When the scandal of Barry Freundel—the prominent rabbi who had been secretly filming naked women at the mikveh—broke, AJ Campbell felt like part of the story was missing.
“We’ve heard from everybody on the case—Kesher [Freundel’s former congregation], some victims who have written in print—but the one person we haven’t really heard from was Freundel,” she said.
That’s why Campbell decided to write Constructive Fictions, a play currently running at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. She imagines what’s going on in Freundel’s jail cell (who’s actually serving a six-and-a-half-year prison term). While pontificating on his crimes and what has become of him, Freundel is confronted by four fictional representations of his victims, named (of course) Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. How does it go? He’s unrepentant and dismissive of the women he violated. Instead, he sees himself as the victim. Prince Charming, he’s not.
Constructive Fictions has already been widely covered by news outlets, because the real-life victims have vocalized that it’s felt like another attack. They feel marginalized by Campbell, who chose not to consult them in order to write characters intended to be composites of the around-150 victims. The media storm has drowned out what Campbell was trying to say with her play. But what is that, exactly?
Like the rest of the world, Campbell was shocked by the story. She wondered how Freundel reconciled being a rabbi with betraying those who trusted him in such a horrible, violating way. She felt that his “bland statement of apology” released in 2015 sounded like it had been written by a lawyer—“it was even written in passive voice”—and barely gave any insight into what he was actually thinking. “It said he wanted to apologize to each and every one of the victims, but he didn’t because it would cause them distress,” she said. “So he had more to say.”
The title of the play, Constructive Fictions, describes exactly what Campbell thinks Freundel has to say—a lie. Specifically, it implies that he’s lying to himself. The rabbi, Campbell believes, has created some backstory as to why he needed to film the women, and then got caught up in the sexually-fulfilling voyeurism and power that it gave him. But the line between what’s Freundel’s “constructed fiction” and what’s Campbell’s own is definitely blurred.
Many of Freundel’s victims were at the mikveh because they were converting to Judaism and a visit to the ritual bath is a central part of the conversion process. Campbell thinks that Freundel believes it was the strict standards of conversions, the obsession of the hyper-religious with exactness and perfection, that led him to commit the perverse acts. “I think it started for one reason and continued for another,” she said. “In his mind, he created a ‘constructive fiction’ that he needed to check [that conversions were carried out properly]. That’s how it started… It was the stress of making sure that none of his conversions were questioned. The strain of doing everything right.”
She speculates that being one of the only rabbis outside of Israel performing Orthodox conversions, Freundel felt that “he had to hold himself to the highest possible standard, and it became impossible for him to stay at that standard.” She references the pressure he felt again and again, but refuses to name where this pressure came from. She doesn’t say whether or not there was pressure coming from say, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. She also doesn’t blame Orthodox Judaism. But she does admit that the “Orthodox have a large say” in the “emphasis we put on who is a Jew,” and also lists recent headlines in the Orthodox world about the hotly-contested issue.
After writing a play about the man, who onstage and off can’t be relied upon for the full depth as to his motivations, why does Campbell think Freundel did it?
“I think it’s unchecked power.”
She goes on: “We give rabbis too much power over our lives. Rabbis should elevate us, and not us elevate them.”
But she absolutely, vehemently denies that Freundel is our fault. “The real villain is not us,” Campbell says. It’s not Orthodox Judaism, though Campbell clearly has issues with it. It wasn’t the members of Kesher, whom she lauds for going to the police and finding justice for the victims. But there is something about Jewish culture she’s leaving unsaid; something that her play could have been saying all along. After all, according to Campbell: “Maybe we all participate in the constructive fictions.”
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Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.