New details on the top Washington, D.C. rabbi arrested last week for voyeurism show how he allegedly lured women into the sights of his spy cams.
Prosecutors allege Rabbi Barry Freundel recorded women in Kesher Israel synagogue’s ritual bath, or mikvah. Police said they seized several recording devices, including two hidden-camera clocks and a manual for a hidden-camera fan. Freundel was charged with six counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, and has surrendered his passport while awaiting trial.
According to a year-long investigation by The Jewish Channel, Freundel’s training of conversion candidates involved multiple instances of women bathing alone at his request as prosecutors have alleged. (Freundel’s lawyer has not returned several requests for comment.)
Orthodox women mostly use the mikvah on a monthly basis, going only at night, when the mikvah and surrounding area are generally off-limits to men. An immersion in the mikvah is also the final step in a conversion process to Orthodox Judiasm, typically taking place during the day, and with three rabbis who’ve supervised the conversion but are unable to see the woman’s nude body.
Freundel had solo access to the mikvah’s changing rooms and showers during business hours for something he called “practice dunking,” according to seven women who underwent conversion between 2008 and 2014. Three other women say Freundel had them do “re-dunking” after their conversions. Freundel also allegedly provided access for similar dunks to students of his classes at Towson University, according to multiple sources.
Emma Shulevitz said she was interviewed by law enforcement and said that in 2012 Freundel asked her to do a practice dunk. Freundel “went into the bathroom with me,” she said. It was then that Shulevitz says she noticed an alarm clock on a counter.
“I thought it was a little bit weird to have an alarm clock in the mikvah.”
Before Freundel left, Shulevitz said she “put my water bottle for drinking on the counter in front of that clock, and he said, ‘Oh, don’t do that, don’t put that on the counter.’” Having never been to a mikvah before, Shulevitz said she didn’t know if Freundel’s request was regular practice. Since then, however, “I’ve been to other mikvahs and no one tells you what you can put where,” Shulevitz said.
Six other women said they were also asked to do practice dunks, as early as late 2008 and as recently as 2013, describing a similar routine in interviews for this story. Two women who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of having their conversions questioned by other rabbis, said they’d performed practice dunks for Freundel twice; both of these women also said that Freundel commented to them that he thought they were very attractive.
Bethany Mandel said in a phone interview that she did a practice dunk while converting in 2011. She claims Freundel told her that he required practice dunks specifically to avoid rabbis seeing women naked during the conversion process. Freundel had created the practice dunks because of an experience with a prior convert, according to Mandel. That woman, Mandel said, in nervousness over the completion of her conversion, “stood up and turned around, and like full-frontal exposed herself to the rabbis… he wanted to do practice dunks so that people wouldn’t expose themselves on mikvah day.”
Even after Freundel’s arrest, most of the women interviewed expressed uncertainty about whether they were targets of the alleged voyeurism. Several said they’d felt the practice dunks were a helpful part of the conversion process—including Mandel.
For several women who converted between 2006 and mid-2008, Freundel allegedly had converts redo their dunks without other rabbis present. Kate Bailey, who converted in the summer of 2008, said Freundel asked her to redo her dunks, claiming that the rabbi told her “there was a halakhic [Jewish legal] problem with the first time but didn’t say a lot a about it.”
Bailey described a re-dunk process that was substantially similar to the accounts given by those women who went through practice dunks. A conversion dunk traditionally includes all three rabbis who’ve served as the rabbinical court for a candidate’s conversion. However, like the practice dunks, her re-dunk did not have other rabbis present, according to Bailey, and Freundel was not in the room with the actual ritual bath to witness the dunks.
Two other women who converted in the months and years prior to Bailey gave an account similar to hers, being asked to do a re-dunk without their conversion rabbis present. One woman said that when she asked why she had to do the re-dunk, Freundel responded, “that’s a rabbi-to-rabbi conversation,” which she said she took to mean that, “there are some things I just don’t know and it’s none of my business.”
Both of those women said in separate interviews that they remembered there being a fan in the room, and went on to describe it similarly: “a floor fan” that was “about four feet high” or “about waist-high,” and “white.” One of those women said she had not read reports on Freundel’s arrest in great detail; asked if she was aware that police had seized a manual for a fan that contained an embedded camera, she paused for a few moments, inhaled deeply, and answered, “no.” A second woman said that though she had heard reports that a fan was allegedly used, until she was interviewed for this story and recalled the fan that had been in the room, she’d assumed the fan discussed in reports was a ceiling fan.
Bailey and one of the other women said that Freundel specifically instructed them not to tell others about the re-dunk. All three women expressed feeling great distress over the possibility that their first conversion was invalid, and said they expressed some of their upset to Freundel. They also wondered why this second dunk would be more valid, without three rabbis present. One of the women said that she asked Freundel if she should say the bracha, or blessing, that a woman makes upon dunking for conversion, and that Freundel “first said it didn’t matter, then said, ‘Yeah, say it.’”
According to two sources within the Kesher Israel community, Freundel would regularly offer students at Towson University an opportunity to do practice dunks in the mikvah, and multiple students have taken trips for precisely that. Freundel taught religion classes at Towson and has been suspended, following his arrest.
“This past spring I was at the synagogue when Rabbi Freundel brought his Towson students to teach them about Judaism,” said one woman. “He offered the girls to do a practice mikvah, which many of them did.”
“He invites the students to D.C. to meet with members of the synagogue, he offers the girls to do a practice mikvah and then he took them all out for lunch at a kosher restaurant.”
Towson University student newspaper Towerlight reported Monday that student Nicole Coniglio said she and two female students had toured the synagogue last semester, and that the other two students, who were Jewish but not Orthodox, took practice dunks in the mikvah.
Towerlight Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Munshaw, who wrote the story, was a student in Freundel’s class this semester—before Freundel was suspended. Munshaw said that Freundel had made an offer to students to schedule trips to the mikvah, asking female students to provide their phone numbers if they were interested in doing so. Munshaw said four of his classmates had expressed interest before Freundel was suspended.