There are few things I love more than sponsoring a potential convert to Judaism. I’m always impressed and amazed when people decide to cast their lot with the Jewish people, because it’s not an easy decision. And while different movements and different rabbis have different requirements, all potential converts devote significant time to studying Jewish texts and learning what it means to live a Jewish life. The dedication and commitment from potential converts always inspires me.
Yet when the day of the conversion arrives, they always tell me that they’re a little nervous. Will they mess up? Will they be articulate in their responses? And most of all, will they be accepted by the three rabbis (the beit din) who will make the decision?
My response is always the same, and it’s what I used to tell my students who were becoming bar or bat mitzvah: “Actually, it’s good to be a little nervous. It means you care.”
Yet I can understand that anxiety. These people are hoping to join the Jewish community, and it is we rabbis who will hold the power over their Jewish life.
That’s why the guilty plea for 52 counts of voyeurism from Barry Freundel, a man who oversaw dozens if not hundreds of conversions, is so disgusting and heart-breaking. Not only did he violate women’s privacy at their most vulnerable moments, he clearly abused the power he had over potential converts.
As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in October,
[Conversion] candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.
Many felt they had no recourse but to comply with Freundel’s requests.
“My entire conversion was doing office work for him and teaching myself,” said a Maryland resident who converted in 2012 after two years of working with Freundel and spoke with JTA on the condition of anonymity. “I was so desperate to convert and move on with my life that I was willing to play along.”
Like all rabbis, Freundel was in the position of power during the conversion process. But what makes his actions so awful is that he did not see these potential converts as human beings who were understandably nervous as they went through a long and often stressful process. Instead, he saw them as objects to manipulate for his own perverse purposes.
And in fact, recent research might help explain how and why Freundel might have acted the way he did: power often makes people act a little bit like a sociopath.
In an NPR article entitled “When Power Goes to Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart,” Chris Benederev suggests that:
Even the smallest dose of power can change a person. You’ve probably seen it. Someone gets a promotion or a bit of fame and then, suddenly, they’re a little less friendly to the people beneath them.
So here’s a question that may seem too simple: Why?…
[I]f you ask Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, he might give you [this] explanation: Power fundamentally changes how the brain operates…[W]hen people felt power, they [had] more trouble getting inside another person’s head.
“What we’re finding is power diminishes all varieties of empathy,” says Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley.
Fortunately, Keltner tells us, we can be coached to recover that sense of caring that naturally gets lost when we gain power. If we are aware that having more power will inherently make us more selfish, more impulsive, and more judgmental, we can take steps to prevent that from happening.
After all, power isn’t bad; we need it in order to make an impact on the world. But we also need to be aware of its dangers. When we are in a position of power, we need to be that much more attuned to our responsibility to be empathetic and compassionate towards others.
My heart goes out to all those who were mistreated, abused and violated by Barry Freundel. So may we all find the power to change the world for the better, and when we do find it, may we remember to be kind and caring when we wield it.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?“)