Barry Freundel, the former rabbi at Georgetown’s Kesher Israel synagogue, pleaded guilty Thursday to 52 misdemeanor charges of secretly filming nude women who were preparing to enter a ritual Jewish bath. Freundel, 63, entered the plea in DC Superior Court in a room packed with media and victims of his voyeurism.
“The women recorded did not know they were being recorded and did not consent to being recorded,” the prosecutor, Amy Zubrensky, said when laying out the case against Freundel. The charges to which Freundel pleaded guilty date back to early 2012, but prosecutors said the voyeurism dates back to 2009. About 100 additional women not represented in the charges were caught on Freundel’s hidden cameras, Zubrensky added.
Freundel was arrested last October 14 after DC Police searched his Georgetown residence following a complaint that there was a camera in the women’s changing room at the National Capital Mikvah, a bath used by observant Jews, of which Freundel was also the supervising rabbi. He was suspended without pay from Kesher Israel, which is attached to the mikvah, and later fired from the synagogue where he had worked since 1989.
Since Freundel’s arrest, prosecutors have said that as many as 150 women may have been captured on the hidden cameras he placed in the bathroom. Mikvahs are visited by women following their menstrual cycles, or by prospective converts during the initiation process.
Judge Geoffrey Alpirin scheduled a May 15 sentencing hearing for Freundel. Each of the 52 misdemeanors are punishable by up to 12 months in prison, with fines for each count ranging between $1,000 and $2,500. “Theoretically,” Alpirin said, Freundel faces a maximum sentence of 52 years in prison and a fine of $97,000, though attorneys for both sides predict Freundel’s actual penalty will be less severe.
Freundel, wearing a dark suit, striped necktie, and yarmulke with white embroidery, was represented by veteran criminal defense attorneys Jeffrey Harris and Fred Cooke. The rabbi spoke gingerly when asked to enter his plea but said nothing else during the proceeding or on the walk to a car waiting for him outside the courthouse.
In describing the charges against Freundel, Zabransky detailed extensive collections of recording and storage equipment police retrieved from the rabbi’s residence and his office at Towson University, where he was a visiting professor. Law enforcement officials confiscated five desktop computers, seven laptops, 11 flash drives, 20 memory cards, and an instruction manual for a recording device from the house, and several more devices from the Towson office. The cameras recovered included devices disguised as clock radios and computer chargers.
In some instances, Freundel had three cameras in the mikvah changing room to capture disrobing women from multiple angles, Zabransky said. He saved the videos under file names organized by the victims’ names or initials.
Despite Freundel’s arrest and ouster from Kesher Israel, though, he has remained in the O Street, Northwest, house, which is owned by a trust connected to the synagogue and used by the congregation’s head rabbi. Freundel has refused to leave the house while the synagogue tries to evict him through a case in a beit din, or Jewish tribunal. Harris told reporters outside the courthouse that Freundel is finally packing up his belongings and will be out of the house within two weeks.
“He wants to get his life back in order,” Harris said. “He lived there for 25 years.”
Kesher Israel is one of the most prestigious Orthodox congregations in Washington’s Jewish community. It counts among its members Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, former Senator Joe Lieberman, and The Atlantic contributing editor Leon Wieseltier, who sat in the courtroom during Thursday’s proceedings.
Before his arrest, Freundel had previously been investigated by the Rabbinical Council of America, a major Orthodox governing body, on accusations that he acted inappropriately with prospective converts and shared a sleeper car on a train to Chicago with a woman who was not his wife. Among the allegations was that he used Jewish initiates for clerical work between 2006 and 2013, when he headed a rabbinical group administering conversions. That accusation was found to be credible, but did not result in any punishment; the sleeper-car allegation was dismissed.
While the plea settles the criminal case against Freundel, he is still the target of a class-action lawsuit filed by women who say they were victims of Freundel’s mikvah peeping and mistreatment during their conversion processes. Steven Kelly, a Baltimore attorney who represents 20 victims of Freundel’s peeping, said the guilty plea does not do justice to many of the women who were caught by the rabbi’s cameras.
“There are victims who were left out in the cold,” Kelly said outside the courthouse on a blisteringly chilly afternoon. While prosecutors filed 52 charges against Freundel, the criminal information entered during the plea hearing mentions 88 total people who were taped illicitly, leaving more than 30 victims unable to join the civil suit. “They don’t have the right to seek restitution,” Kelly said.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.