WASHINGTON(Reuters) – A prominent Washington rabbi charged with secretly videotaping women during ritual baths pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism on Thursday. Rabbi Barry Freundel, 63, was accused of installing video cameras to spy on women in the bathing area of his Orthodox synagogue, Kesher Israel Congregation, in Washington’s upscale Georgetown neighborhood.
HISTORY AND KNOWN ACCOMPLICES :
Bernard “Barry” Freundel (born December 16, 1952) was the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. from 1989 until 2014. He was also vice-president of the Vaad (Rabbinical Council) of Greater Washington. Freundel was regarded as “a brilliant scholar,” a “profound” orator and an authority in several areas of halakha (Jewish law), including eruvim, which he assisted in constructing in a number of cities, including Washington.
Freundel’s career came to a sudden end when he was arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia and charged with voyeurism. Kesher Israel immediately suspended him without pay and later notified the congregants that he had been fired. Similarly, he was also suspended from membership in the Vaad and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the main professional association for Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States. In addition, he was suspended without pay from his position as associate professor at Towson University, which then conducted its own administrative review of Freundel’s conduct with students, and as adjunct lecturer at the Georgetown University Law Center. Georgetown University opened its own investigation as well.
Freundel earned a Bachelor of Science at Yeshiva College with a double major in chemistry and physics, along with a concurrent B.S. from the Erna Michael College of Hebraic Studies. He received a Master’s degree in Talmudic studies from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and his semikhah (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), part of Yeshiva University. He earned his Ph.D. at the Baltimore Hebrew University.
Freundel served congregations in Great Neck, New York, Norwalk, Connecticut and Yonkers, New York before assuming the pulpit at Kesher Israel, a prestigious Washington synagogue located in the capital’s exclusive Georgetown neighborhood, whose members have included Cabinet secretaries and Members of Congress.
Until his suspension, Freundel was assistant professor of rabbinics at Baltimore Hebrew University, where he was the rabbinic studies graduate program adviser, in addition to his positions at Towson University and the Georgetown University Law Center. He had been an adjunct at other universities in the past, including American University and the University of Maryland, College Park.
As a writer and lecturer, Freundel addressed topics ranging from environmentalism to Jewish medical ethics. He had served as a visiting scholar at Princeton, Yale and Cornell and guest lecturer at Columbia and the University of Chicago, among others. Due to his congregation’s proximity to Georgetown University, he lectured at that institution with particular frequency. Similarly, his proximity to Capitol Hill had facilitated his participation in governmental affairs as a consultant and commentator.
Freundel served as consultant to the Ethics Review Board of the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health and consultant to the United States Presidential Commission on Cloning (May 1997).
In the past, he had served as pre-rabbinics advisor and assistant director of synagogue services at Yeshiva University (August 1986 – June 1989), as a member of Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic Alumni Association Executive Committee, and as a vice-president of the RCA, whose conversion committee he headed.
Freundel believes that according to the halakha, abortion is only permitted when a woman is in “hard travail” and her life is in danger. This is a very limiting position, Freundel pointed out, since there must be serious danger to the mother. This does, however, also include cases where there is significant psychological trauma, wherein continuing the pregnancy could inflict significant or mortal harm to the mother in that fashion (such as a rape victim who becomes suicidal). Freundel believes that there is no way, under Jewish law, to allow partial-birth abortion, since once the head has emerged, the baby is considered to be born.
Freundel sees two issues with cloning humans from a halakhic perspective. The first is whether cloning is allowed, and the second is whether a clone would be considered a human being.
He does not view cloning as being prohibited by halakha, and even sees “becoming a partner with God in the works of creation” as a noble goal. He does however support regulation, and at a hearing urged the United States Congress not to prohibit human cloning, but rather to regulate it. He argued that human knowledge and technology are inherently neutral, and it’s what’s done with them that is important.
- “Human beings do the best that they can. If our best cost/benefit analysis says go ahead, we go ahead. ‘God protects the simple’ is a Talmudic principle that allows us to assume that when we do our best God will take care of what we could not foresee or anticipate. If things do not work out, the theological question is God’s to answer; not ours.”
Freundel strongly maintains that a clone would be considered a human being under Jewish law.
Freundel published Homosexuality and Judaism in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. In it he argued that there is no category for “homosexual” in halakha. A homosexual then is no different from any other Jew who has committed a sin. Since Freundel views homosexuality as an activity rather than a state of being, he advocates the kiruv approach – trying to make a less observant Jew more observant by following halakha.
- “Judaism rejects the suggestions that homosexuality is either a form of mental illness or an “acceptable alternate lifestyle.” Judaism’s positions would be a third and as yet unconsidered option. Homosexuality is an activity entered into volitionally by individuals, who may be psychologically healthy, which is maladaptive and inappropriate.”
