rabbi Schonfeld will be meeting this week with the Queens Board of Rabbis (Vaad Rabbanim) to coordinate a community-wide response. Possibilities on the table include security sweeps of the local mikvahs and placing more women in control of the “whole mikvah process,” he said.
Rabbi Schonfeld not the only community leader responding proactively.
Rabbi Steven Exler, associate rabbi of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, told his congregants about increased security procedures at the mikvah after the Torah reading this past Shabbat.
“I referenced when one of Noah’s son’s saw his father naked, and it was considered a shameful, humiliating act,” said Rabbi Exler. “I used that as a springboard to speak about the humiliating activity we’ve seen in our own community, and how we’ve amped up security accordingly.” A full walk-through sweep of the community mikvah was conducted, and a “spot-check” procedure, where the mikvah is checked randomly for recording devices, has been instituted, he said.
The West Side Mikvah Committee sent out a letter to all congregants, assuring them that “men are never alone in the mikvah” and if ever there are workers or other males on the premises, “they are always supervised.” The notice also reiterated security procedures in place to monitor the mikvah’s entrance at all times.
The Teaneck Mikvah Association sent out a similar notice, informing congregants that an independent security firm was hired to “conduct a sweep of our facilities.” In addition, a staff or board member will accompany men who come to service or inspect the Mikvah facilities.
“Our key system is electronic and records the time and identity of all individuals who enter the building, and these records can be and are reviewed,” wrote Miriam Greenspan, president of the association.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, said that while he personally thinks what happened in D.C. is an “extreme anomaly,” everything that makes women feel secure needs to be done.
“While objectively there is no reason to be concerned about local mikvaot, the feeling and fears woman are dealing with now are real,” he said. “Making women feel comfortable again is our first line of business.”
A source close to the haredi community, who asked for anonymity because members of the haredi world are often thought to be overly critical of the Centrist or Modern Orthodox world, called the incident “a sui generis happening.”
“I think that the case is so bizarre that most rabbis and administrators of mikvaot (and they are usually more than one person, unlike the case in the D.C. mikvah) would not see a need for any changes in their duties,” he said via email.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior rabbi at the Conservative Congregation Mt. Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, feels differently. The rabbi, who is also the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the board is planning on adding mikvah practices to its safety code, which was written several years ago in response to cases domestic violence.
“Women need to be in charge. This and other common sense measures will be enacted to make people feel fully secure,” he said.
The incident, he said, is a reminder of what can happen when power-checks are not in place.
“If the allegations are proven true, this is a shameful chapter in the history of this congregation,” he said. “It’s a sobering reminder to be fastidious when it comes to the oversight of our mivkahs. Feelings of fear are not misplaced. They’re founded.”