Freundel scandal recedes
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Freundel scandal recedes

Washington Jewish women reclaim mikvah with mural

The new mural inside the mikvah affiliated with Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C.
The new mural inside the mikvah affiliated with Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON– When Rabbi Barry Freundel, the prominent rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., was arrested last year for secretly videotaping dozens of women using the mikvah next to his Orthodox synagogue, the sense of sacredness inherent in the ritual of mikvah immersion was shattered for some Jewish women.

Artist Rena Fruchter recently spearheaded a community project to put the pieces back together. A mural created by female members of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, another Orthodox Washington synagogue, was placed inside the mikvah affiliated with Ohev Sholom.

After months of work, the mural was dedicated last Sunday.

The project gave the women “something they could own, something they could feel part of,” Fruchter said. It allowed them to take “something shattered; make something whole.

“We have a broken system,” she continued. “We don’t throw it out. We take the pieces. We put them together and make something beautiful together.”

Freundel led Kesher Israel until his arrest last October. As part of a guilty plea, he admitted to installing video cameras in the National Capital Mikvah. He was sentenced in May to more than six years in prison for 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism. He has filed notice that he will appeal the sentence.

Elanit Jakabovics, the president of Kesher Israel, endorsed the mural project even though it’s not affiliated with her synagogue. She noted that Freundel’s actions had hurt Jews across Washington and the ripples went ever farther.

“I strongly support anything that helps the healing,” she said. “You know the pain is never going to go away.”

The colorful new mural features a Van Gogh-like swirl, women dancing, moons, water, reeds, and the words from Isaiah 12:3, in both English and Hebrew: “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of redemption.”

The design is the result of collaboration between Fruchter and local artist Arturo Ho, with input from women from Ohev Sholom.

After collecting glass objects in donation boxes stationed at their synagogue, Fruchter organized weekend gatherings of women from the shul to break the glass into pieces and then reassemble it.

The mood at the gatherings was celebratory. Women sipped margaritas and mojitos as they worked, and sometimes mothers brought their daughters to chip in.

“Women came and hung out. They got to know each other,” Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a clergywoman at Ohev Sholom, said. “The women took the mikvah space, defined it, and demystified it.”

About 60 women participated in the gatherings, which started soon after Passover.

Ariele Mortkowitz contributed to the project with her mother and 6-year-old daughter. Before she moved — she now lives close to Ohev Sholom — Mortkowitz had used the National Capital Mikvah. That “mikvah is near and dear to me,” she said. “I still have friends there.

“Freundel was a big blow around mikvahs in general, and this could make it a better experience.”

Washington Jewish Week via JTA Wire Service

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