Less than two months before his arrest, Freundel wrote in a published article that “Modern Orthodoxy is not doing very well, because people are not living by its guiding principles. Even those who identify with the movement do not view the world through fealty to halakhah followed by modern modification.”
Voyeurism charges and controversy
Arrest, arraignment and prosecution
On October 14, 2014 police took Freundel from his home in handcuffs and, pursuant to a search warrant, removed computers and other items from his house. One day later, Freundel was arraigned and charged with six counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, for allegedly filming women while they were undressing before immersing themselves in the National Capital Mikvah, an independent facility that Freundel was instrumental in founding in 2005, which is located in an adjacent synagogue-owned building. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Marcus Kurn told the judge that Freundel “violated the laws up in the heavens and down,” but he pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance under condition that he stay away from and have no contact with the synagogue and the mikvah.
The police acted after the synagogue’s lay leadership handed them a suspicious clock radio the rabbi had placed in the shower room at the Mikvah, a ritual bath that is used as part of the conversion ritual, by married Orthodox women following menstruation and childbirth and by some Orthodox men before the onset of the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays. “Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the Board of Directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials,” it noted in a statement published upon Freundel’s arrest and suspension. “Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.” A witness told the police that Freundel was observed placing the clock radio in the mikvah shower room and, when he was discovered doing so, he claimed that he was repairing the ventilation. A police inspection of the clock radio found that it contained a video camera whose memory revealed surreptitious recordings of six different women changing — and footage of Freundel himself setting up the camera. Detectives said that as many as 200 women could have been recorded without their knowledge. A forensic examination determined that several media storage devices found in Freundel’s home contained copies of videos backed up from the camera’s memory card.
On November 12, district prosecutors told a D.C. Superior Court judge they needed more time to investigate and determine if there have been more victims of the alleged voyeurism. The court was informed that a web site is being created in order to reach any other victims who may have been affected. On January 16, 2015, the prosecution requested another one-month delay to complete their review of all the video evidence obtained from computers seized by police in the hope to identify additional victims. If convicted on the initial charges, Freundel could face up to six years in prison.
On February 11, 2015, prosecutors informed victims that Freundel taped a total of 152 women. Due to the statute of limitations and the inability of investigators to identify all of the women in the videos, however, a maximum of 88 counts of voyeurism could be filed against him. Because a trial would require victims to identify themselves in the graphic videos and leave them open to cross-examination, the U.S. Attorney reportedly may offer Freundel a plea bargain that would include incarceration.
Reaction from rabbis
Freundel was strongly criticized throughout the Jewish world. “We are appalled by the accusations against Rabbi Barry Freundel and wish to stress that the acts attributed to him are atrocious and strictly against Jewish law,” a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel stated.
“To see a sage and communal leader who spent so many years devoted to a community destroy his life should evoke in the rest of us rabbis – all of whom are human and fallible – both condemnation and humility,” wrote Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “At any time even virtuous men can drive their lives off a cliff and engage in reprehensible actions that are inexcusably harmful to trusting and virtuous victims. And few things are more virtuous than a woman who goes to mikveh to establish the holy nature of her marriage.”
The day Freundel was arrested, the president of the RCA, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, revealed that the Council investigated allegations earlier in the year that related to “ethical issues that came up regarding an issue with a woman,” but no action was taken. That may have been a reference to overnight train rides Freundel booked in May, 2013 to and from Chicago, supposedly to “conduct research.” It later transpired that he had traveled on both legs of the round-trip journey with a woman who was not his wife, with whom he shared a private sleeping berth.
On October 20, the RCA issued a press release stating that it discovered in 2012 that Freundel had coerced conversion candidates into performing clerical work at his home and contributing money to his rabbinic court. The RCA also was able to confirm that he shared a checking account with a conversion candidate. At the time the RCA did not view these activities as rising to the level that would require Freundel’s suspension, but did suspend him once he was arrested and, together with its affiliated Beth Din of America, launched its own investigation led by Allen Fagin, the chief professional at the Orthodox Union, and Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.
“Certainly, it’s hard to anticipate that he was doing this thing specifically, but Rabbi Freundel definitely had a pattern of abusing power,” noted a former rabbinic colleague from Rockville, Maryland, Rabbi Joshua Maroof. Conversion candidates had complained to him that they found Freundel “manipulative, intimidating and threatening.” One former Georgetown congregant was quoted as calling Freundel “brusque and abrasive” and that if he disagreed “he would step all over you, make you feel like an ant, try to squash you and shut you out.”
Reaction from women
“More and more details are coming out and it looks like Freundel has been abusing women converts, treating them like his own person private property for a very long time, possibly decades — going back to the 1970s,” claimed Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, Orthodox feminist scholar and past president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (whose members included his own wife). “He seems to have had a very strange obsession with converts,” she added. “His need to own them expanded and became sexual — it became a sexual convert fetish.” She also wrote that “I think perhaps the only reason Freundel was caught at all — why women were finally believed and heeded in this case — is because Kesher Israel has a woman president. Elanit Rothschild Jakabovics is without a doubt the hero of the day.”
