Why I Choose to Forgive Rabbi Barry Freundel on Yom Kippur
His handwriting is terrible.
He signs the letter, addressed from the D.C. jail, “Barry Freundel.” It makes me wonder if he always signed off that way, or if he recently stripped himself of the title “Rabbi.”
I search through my Gmail inbox, scanning the past three years of correspondence, starting from when I began seriously considering an Orthodox conversion. My last name and features throw people off, but I’m the product of an interreligious marriage. My mother isn’t Jewish, so neither am I.
I’m looking for the formal signature, “Rabbi Barry Freundel.”
The first page is a jumble of synagogue newsletters and updates, blast e-mails from the Department of Justice, correspondence with rabbis, check-ins from the Rabbinical Council of America, and one automated message alerting me that “The offender for whom you registered” was transferred from “the Unknown” to the “Central Detention Facility” on July 27.
I click “next” and go back further to find the October 17 email of last year when I forwarded a smiling photo of myself to a detective named George. “I have been a guest in the Freundel home many times, including just last week,” I wrote. “I have a lot of respect for the family and believe they are good people, but if I was ever recorded without my knowledge while in their home, the mikveh or the synagogue, I want to know. I am attaching a photo of my face for your reference.”
When I get a call from the Department of Justice a few months later, I learn it wasn’t my face that identified me: it was the small, black tattoo that decorates the bottom of my ribcage, just to the left of my spine.
An email received on October 8, just before I sent the photo, is from the rebbetzin, Barry Freundel’s wife Sharon. She was inviting me to join them for a meal, or several, over Sukkot. That Friday night, I arrived for Shabbat dinner in the Freundel sukkah. It was beautifully decorated and a tight fit, but we made it work.
I helped where I could, filling glasses, bringing out bottles of soda, and replacing dropped forks. The rabbi was recovering from a broken back, and I remember being touched by how genuinely he thanked his wife when she carried a big bowl outside so he could wash his hands.
Later, with the dinner guests digesting in the living room, he asked if I’d like to arrange another “practice dunk” in the mikveh. I’d done it once before, and the visit had confirmed his explanation behind the unusual practice. Once dampened, the sheet sticks to your skin. It makes the choreography of uncovering yourself and smoothly dunking under the water much less graceful, so it made sense to me that I needed the practice. I knew this wasn’t commonly done, at least not outside of Kesher Israel, but I wanted to spare myself the embarrassment of potentially flashing the rabbis who would sit on my Beit Din.
He said he would call me after Shabbos to set up a date, but he never did. I didn’t hear from him personally until nearly a year later, when my roommate slid a letter under my bedroom door. I stared at the poor penmanship and the way my name started to drift upwards, like the end of my surname was tied to an invisible balloon that was pulling it into the blue sky of the upside down Forever stamp.
When asked by a friend still in touch with Barry, if I would accept a letter from him, I said yes. But when I saw his public apology in the Washington Jewish Week I assumed that was that. I was no longer expecting a letter, but when one arrived I still had enough expectations to be disappointed.
His letter in the Washington Jewish Week is polished and hits several key points, but with a passiveness that indicates a lack of understanding. He writes about re-traumatizing people who were victimized in the past, though he never calls them women. He admits that he, “caused people to feel unsafe, abused and objectified,” but doesn’t directly state that he abused and objectified them.
In that same vein, Barry says he never wanted, “to cause people to feel that I was arrogant, untrustworthy, unapproachable or abusive.” He claims he now understands “that this is how people have felt,” which completely misses the mark. He arrogantly abused his power and our trust. I didn’t just feel violated, I was.
So too in my personal letter, he apologizes, but omits any specific acknowledgement of what transpired. He says he valued my friendship, and is particularly remorseful for violating that bond. Word has gotten back to him that I was troubled by reports that he “took advantage of” a domestic abuse victim with whom he had had a counseling relationship. The woman he refers to turned to him for help. I am indeed troubled by this example of callousness. By that point, he writes to me, he was in too deep to consider the implications of his actions.
