D.C.’s Top Rabbi Is a Peeping Tom
At one of the most influential synagogues in Washington, a rabbi secretly taped dozens of women as they undressed for a ritual bath. Now he's on trial, and his victims are speaking.
Converting to Judaism is a long, difficult process but for hundreds of would-be converts Rabbi Bernard “Barry” Freundel helped ease the path. Freundel was a leading rabbi who presided over Kesher Israel, one of the most influential synagogues in Washington, D.C., with congregants like Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and former Senator Joe Lieberman. He helped draft conversion policies followed by rabbis across the United States. But Freundel wasn’t just ministering to many of those he converted. He was victimizing them too.
On Thursday, Freundel pleaded guilty to 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism in D.C. Superior Court for videotaping young women when they were about to complete the conversion process by immersing themselves in a Jewish ritual bath known as a mikvah. Court documents describe how Freundel victimized well over 100 women by using video cameras hidden in an adjacent bathroom to tape women from multiple angles as they showered and undressed before the ceremony. One camera had even been hidden inside a clock radio. Each individual count of voyeurism carries a possible sentence of up to a year in jail. As a result, the 63-year-old rabbi could face imprisonment for the rest of his life.
In a statement, Ronald Machen, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, indicated that he would push for a harsh sentence for the disgraced cleric.
“Bernard Freundel exploited his position of power to victimize dozens of women who entered a sacred, intimate space of religious ritual, he said. “We will be seeking a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of this disturbing assault on the privacy and dignity of so many victims.”
Yet the trauma still lingers on. One victim, Bethany Mandel, told The Daily Beast that Freundel had a chokehold on the conversion process in the D.C. area and this voyeurism was a way for the rabbi to extend his power. “People keep calling him a pervert and yes, he’s a pervert, but he’s also a power hungry sociopath,” Mandel said. “It wasn’t about porn. It was about power, and this was additional power no one knew he had.”
As Mandel described the process, Freundel’s standing in the community as head of the local rabbinical court or Beit Din was such that he decided when conversions would took place and how long the process would last.
“If he decided he didn’t like you, he could just not convert you,” she said. And since Freundel had developed a national role in determining the conversion process for Orthodox Jews, he could make it difficult for potential converts if they moved elsewhere and sought to find a different rabbi to convert them.
Mandel was infuriated not just because of the assault on her privacy but because prosecutors did not consider her a victim. This was because her case and those of 63 others occurred outside of Washington, D.C.’s two-year statute of limitations for voyeurism. Even though she only found out that she was a victim in January, it was too late.
Freundel’s crimes have a lingering impact on the synagogue, as well. The congregation is closely knit. Many members decide where to live based on whether they can walk to the modern Orthodox shul for Shabbat services.
In a statement from Kesher Israel’s board of directors, they tried to look for silver linings, all while acknowledging that the “scope and duration of these horrible crimes are still hard to completely comprehend.” The board went on:
“Despite this great betrayal by Rabbi Freundel and our communal pain, we have seen a community that has come together and whose members have leaned on one another for support. As we move forward, we will continue to grow stronger and are committed to ensuring that our community remains a warm, welcoming, and safe place to gather, worship, and learn.”
One congregant told The Daily Beast that the synagogue had made a strong effort to move forward. “They didn’t look for reasons to explain his actions,” he said. Instead, the shul was open about the process and aggressive in suspending and then firing the rabbi.
But while “there was no covering it up or slow playing,” it still did great damage. After all, in the blink of an eye, Freundel went from being a well-respected (albeit somewhat awkward) spiritual leader to a man who was preying on congregants while they were preparing for an important religious ceremony.
Freundel is to be sentenced on May 15. But the damage he’s done to his victims, his congregants and the entire Orthodox Jewish movement is likely to linger for years.