Under Jakobovics’s leadership, the synagogue turned its back on Freundel and directed all its attention to the victims of his actions by arranging a support group led by a licensed psychologist and consultations with therapists, as well as organizing a closed community meeting with Cathy L. Lanier, Washington’s chief of police. Two days after Freundel’s arrest and suspension, Jakabovics addressed a packed synagogue at Shemini Atzeret services, declaring: “These sacred spaces — our shul and our mikvah — have now been tarnished. Our inviolability has been violated. Kesher and the mikvah will be a safe place again.”
Freundel’s arrest also sparked widespread debate about how mikvaot should be supervised, administered and protected from predators. One woman who Freundel converted (and who he secretly filmed in the Georgetown mikvah on at least two occasions) proposed a ten-point “Bill of Rights” for converts. Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the founder and head of Nishmat, the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies for Women in Jerusalem (who once spoke on the topic of “Women and the Future of Judaism” at Freundel’s synagogue), called for a new generation of religiously educated women to take control of the mikvaot.
On December 2, a student at Georgetown University Law Center, where Freundel taught a seminar on Jewish law, filed a lawsuit against Kesher Israel Congregation, Georgetown University and the National Capital Mikvah. The unnamed student had written a term paper on the mikvah, which received an “A” from Freundel, who had convinced her to immerse herself at the mikvah on two occasions, both of which she presumes he filmed. She seeks class action status and claims that the defendants turned a blind eye and failed in their responsibility to protect students from the rabbi, whose behavior she claims was becoming ever more bizarre, and who was mistreating women subjected to his authority. On December 18, a student at Towson University identified only as “Stephanie” added her name to the lawsuit, claiming that Freundel encouraged her to take a “practice dunk” in the mikvah as part of her studies, even though she was not Jewish and had no interest in converting. She was joined by Emma Shulevitz, a woman who had been converting to Judaism under Freundel’s auspices and who had likewise been encouraged by him to take a “practice dunk.” They added the RCA as a defendant as well.
The plaintiffs claim that the RCA and Freundel’s synagogue were aware of his inappropriate conduct before the cameras were discovered in the ritual bath he supervised. They charge that the RCA and Kesher Israel should have removed Freundel from his positions of authority and that his alarming actions included inviting non-Jewish women to use the “mikvah” and inventing and encouraging the use of “practice dunks.” In response, RCA issued the following statement: “The RCA has conducted itself appropriately and is taking important steps to improve its conversion protocols. We will defend ourselves vigorously in this matter.” Kesher Israel responded with this statement: “Kesher Israel’s leadership is deeply concerned about the harm caused by Rabbi Freundel’s actions — of which we did not and could not have known — and for the personal welfare of all those individuals who may have been violated. The lawsuits that were recently filed are completely without merit. Our energies remain focused on working towards healing our community and building a vibrant future for Kesher Israel.”
After reviewing the criminal complaint, search and arrest warrants, accompanying affidavits, as well as relevant halakha with respect to the status of prior conversions, the RCA declared that all conversions Freundel had performed until his arrest were valid. After an initial hesitation on its part, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel agreed, but warned that if Freundel were to attempt to perform any conversions in the future, they would not be recognized.
When he was unanimously fired by Kesher Israel’s board on November 24, 2014 Freundel was given a grace period until January 1, 2015 to vacate the synagogue-owned rabbinic residence, but one month after the deadline passed he still had not done so. As a result, Kesher Israel referred the matter to the Beth Din of America, asking that it order Freundel to move out, return all synagogue property, compensate the congregation for his occupancy of the house beyond the January 1 deadline, and cover the costs of the arbitration. This litigation, however, did not involve Freundel’s wife, who moved out less than three weeks after his arrest. She asked Freundel for a divorce and he subsequently agreed to grant her a get.
Freundel was named by The Jewish Daily Forward to its “list of the 50 American Jews who have had the most impact on our national story” in 2014. In explaining his inclusion, the newspaper wrote that “It’s hard to imagine a more disturbing violation of a sacred Jewish space than the one of which Orthodox rabbi Barry Freundel is accused.” The Israeli newspaper Haaretz ranked the “Peeping Rabbi” as number 1 on its list of “Ten scandals that rocked the Jewish world in 2014,” and noted that it did so “because the idea that any rabbi might (allegedly) use hidden cameras to spy on women in their most sacred place like the ritual bath and exploit the vulnerability of conversion candidates to Judaism is unfathomable.”
Freundel was the author of two books:
- Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity, Ktav Publishing House, February 2003, ISBN 0-88125-778-8
- Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer Urim Publications November 2010, ISBN 965-524-034-7
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