As Barry Freundel left the D.C. Department of Corrections last week, a free man after nearly five years in jail, area Orthodox congregations sent emails to their members, telling them that the 68-year-old former congregational rabbi would not be welcome if he showed up to pray.
Freundel “will not be welcome at shul, either in person or virtually in our Zoom rooms,” Rabbi Uri Topolosky and President Miki Moskowitz, of Kehilat Pardes in Aspen Hill, wrote on April 1, the day of Freundel’s release. The rabbis and president of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac said much the same thing. Kemp Mill Synagogue told members, “We have communicated to him that he will not be allowed on KMS premises.”
Kehilat Pardes’ email added, “We realize that for many, this will trigger an additional amount of trauma, pain and stress.”
Before his arrest, Freundel had been an authority in Modern Orthodoxy, not just at his Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown, but throughout the region, the country and in Israel.
Freundel was one of a handful of American Orthodox rabbis whose conversions were deemed kosher by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
In October 2014, Freundel was arrested for recording women as they changed in the National Capital Mikvah, the ritual bath attached to Kesher Israel. Some were women whom Freundel led through the conversion process.
Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism. In May 2015, he was sentenced to 45 days in prison for each count, a total of about six years and four months. He also was ordered to pay $13,000 to a crime victims’ fund.
His original date for release was toward the end of 2021, but with time off for good behavior, it was moved up to April 15, and then, as the coronavirus began sweeping the country, to April 1. Emergency coronavirus legislation enacted by the District of Columbia allowed the Department of Corrections to expand time off allocated for good behavior in order to release prisoners earlier than scheduled, JTA reported.
Freundel will not be subject to supervision or required to register as a sex offender, because voyeurism is not among the offenses listed under the D.C. Sex Offender Registration law.
News of his impending release came on March 31. When Emma Shulevitz, one of Freundel’s victims, learned that he would be out of jail on April 1, “I was thinking, is this an April Fool’s joke? He wasn’t supposed to be released so soon. It’s a little creepy that he is out there with no GPS bracelet or surveillance.”
On Twitter, reaction was angry, even vengeful.
There were those who hoped Freundel would never step foot anywhere near Washington. Some tweeted that he should be self-quarantined forever. Others hoped that he becomes ill from the novel coronavirus. Several were outraged that he was not considered a registered sex offender.
Others said life with the coronavirus threat was stressful enough and they didn’t need any more bad news.
And the National Capital Mikvah, where Freundel had once been in charge and where he surreptitiously video-recorded women, let its users know that it had contacted a lawyer to tell Freundel “that he is unwelcome on the premises of our landlord, Kesher Israel Congregation. Any attempt to visit our facility will be considered trespassing,” wrote Erin Piateski, president of the National Capital Mikvah on April 2.
“Nearly five years have passed since his imprisonment for his crimes, but the trauma of his action still feels very fresh to many of us in the mikvah’s community of users,” she wrote.
Kesher Israel, which Freundel led from 1989 until his arrest, urged those who are upset or angry to reach out.
“We continue to stand with those victims who are understandably upset and angry about today’s early release,” the synagogue wrote on April 1. “These are challenging times, made only more difficult by today’s action, and we urge members of the community to reach out to our Rabbi Hyim Shafner as we move forward together.”
Voyeurism and violation
The scene in Georgetown that Washingtonian magazine described on Oct. 14, 2014, was incomprehensible.
“Uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives swarmed a house at 30th and O streets, Northwest, at about 8:30 Tuesday morning,” the report read. “According to neighbors, the house belongs to Barry Freundel, the rabbi at Kesher Israel, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown. The neighbors say Freundel was led away in handcuffs by Metropolitan Police Department officers following what appeared to be a major investigation. Cops were later seen removing computers and other items from the residence. ‘You don’t usually see a rabbi led away a handcuffs,’ said Michael Friedman, who lives across the street from Freundel.”
The charge was voyeurism. The Washington Post reported: “Law enforcement authorities said the case involves a hidden camera but gave conflicting accounts of where the alleged voyeurism took place. Both the synagogue bathroom and the mikvah, where ritual bathing takes place, were mentioned.”
On Oct. 15, Freundel pleaded not guilty to six charges of voyeurism before District Superior Court Magistrate Judge William Nooter.
At the hearing, Shulevitz, one of the victims, was outspoken in her reaction to being recorded undressing before a practice run of her mikvah ceremony that Freundel required as part of her conversion to Judaism.
“I feel violated,” she said. “The ceremony is supposed to be between a woman and God and not between a woman and her rabbi.”
Those practice runs were known as “practice dunks.” Shulevitz told Washington Jewish Week that she recited no blessing when taking her practice dunk. “He told me to return for as many practice dunks as you want,” she recalled after Freundel’s arrest.
“It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach,” she said, adding that she even asked Freundel if this submersion constituted her conversion. “He kept saying, ‘No, you are not ready for the real one,’ ” she recalled.
Later, she went to another area mikvah for a practice dunk. Staff there shot her bewildered looks, stating they had never heard of such a thing.
‘Maybe now is a good time’
Elanit Jakabovics was Kesher Israel’s president during Freundel’s 2014 arrest and 2015 sentencing. Last week, she suggested that these days of self-quarantine, when the synagogue is shuttered, might not be the worst time for Freundel to be released.
“It was bound to happen at some point very soon,” Jakabovics said. “If it was going to happen, maybe now is a good time with all the shuls closed,” she said. “There is less stress. I don’t have to worry about, am I going to bump into him, will he come knocking on Kesher’s door?”
While she called Freundel’s release “a little jarring,” she said her attention now is on family, preparing for Pesach and coping with COVID-19.
“I basically have put it behind me,” she said, adding she did not know where Freundel intends to live or where he is staying. Shulevitz said her “life has definitely changed with regards to trusting, trusting rabbis, trusting men, trusting coworkers.”
While she wants to move on, every time the MeToo issue pops up in the news, everything comes back to her, she said.
Another victim, Bethany Mandel, who studied for her conversion with Freundel, told the Washington Post, “I hope that if he truly is sorry and wants to make amends for the pain he has caused, as he has claimed, he will consider the feelings of those who live in the communities in which he may decide to reside.”
U.S. Assistant District Attorney Amy Zubrensky, in an April 1 letter to victims, explained, “The sentence that Freundel received does not provide for post-incarceration supervision, and voyeurism is not an enumerated offense under the D.C. Sex Offender Registration law.”
Therefore, she noted, “He will not be under the court’s supervision after release, and will not be legally required to register as a sex offender.”
In 2015, on the first Rosh Hashanah of his incarceration, Freundel wrote a statement that was published in Washington Jewish Week.
“No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough. There are simply no words available to sufficiently assuage the hurt that I caused.”
He ended the letter, “There is no excuse for what I’ve done. Again, I am truly sorry.”
He has not said anything publicly since.
Suzanne Pollak is a Washington area-writer.