Sharon Freundel, moving beyond trauma

Sharon Freundel: “Recently I have become an expert on post-traumatic stress.” Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Sharon Freundel: “Recently I have become an expert on post-traumatic stress.” Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Five months after Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested for videotaping women in the changing room of the National Capital Mikvah, his wife told an audience of about 170 people that there is life after trauma.

Sharon Freundel was the featured speaker March 22 at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s 24th annual Dr. I. J. and Rachel Fellner Memorial Lecture.

Her 90-minute talk did not include a question and answer session, nor did it deal specifically with her experiences since her husband’s arrest and his guilty plea to 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism. She has not been living with her husband, who faces sentencing May 15.

Yet her talk made it clear that she is moving on thanks to supportive friends, many of who filled the audience, and “the one above.” She said it has been helpful to read Psalm 34, Verse 19: “Hashem is near to the broken-hearted, and those crushed in spirit. He delivers.”

Freundel hugged and kissed many audience members after her talk.  She appeared upbeat, even joyful, and confident as she said she has been learning from rereading the Bible of the many incidents of trauma revealed in those pages, including the death of one’s children, infertility, war and alcoholism.

“Recently I have become an expert on post-traumatic stress,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience.

She spoke of existential loneliness, of not being alone but feeling that no one understands.

“There are times in our life when nobody gets us,” she said.

A “marriage partner” should understand, but it doesn’t always work out that way. However, “the one above will always understand you. The one above will always get it,” she said.

The best thing to do is “seek strength from people around us and the one above,” she said. “Life is hard. I don’t think anywhere in the Torah God promises us” an easy life.

She has reread the stories of the Biblical ancestors she knows so well, this time to see how they had dealt with their traumas. “Researching it has proved so therapeutic,” she said.

Take Noah, for example. Everyone he knew, except for his immediate family, was gone. He was stuck on a boat for a year. “That’s got to be traumatic,” she said. After returning to dry land, he became a farmer, grew grapes and got “rolling drunk. That’s post-traumatic stress,” said Freundel.

Then there’s Lot, who watches his world destroyed and “drinks to the point where he passes out,” she said. “Who could really blame him? It is a way to escape when you pass out. It’s a good escape.”

Freundel, who after a short break has returned to her job as director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, briefly retold the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed. By following God, Abraham, Isaac and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, all were traumatized.

Abraham never spoke to his son again, she said. “They are never again together. We never see them together. Their relationship, at this point — it’s done. It’s kaput. It’s over.”

Isaac may have suffered “hysterical blindness” as a result of seeing “his father come at him with a knife,” Freundel said. Sarah’s grief upon learning of the possible sacrifice of her son caused her heart to stop, but Abraham pulled himself together. He mourned and wept and then did what he had to do, she said. Abraham showed that “it’s perfectly acceptable” to cry. Without emotions, people would be cruel, she said.

Throughout her readings, Freundel questioned why some people turn to alcohol or commit suicide while others are able to go on with their lives following a traumatic experience.

Some experts point to the amount of the hormone cortisol in our bodies, Freundel said. Others say it’s connected to how much stress our parents encountered, she said, noting that both her parents were Holocaust survivors.

But she believes that experts do “not know why some people react so differently,” she said. “In all seriousness, they do not have a clue.”

To Freundel, the why is not as important as her efforts to move forward.

With friends and God, “we will make it and end the day smiling,” she said.

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