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Should ‘Peeping Rabbi’ Barry Freundel Be Forgiven on Yom Kippur?

It was an impressive apology – even considering the fact that Rabbi Barry Freundel has been penning elaborate sermons about repentance and forgiveness for decades, and that, since he was sitting in solitary confinement in a Washington, DC jail when he penned his missive, he had plenty of time to refine it.

“No matter how many times I attempt to apologize,” he wrote, “it will never be enough. There are simply no words available to sufficiently assuage the hurt that I caused among conversion candidates, congregants, students, family, friends, and rabbinic and academic colleagues. I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions …. I defiled a space that was supposed to be private, sacred and healing; and I caused people to feel unsafe, abused and objectified, I did this to people I genuinely cared about, people to whom I was close, and I shattered the worlds of those I loved most.”

Freundel said that he wished he could say he was sorry to to every victim personally, but that he was not doing so, because “reaching out to convey my regret could cause further harm to some and that such contact would be unwelcome” – hence, the decision to apologize publicly, on the eve of the High Holidays.

But to the women who have spent the past year coping with the revelation that their intimate preparations for the ritual bath known as the mikveh were secretly recorded, and dealing with the aftermath of the scandal, their former rabbi’s words rang hollow, and forgiveness – even on Yom Kippur – was out of the question.

“I don’t think I could ever forgive Freundel, in large part because I don’t think he’s capable of ever being sincerely sorry,” said Kate Bailey, who had been required during her conversion process to work as Freundel’s unpaid secretary, and was one of the women that the rabbi instructed to “redunk” in the mikveh a second time, presumably so he could better record her unclothed, told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “I’ve got years of evidence which points to him being a sociopath, and one or two well-timed “apologies” isn’t going to reverse about 10 years of knowing him.”

Bailey said that she chooses to believe what several rabbis have told her: That while Yom Kippur requires Jews to atone for their sins, apologize, and seek forgiveness, that victims of evil acts are under no obligation to forgive if they don’t find the repentance sufficiently sincere or the apology adequate.

“Forgiveness is so personal and should be up to the victim to decide when, if ever. I also feel like nothing Freundel can say will ever make what he did undone, and I can live with never forgiving him,” she said. To victims like Bailey, Freundel’s apology, met the very definition of “too little, too late.” No words of regret, they will note, were forthcoming in the weeks and months immediately following his arrest in the midst of last year’s High Holy Days, nor after he pleaded guilty to voyeurism in February.

During his sentencing hearing in May, as his victims addressed him one by one and described the pain and damage he inflicted on them, he didn’t look at them, keeping his head down and his eyes to the ground. Finally, he read from a prepared statement: “I was wrong, I am sorry. I did terrible things. I make no bones about it. I was in a terrible place.” They are suspicious of the decision to offer a more elaborate apology now, just as his attorneys are lobbying to have him transferred to a federal prison so that he can have better access to religious services. Technically, because his crimes were misdemeanors, he does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It also comes after he has attempted twice to have his sentence reduced with the argument that the 52 times he recorded women without their knowledge should only be considered a single crime. His 6.5 year sentence punishes him with 45 days of imprisonment for each time it was proven he recorded a woman within the statute of limitations.

Bethany Shondark Mandel, a Freundel victim who has written extensively on her experiences told Haaretz that she, like Bailey, feels no compunction to forgive Freundel because she doesn’t believe he is truly sorry. In any case, she said, she isn’t quite sure how she would define forgiveness in his case. She knows for sure that “I’ll never want to go have lunch or coffee with him” but notes that, on the other hand, “I’m not walking around angry or wishing him ill.” She said she hopes that he is successful in winning transfer to federal prison “so he is safer and more comfortable.”

Neither Bailey nor Mandel, believe that Freundel deserves their attention, let alone their forgiveness. Now that he has been sentenced and is serving his punishment, they don’t feel forgiveness is a requirement for putting their difficult experience behind them and moving on.

“What he did was horrible and he’s paying the price” said Mandel. “I think he’s a sociopath but I don’t walk around thinking about him or what happened.”

It is interesting to consider what the pre-scandal Rabbi Freundel might have advised a congregant in his present circumstances when it comes to atonement and being forgiven.

In a Yom Kippur sermon Freundel once delivered to his congregation, he de-emphasized the issue of asking for or receiving forgiveness, even from the highest power.

Atonement, he preached, was secondary to the issue of “How are we going to move forward from here? (God) has confidence in us that we can do better and that we can to do the right thing. We need to develop the same sense of optimism about the future and self-respect about who we are. If we do so then Yom Kippur becomes not just a cleansing experience but a springboard for a far better tomorrow.”

If he truly believes this and takes it to heart, then perhaps the disgraced rabbi will be able to figure out how to live with what he has done – with or without the forgiveness of the women who once trusted him – and who he victimized.

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