Though he tells me there is no excuse for what he did, he hints that the root of the issue traces back to his childhood. He’s working on unraveling that, so he can prevent himself from causing further harm. I give him the benefit of the doubt here. Trauma can have profound and lasting effects. I feel for the little boy he once was, and whatever experiences shaped the man who now sits in a D.C. jail cell.
“I apologize as profoundly, as humbly and as completely as I can for what I did to you,” he writes. That active ownership, also seen in parts of his public letter, gives me comfort.
This handwritten letter is all business, and while that might not make it the most heartwarming appeal, it doesn’t necessarily make it less genuine. “Barry,” as I now irreverently call my former rabbi, was never the warm and fuzzy type.
Even though it is not what I imagined, it is still an apology. Now I must grapple with forgiveness, and whether or not I must grant it.
The short answer is no. A recent JTA article, quotes Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch saying that forgiveness first and foremost is up to Freundel’s victims — and that there is no Jewish requirement to forgive.
Another familiar name pops up in the piece. During the past year, Bethany Mandel became the face of and spokesperson for Freundel’s victims, raising her voice when so many of us chose anonymity. In the article Mandel notes, “She had a hard time seeing Freundel’s contrition as genuine given his actions since his arrest — including appealing his jail sentence, his refusal to vacate Kesher Israel’s rabbinic residence long after being ordered to do so and failing to own up to the full scope of his wrongdoing.”
These are valid points that give me pause as well. And as for owning up to his actions, she’s right. He doesn’t use the appropriate language in either his public letter or in the one I received. Instead of being direct, he writes about his crimes in vague terms.
There is little doubt that Mandel won’t be accepting Freundel’s apology, and I don’t fault her for it. “Now that he’s caught, now he’s in therapy, now he’s apologizing,” she is quoted as saying. “His actions have spoken louder than his words.”
I don’t deny that the apology could be insincere or that it might be a tactic intended to support his appeal. Still, intent is important to me, and while Barry’s goal was clear every time he set up a hidden camera in the shower room of Kesher’s mikveh, I’m also considering what his intentions are now. He says he knows what he did was wrong, he’s sorry, and he’s working to prevent himself from reoffending in the future. I want to believe that, even if it makes me seem naïve.
I find myself thinking, with an acute sense of irony, of Pascal’s Wager. The basic argument being that if you believe in God, you’re covered, regardless of whether He exists or not. However, if you don’t believe and He does exist, you’re screwed. It’s a low risk, high reward venture.
So too here, if my former rabbi is attempting to manipulate me with a disingenuous apology, my potential losses are few. When a friend or family member commits a wrongdoing against me, I seriously weigh whether or not to forgive that person, because our reconciliation is a sign of renewed trust. I have to ask, am I willing to make myself vulnerable to this person by continuing to have a relationship?
That is not the case here. My forgiveness is not a declaration of trust. By accepting his apology, I’m not letting Barry back into my life. I am releasing him from it. With that, I hope to let go of the sadness, pain, humiliation, outrage, and guilt that have weighed on me for the past year. I’m not there yet. I still recede into myself. I still feel like an idiot. I still mourn the version of him I used to know and admire.
I have little reason to believe that Barry Freundel is truly sorry or fully understands the impact of his actions, but if I wager that he is genuinely repentant and means it when he writes, “to see these words in print horrifies me anew at what I did and helps me realize my absolute commitment to not walk down the dark and evil path again,” then I will feel much more secure knowing that my bases are covered.
I would rather enter this year believing that I granted forgiveness to a truly remorseful man, than to harden my heart and accept the possibility that I might be denying absolution to someone who is genuinely contrite.
So, Barry, if you’re reading this and if you mean it when you say you’re “truly, truly sorry,” then I forgive you and wish you peace and healing during these final Days (Hours) of Awe. If not, I’ll still rest easy knowing I have a good heart that’s going to be a lot lighter in 5776.