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Ebola and Rabbi Barry Freundel: Sealing the Borders Won't Keep Us Safe

Has anyone else been struck by the connection between two stories which have dominated the headlines of the Washington Post over the past week?

We've been hearing about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa for months now, but last week news came out of a second nurse who had been infected with the virus while treated the man who eventually died of Ebola in Dallas.  This nurse had traveled on an airplane while she had a fever and the Center for Disease Control was scrambling to contact every other passenger on that plane to warn them of their risk of exposure.  

This story seems to have heightened the calls to close the U.S. borders or at least to block entrance to the U.S. by citizens of the three most affected countries.  Despite strong responses from the CDC, the World Health Organization and the U.N. that a travel ban would be counter-productive in the fight against Ebola, Republican candidates and elected officials continue to demand it.  It isn't surprising since many of these people have been fixated on border security as a solution to most of this country's problems for years.

And then there is the story of Rabbi Barry Freundel, the long-time leader of the modern Orthodox congregation in Georgetown, Kesher Israel.  Freundel is accused of videotaping women in the mikvah, the ritual bath which is used as part of the conversion process (among other reasons).  As more of the story comes out, it is clear that this is not just a story of a man with a taste for voyeurism.  This is also a story about border crossings.  

The Post reported this morning that there have been complaints by women against Freundel in the past, charging that he abused his power during the conversion process.  Part of the reason why he has been able to get away with such behavior is that he wields enormous power over those seeking to convert.  Much of the conversion process proceeds at the discretion of the rabbi.  And Freundel, apparently, was much in demand as a supervisor of conversions because he had advocated with Orthodox rabbis in Israel that these conversions be recognized as legitimate.  Many Jewish conversions in the United States would not be recognized in Israel--something that has repercussions not only for a woman who is converting but also for her children.

In both stories, there is a great deal of focus on borders.  In both stories, this focus means that attention has been diverted from what the real problem is.  In both stories, people believe that a carefully regulated border is the source of safety and in both stories it turns out they were wrong.

The more I've thought about this today, the more connections I've seen.  Consider the objections the CDC and others have made to closing the U.S. borders to those coming from Ebola-affected countries.  These include:

  • Isolation is a practical impossibility.  People will get in anyways--just by means and paths which are harder to track than direct airline flights.
  • Isolation makes it harder for a group to receive help from the outside.  A travel ban will reduce the number of commercial flights to affected countries which will make it harder to bring in supplies and those who want to help.
  • Isolation makes groups less likely to cooperate with measures that would benefit everyone.  To quote the Tom Frieden, the Director of the CDC, "Isolating communities also increases people‚Äôs distrust of government, making them less likely to co-operate to help stop the spread of Ebola."

All of these objections, it seems to me, pertain to religious groups who become obsessed with regulating the boundary between who is inside the community and who is outside.  

  • Isolation is a practical impossibility.  Religious leaders can declare that membership in a group requires certain beliefs, practices, rituals or the approval of certain leaders.  In my experience, the actual members of the community represent a much wider range of beliefs and practices than the leaders declare.  It is impossible to keep ideas from spreading and it is impossible to keep your congregation from trying out new things, losing interest in other things and generally evolving as people.  It is no longer practical to enforce a religious border that clearly defines who is in and who is out of a community.
  • Isolation makes it harder for a group to receive help from the outside.  Relgious communities in our country today need all the help they can get.  When churches declare that they are only going to patronize Christian-owned businesses (as some do) they quickly run into situations which require them to make an exception to their rule.  When a community's boundaries are more permeable, they benefit from the cultural contributions, ideas and practices of the world around them.
  • Isolation makes groups less likely to cooperate with measures that would benefit everyone.  The Kittamaqundi Community, like many communities modeled on Church of the Savior, used to have very strict entrance requirements.  Prospective members were required to take a series of classes which took more than a year to complete.  Eventually, the church eased up on these requirements in large part because the majority of people involved with the church were refusing to become members.  There was "distrust of government" just as the CDC predicted.  I'm curious if something similar will happen in the modern Orthodox community now.  Will the community demand a change in the conversion process which lessens the power individual rabbis have over those seeking to convert?  Will the wider community reclaim the conversion process and demand a more open, permeable border?  Doubtful...but who knows?

The moral of both stories is clear.  Every community--religous, national or otherwise--should know by now:  sealing the borders won't keep us safe.


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the rabbi

One must accept to an orthodox jew to be converted, period. Of course their is a religious border and it was made by God himself. The fact that people who are already in the group do otherwise does not make it right and therefore the requirement ahould be relaxed. And as for help from the outside, if we do the right thing God will help us. Open borders means 'anything goes'.


The R.C.A obviously went out of their way not to throw him out of their organization. This is par for all Rabbinical groups who protect their favorites. BEWARE OF POSSIBLE INTIMIDATION, SPEAK OUT. Why was action not taken against him taken years ago. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

Ann Ivester

You caught my attention with this post because I could not imagine how the two news items were connected. You're right that isolation does not bring safety in any context, it simply prevents us from having a rich life.

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