Two new lawsuits aim to hold Modern Orthodoxy’s largest rabbinic organization responsible in the Rabbi Barry Freundel mikvah-peeping scandal.
Both lawsuits allege that the Rabbinical Council of America and Freundel’s own synagogue were aware of inappropriate conduct by Freundel prior to the discovery that he was using a hidden camera to view women as they bathed nude in a Washington, D.C. ritual bath. The lawsuits, which seek class action status, charge that the RCA and Congregation Kesher Israel should have taken measures to remove him from his positions of responsibility based on his earlier behavior.
One of the suits underlines odd behavior by Freundel relating to the mikvah, noting that he allowed non-Jews to attend rituals there and that he invented the notion of “practice dunks.” That suit also quotes an unnamed Kesher Israel staff member saying that Freundel “treated the mikvah like a car wash. Every Sunday, six students at a time.”
That suit charges that Freundel used his role in the RCA’s controversial centralized conversion system to put himself in a position of power over potential converts — a position he allegedly used for sexual exploitation.
The suits were filed on December 2 and December 18, respectively, in Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
“The real issue with [Freundel] is, he was just bragging about the amount of power he had,” said Steven J. Kelly, an attorney with the law firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White, who is representing the plaintiffs in the earlier of the two suits. “These women needed [his] stamp to get married in some cases… to do all sorts of things.”
Filed by three alleged victims of Freundel, the earlier suit brings charges against Freundel’s synagogue, his mikvah, the RCA and The Georgetown University, where Freundel taught. The second suit, brought by a sole alleged victim, names the synagogue, the mikvah, and the RCA as defendants, but not the university. Neither suit charges Freundel himself.
Both suits claim that the total number of Freundel victims could be large. The first suit claims that the number of members of a potential class of victims could be over 100; the second claims that Freundel may have recorded “thousands of women” in the mikvah with his hidden camera. The suits allege that Freundel opened the mikvah at his synagogue in 2005 with the explicit intention of using it to sexually exploit women.
Defendants have yet to respond to either of the suits with legal filings. Freundel’s criminal defense attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
In an emailed statement, Kesher Israel called the lawsuits “without merit.”
“Kesher Israel’s leadership is deeply concerned about the harm caused by Rabbi Freundel’s actions — of which we did not and could not have known — and for the personal welfare of all those individuals who may have been violated,” the congregation wrote. “The lawsuits that were recently filed are completely without merit. Our energies remain focused on working towards healing our community and building a vibrant future for Kesher Israel.”
The synagogue fired Freundel after Washington police arrested him on October 14.
In a formal statement, the RCA said it was reviewing the complaints.
“The RCA has conducted itself appropriately and is taking important steps to improve its conversion protocols,” the rabbinic group said. “We will defend ourselves vigorously in this matter.”
Freundel pleaded not guilty on October 15 to charges that he had illicitly videotaped at least six women who were showering in the mikvah next door to his synagogue. Since firing him, the synagogue has demanded](http://www.kesher.org/termination-statement) that Freundel leave his synagogue-owned residence by January 1. The National Capital Mikvah also released a statement condemning Freundel’s alleged actions.
The second lawsuit, filed by an anonymous plaintiff called Jane Doe 2 in the filing, offers a litany of events that the complaint alleges should have put the synagogue, the mivkah, and the RCA “on notice” to Freundel’s “illicit proclivities,” including the allegation that Freundel was forcing prospective female converts to perform clerical work for him in 2012. The lawsuit also claims that the RCA was told in 2013 that Freundel had shared a sleeping compartment on a train with a woman who was not his wife.
The plaintiffs in the earlier lawsuit allege that Freundel used his positions of authority, and particularly his role within the RCA’s new conversion system, to wield enormous power over potential converts. An RCA conversion committee that Freundel headed, known as the Geirus Policy and Standards committee, was responsible for implementing a new and controversial conversion process that centralized all conversion authority with a few selected rabbinical courts. Prior the GPS’s establishment in 2006, individual rabbis within the RCA were empowered to implement conversions on their own authority. The GPS system was the product of negotiations between the RCA and Israel’s chief rabbinate to ensure that the chief rabbinate would continue to recognize RCA conversions.
Freundel was not only the head of the RCA’s conversion committee, but also the head of a regional rabbinical court tasked by that committee with approving conversions in the Washington area. The lawsuit filed by Kelly’s plaintiffs alleges that Freundel used that combination to put himself in a unique position “to sexually and otherwise exploit converts, over whom he exercised great power and control.”
One of the plaintiffs in the suit filed by Kelly, Emma Shulevitz, claims in the complaint that while she met with Freundel about her desire to convert to Judaism, the rabbi “made repeated references to [her] ‘looks’ and did not seem interested in discussing her spiritual development.” The suit also alleges that Freundel “bragged about his prominence within the RCA and touted his relationship with the Chief Rabbi in Israel.”
Later, Freundel asked Shulevitz to engage in a “practice dunk” at his synagogue’s mikvah. While there, she claims Freundel warned her not to “disturb” a clock radio resting on the counter. Police allege that Freundel used a clock radio with a camera inside to record women showering at the mikvah.
When Shulevitz later said she planned to find a new rabbi to convert her, Freundel allegedly responded: “Fine, but it won’t be accepted in Israel.”
Rabbi Marc Angel, a longtime critic of the RCA’s new conversion system, told the Forward that the allegations, if true, reaffirm concerns about the centralization of conversion powers. “This is a bad example of the fears we have had all along,” Angel said. “If you concentrate too much power in few hands, then there is bound to be abuse, and this just confirms our deepest fears.”
The RCA created a committee to review its conversion system in the wake of Freundel’s arrest. The committee, which is chaired by a former RCA president, is split evenly between men and women. Mark Dracht, the RCA’s executive vice president, said that the committee was still working on its review. “It would be premature to say anything about it,” Dracht said.
The suits face a high legal bar to be approved as class action suits. “In order to have a class action certified, you have to have common questions of law and fact across the entire class,” said Marshall Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University of America in an email. “Those are not always so easy, certainly the commonality can be a question of great controversy, and usually is in lawsuits.”
This story "Did Rabbi Barry Freundel Treat Mikveh Like 'Car Wash' To Peep on Women?" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.