(JTA) — Rabbi Barry Freundel was known to the Washington Jewish community as a champion of moral rectitude. But on Tuesday, the spiritual leader of Kesher Israel congregation for the past 25 years, was charged with the most intimate of transgressions: voyeurism.
Freundel, 62, was taken away Tuesday in handcuffs, after uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department searched his home in the Georgetown section of Washington. A local NBC affiliate reported that the rabbi had installed a clock radio with a hidden camera, called the “Dream Machine,” in the women’s showers of the congregation’s mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath.
The arrest marks a startling turn in the career of a rabbi known as a national leader in establishing precepts for conversion and as a strict moralist, who just last month railed against the corrosive effect of pornography on marriages. His synagogue, Kesher Israel, is one of the most prominent in Washington; Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier are members, and former Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is a former congregant.
The synagogue board in a statement said it had reported Freundel to authorities. “Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the Board of Directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials,” the statement, posted on the congregation’s website, said. “Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”
Cathy Lanier, the city’s police chief, is set to meet Sunday night at another Orthodox shul, Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, to discuss privacy issues related to the case, Ohev Sholom stated in an alert to the community, citing “what images may exist, from what time period, whether those images may have been disclosed or distributed, and how will those images be treated with sensitivity by law enforcement and prosecutors.”
The Forward on Wednesday reported that the Rabbinical Council of America investigated Freundel over the summer on a separate allegation of sexual impropriety. The RCA never took action because the complainant was not able to provide evidence. An insider said the RCA never notified the synagogue’s board of directors of this charge.
Congregants told JTA they were shocked by the allegation. They described Freundel as somewhat aloof and said he delegated much of the personal outreach to his wife, Sharon.
“He came off as academic, intellectual, a space cadet, head in the clouds,” said one former male congregant, a young professional. “The word was out — if you wanted an emotional experience, someone who would hold your hand, go to Rabbi Shemtov,” this congregant said, referring to the senior Chabad rabbi in Washington, Levi Shemtov. “If you wanted rigorous study, go to Kesher.”
“He wasn’t a super warm and cuddly rabbi,” said another male congregant, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“He would answer whatever she’elahs you had,” this congregant said, using the Hebrew term for questions regarding Jewish law. “He was more than happy to share his thought process from a religious perspective. He was very much the doctor-rabbi.”
Freundel is a on the faculty of Georgetown University’s law school and Towson University in Maryland.
Yet another former congregant, a woman, acknowledged Freundel’s reputation as distant, but said his compassion was manifest through his intellect.
Freundel, a leading rabbi for conversions, was known for his strict adherence to the precepts laid down by the RCA, but would also take care to guide closely converts through what could be a protracted and arduous process. “He has fought so hard for those who wished to make a halachic conversion to Judaism,” this congregant said, using the term for conversion according to Orthodox Jewish precepts. “He would not cut corners, but he was a voice of reason with the rabbinate.”
Freundel hewed a centrist line in some of the recent controversies affecting Orthodoxy: He was among the first to embrace the notion of women presidents for Orthodox congregations, drawing ire from some right-wingers. But he rejected attempts on the Orthodox left to create a class of women clergy, or “rabbahs.” He was known, congregants said, for dismissing rabbis he believed were his intellectual inferiors.
Just last month he told the Washington Jewish Week that the Orthodox community was afflicted by changes in sexual mores. “The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place,” he said, “and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this, and it creates terrible problems.”
He went on to say: “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages. It’s two keystrokes away. You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there. I have not counseled a couple in any level of relationship in the last five years where pornography hasn’t been an issue.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA executive vice president, noted Freundel’s role as the chairman of the RCA committee negotiating shared precepts for conversion with the Israeli rabbinate, which in recent years has accused American modern Orthodoxy of laxity in its approach. But Dratch said Freundel was just one figure in an ongoing process, and that it would not be affected by his departure. “Hopefully it doesn’t mean anything, because the process and the protocols are larger than any one individual,” he said.
Dratch extended the RCA’s sympathy to Freundel’s alleged victims.
“We have a lot of empathy for the alleged victims, for all women now who feel vulnerable who come to the mikvah, as well as for the family and for the rabbi himself,” Dratch said. “There’s too much we don’t know to pass judgment, but if true, we are outraged by the behavior of a rabbi in general and especially in an area of religious practice.”