On February 19, Barry Freundel, the former rabbi at Kesher Israel, a prominent Washington, D.C. synagogue, pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism relating to the surreptitious filming of more than 150 women inside the mikveh (ritual bath) adjacent to his shul. USA Today reported that the maximum penalty, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is 52 years in prison, as “each count count carries a maximum sentence of a year of incarceration, a fine of up to $2,500.” (Freundel also secretly recorded another approximately 100 women, but prosecutors said those crimes occurred outside the statute of limitations, reported The Washington Post.)
Tomorrow, Freundel, 64, who led his congregation for 25 years, will receive his sentence.
The prosecution (United States of America) has recommended a sentence of 208 months of incarceration (a bit over 17 years, or “four months incarceration for each of the 52 counts of conviction, to run consecutively”), the reasons for which were outlined in a sentencing memo.
The following are sections of the memo, which provide detailed descriptions of Freundel’s meticulous and premeditated voyeuristic activities in “the most sacred space for Jewish women,” as well as the numerous impacts his crimes have had on the victims:
— National Capital Mikvah has two changing rooms that are connected to the ritual baths. In these changing rooms, Freundel recorded women as they disrobed, used the toilet, and showered, by disguising recording devices in a digital clock, a tissue box holder, and a small tabletop fan.
— Police obtained video of Freundel setting up the clock radio camera. Freundel used “three recording devices at the same time to obtain different angles of each woman being recorded.” And to ensure that the footage would be unobstructed, the prosecution writes: “The defendant instructed many women not to place any of their belongings on the countertop.”
— Freundel employed “an elaborate system to view, analyze, process, store, name and electronically save the captured footage,” including a labeling system that used each woman’s initials, “as well as sequential number where there were multiple recording of the same woman.”
— The prosecution described what was included in a “typical recording”:
The woman enters the changing room and sets down her belongings. She is left alone and she begins to undress. She places her clothing on a chair in the room, and then takes the preparatory steps of cleaning her body according to the prescribed steps. She typically uses the toilet and then enters and uses the shower. The showering itself is obscured by opaque shower doors. After the shower, the woman exits the shower and wraps herself in a towel or robe.
— Freundel “edited out the dead air of the empty room” after the women moved towards the mivkah itself.
— Freudel also executed what the prosecution calls “elaborate schemes,” such as a “practice dunk,” in order to get the women to use the changing room, and record their activities therein:
For example, the defendant asked most conversion candidates to engage in a “practice dunk” prior to the date of their actual conversion. The concept of a “practice dunk” is not sanctioned (let alone mandated) by Jewish law or tradition, and appears to have been a creation of the defendant for the sole purpose of increasing the number of women, and the number of times, he was able to capture women naked in the changing room.
On the days when conversion candidates came for the “practice dunk” only the defendant and a female mikvah attendant (many of whom had converted to Judaism under the defendant’s supervision and thus would not be suspicious of the validity of its practice) were present – as opposed to the two rabbis who would be present for the conversion…
Another scheme the defendant used to expand the opportunities to tape naked women was to convince women who had successfully completed their conversions that there had been a “problem” with their immersion that required them to return to the Mikvah and repeat the process. To ensure that his questionable practice was not detected and challenged, the defendant told some of the women not to tell anyone else about the “re-dunk.”
— The prosecution writes that Freundel’s schemes had “an unimaginably profound impact on the victims…[who] feel equally violated.” One victim “almost shouted her rage”:
…I WAS VIOLATED. THAT WILL NEVER CHANGE. THERE IS NO ERASER. THERE IS NO SILVER LINING. MY RABBI IS A PERVERT. HE SAW ME NAKED WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. HE MISUSED HIS POSITION…. HOW COULD HE?
— Converts, writes the prosecution, were “particularly vulnerable to abuse because they do not know if the rules set by the rabbi-sponsor are valid, and they are eager to do everything required to convert. One victim writes”:
[I]magine … that this one man stands between you and your true self? You would do almost anything to win his approval. And he is world-renowned, and trusted, and has been part of the community forever, so when he says you should practice for the day that you are waiting for, you do it.”
— The prosecution also writes that some women who Freundel recorded were victims of past trauma:
Victims who had confided past sexual abuse and other painful personal experiences to the defendant were encouraged to use the mikvah for spiritual healing.
— The prosecution also outlines the victims’ “disillusionment…in religious leaders;” how Freudel’s actions have impacted married victims;
— On page 18 of the sentencing memorandum, the prosecution describes the account of a woman who, about six years ago, “had been in an abusive marriage for over a decade, and finally found the courage to leave.” Freundel enabled her to stay in “a vacant apartment belonging to a congregant who was travelling that she could stay in.” Inside this “safe house,” Freundel “set up recording devices in the bathroom and bedroom.”
— The defense’s sentencing memo states that Freundel, a “non-violent first time offender” who did not record women in the mivkah itself, is “teaching a class by telephone call…as well as conducting Sabbath study”:
There is no need to incapacitate Rabbi Freundel by sending him to prison… he is the perfect candidate for a sentence of community service… We ask the Court to sentence Rabbi Freundel to an alternative prison while at the same time fashion a sentence that extends trust but verifies.
On February 19, when the defendant entered a guilty plea, Freundel’s laywer, Jeffrey Harris did not anticipate that an agreement would be reached before tomorrow’s hearing, which is presided over by Judge Geoffrey Alprin. “There is no mandatory minimum for misdemeanor voyeaurism,” reported Washington Jewish Week. “Freundel could also be sentenced to probation, or house arrest, or a combination of both.”
We’ll find out tomorrow.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.