Prominent Washington rabbi Barry Freundel appeared in court on charges that he used a hidden camera to record six women as they changed their clothing in preparation for the Jewish cleansing bath ritual in association with the rabbi’s synagogue. He appeared in the District of Columbia Superior Court today to plead not guilty to the misdemeanor charge of voyeurism.
According to a court document filed with the D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday, the rabbi, 62, disguised a video camera to look like a digital clock radio and then placed it where women changed and showered in the National Capital Mikvah. The mikvah is next to the rabbi’s Georgetown shul, Kesher Israel Congregation, one of the most well-known synagogues in Wash., of which Fruendel has been a part for more than 25 years.
Two recordings were made on June 2 and four more on Sept. 13. The rabbi himself is shown on tape a number of times as he positions the hidden device for recording.
Freundel has been placed on immediate suspension without pay by the Rabbinical Council of America. The ban also applies to his works with the Beth-Din of America, for which he is known as one of the U.S.’ leading conversion rabbis. The president of the Orthodox body, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, issued a letter to all rabbis within the organization in which he describes the charges against Freundel as “deeply troubling,” adding that the crime of which the disgraced rabbi is accused constitutes a “terrible, awful violation of privacy” as well as the “sanctity of the mikvah.” Matanky also gave praise to the board of Kesher Israel for reporting the rabbi to police. He vowed that the RCA will respond with further action if it is necessary.
On Wednesday, The Jewish Daily Forward reported that the RCA had conducted an investigation of Freundel this past summer for an unrelated accusation of sexual misbehavior. When the accuser was unable to provide evidence to support her claim, no action was taken. The RCA did not disclose the investigation to to the synagogue.
Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier is scheduled to meet with area Orthodox Jews on Sunday at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue. The discussion will focus on issues related to the privacy of the recordings uncovered by police in Freundel’s home – in particular, what the recordings show, when they were made, whether they have been shared with anyone else and the official procedures to be followed by police and prosecutors in order to keep the images private.
The arrest of Rabbi Freundel comes as a shock to the Jewish community in Washington where he is known for his rigid support of a high moral code. Freundel is also known nationally for his leadership in conversions. Last month, he spoke forcibly about pornography use and how it eats away at marriage. Congregants describe him as “aloof;” more of an intellectual than a provider of warm counsel. Freundel is a member of the Georgetown University and the Towson University faculty, and has a reputation as a distant rabbi who nonetheless was more than willing to share his own thoughts on Judaism from an intellectual standpoint.
Prominent members of the Kesher Israel Congregation include the literary editor of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, and the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew. Former senator Joseph Lieberman formerly belonged to Kesher Israel.
Freundel has been ordered by a judge to have no contact with anyone he assisted to convert to Judaism or anyone who he helped in the mikvah. In addition, he may not enter the National Capital Mikvah or the Kesher Israel synagogue. Freundel’s voice mailbox was full on Wednesday. Calls placed to his phone number by The Associated Press were directed straight to his mailbox.
By Jennifer Pfalz