News & Politics

Peeping Georgetown Rabbi Sentenced to More Than Six Years in Prison

Former Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel secretly videotaped women using a synagogue changing room.

Freundel, leaving court following his February plea hearing. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Barry Freundel, the former rabbi at Georgetown’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison Friday as punishment for placing hidden cameras in a women’s changing room at a ritual Jewish bath.

Judge Geoffrey Alprin handed down the sentence in DC Superior Court, which was packed with Freundel’s victims and former congregants, many of whom gave deeply emotional statements about their encounters with the rabbi and about discovering they had been secretly videotaped while disrobing.

“I could not bear my friends knowing that my rabbi had seen me naked,” said one victim.

Freundel, 63, was arrested last October 14 at his then residence in Georgetown after DC police investigated a complaint that there was a camera in the women’s changing room at the National Capital Mikvah—a ritual bath used by observant Jews—that is connected to Kesher Israel. Police officers removed numerous computers and hard drives from the house when arresting the rabbi, and authorities later recovered numerous pieces of video equipment and other storage devices.

The rabbi’s recording equipment included cameras disguised as clock radios and computer chargers, and his computers contained reams of video files organized by the initials or names of the victims. Mikvahs are visited by women following their menstrual cycles, or by prospective converts during the initiation process. Freundel pleaded guilty on February 19 to 52 individual counts of misdemeanor voyeurism for illicitly filming disrobing women between 2012 and 2014, although prosecutors said his cameras may have recorded as many as 150 women going back to 2009.

Each of the voyeurism charges carried a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine ranging between $1,000 and $2,500. Prosecutors had asked for Freundel to spend 17 years behind bars, while the rabbi’s attorneys argued for community service. Freundel’s sentence comes out to 45 days for each voyeurism count. Several witnesses asked Alprin to give Freundel a long sentence to prevent the possibility of him moving to Israel, where he often talked about retiring to.

Freundel appealed for leniency during his turn to address the courtroom.

“What I did was to play on their primal fears,” he said. “The impulse that controlled me made me exploit people when they were most vulnerable. I made a sacred place feel unsafe. I am sickened by that. It was a different kind of horror for my students. That I did what I did destroys me. I am no longer in that place.

Alpirin seemed unswayed, turning red-faced and perturbed as he catalogued the counts. The victims appeared to have some sense of relief short of jubliation.

Many of the victims who spoke at Friday’s hearing had converted to Judaism under Freundel’s supervision, and recounted other strange behaviors for which he had previously been reprimanded by rabbinical groups. In 2012, the Rabbinical Council of America—Orthodox Judaism’s governing body in the United States—investigated Freundel for making prospective converts do clerical work or make expensive contributions to the local beit din, a Jewish tribunal he oversaw at the time.

“Was it perversion? Was it sickness? Was it curiosity?” said one woman who converted under Freundel’s guidance, using her testimony to address Freundel directly. “Why did you do this to me? Maybe [I] should have stayed a Christian.”

Freundel joined Kesher Israel, one of Washington’s most distinguished Orthodox congregations, in 1989, and opened the mikvah in 2005. Kesher’s notable members include Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, former Senator Joe Lieberman, and Brookings Institution senior fellow Leon Wieseltier, who was in the courtroom Friday. The rabbi’s prominent role in the Jewish community extended to other organizations; at the time of his arrest, he was vice president of the Rabbinnical Council of Greater Washington, which supervises the area’s kosher kitchens, an authority on Jewish law, and a lecturer at the University of Maryland, Georgetown, and Towson University, where investigators seized more computer and video equipment from his office.

The rabbi’s downfall has been an arduous process. While Kesher Israel quickly suspended and then fired Freundel following his arrest, he was slow to vacate the Georgetown home the synagogue offers to its spiritual leader. Freundel was supposed to be out of the O Street house, which is owned by a trust affiliated with Kesher, by January 1, but did not leave until March 3.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.