Rabbi Barry Freundel, the spiritual leader of one of Washington D.C.’s most prominent Modern Orthodox synagogues, was suspended without pay by his congregation Tuesday after police arrested him on charges that he used cameras to peep on women in the synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath.
Freundel, whose congregation includes Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and ex-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, was led out of his Georgetown home in handcuffs on Tuesday morning, neighbors told the Washingtonian magazine.
A police report, obtained by local D.C. news channel Fox 5, alleges that Freundel was seen installing a camera hidden in a clock radio above a shower at the mikvah. Freundel allegedly told the person who caught him that he was fixing the shower ventilation. The TV station reported that he would be held overnight.
A reporter with the Fox station reported on Twitter that Freundel was arrested for “electronic voyeurism” and “had cameras in ladies rooms.”
The allegations left one woman who had used the mikvah in shock.
“I feel incredibly uncomfortable and my privacy violated,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy. “It’s just really sad that such a beautiful thing is now kind of tainted and turned into something that’s quite ugly.”
The rabbi was charged with voyeurism, the Washington Post reported.
The Washingtonian reported that police carried computers out of Freundel’s home on O Street, a few blocks from the synagogue.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Kesher Israel’s board of directors announced announced Freundel’s suspension without pay in response to his arrest.
“This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the statement said. “Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the Board of Directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials. Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.
Requesting “that our community be granted privacy,” the board directed further questions to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The synagogue hired the well-knwon Gibson Dunn law firm to handle legal fallout from the arrest, the Washington Jewish Week reported. The firm was tapped by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to handle the so-called Bridgegate scandal regarding politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
Freundel’s synagogue, Kesher Israel, has a mikvah, or ritual bath, next door. In Orthodox Judaism, women are expected to immerse themselves in the mikvah each month.
Kesher Israel’s mikvah is small, with three changing rooms and a single ritual bath. Men and women use the facility at separate designated hours.
The bath is now the only Orthodox-run mikvah in Washington.
Freundel sits on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Modern Orthodox rabbinical association.
Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish history professor at Brandeis University stressed that he believes Rabbi Freundel is innocent until proven guilty. But if true, the story could indicate a need for Orthodox institutions to take action, he said.
“One can only hope that the lesson from this will be that Orthodox rabbinical institutions should do more to deal with rabbis who have these demons before these demons get them in trouble,” Sarna said. “These scandals are not good for the Jews,” he added.
RCA president Rabbi Leonard Matanky said that his organization had no information about the allegations.
“Beyond what we’ve been reading in the press, we don’t have any other information about it,” Matanky said. “We affirm that no one is above the law, and that rabbinic ordination mandates from everyone the highest standards of ethical conduct.”
With Nathan Guttman
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.