Bethany Murphy grew up in a trailer park outside Rochester, New York.
Her father was Jewish, her mother Catholic. When they divorced, they gave her a choice between the two faiths.
“The Jesus statues creeped me out,” Murphy says. “And the story about Jesus being reborn didn’t seem plausible.”
Her mother—the gentile—explained that Jews were “people of the book.” Bethany, then seven, loved books. “I was sold,” she says. She later read My Name Is Asher Lev and The Chosen. “From then on, I was a Jew.”
Often, she was the only Jew. She recalls kids throwing quarters at her on the school bus. One day, a girl said, “Hitler didn’t finish his job.” Bethany spat in her face.
Her mother did the job of teaching her about Judaism. It took. At Rutgers, Bethany minored in Jewish studies. Many of her friends were Orthodox, the most observant Jews.
But Jewish pedigree is matrilineal. Membership in the “tribe” is passed down through the mother. Because Bethany’s last name was Murphy, everyone figured she had taken her father’s name and her mother was Jewish. In fact, it was the other way around.
It wasn’t until Bethany traveled to Israel that it hit home. Sure, she tried to follow kosher dietary laws and observe the Sabbath, and she could speak some Hebrew. But to be considered a Jew, she’d have to convert.
Back in the US, Bethany sought out Orthodox rabbis willing to oversee her conversion—something many refuse to do. She heard about a rabbi in Washington. “The gold standard for conversions,” a friend called him.
On November 9, 2009, Bethany sent the rabbi an e-mail. He responded immediately: “I would be glad to work with you on your conversion.”
The recipient of Bethany’s e-mail was Bernard “Barry” Freundel, rabbi of Kesher Israel, a synagogue at the corner of 28th and N streets in Georgetown.
Kesher’s nondescript building belies its place in the local Jewish ecosystem. The District has larger and richer congregations, such as Washington Hebrew and Adas Israel. But Kesher is the pinnacle of the Orthodox community. Former senator Joe Lieberman was a congregant. So is Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Along with other powerful professionals from the political and legal worlds, they chose a synagogue known as a place that could meld orthodoxy with a fast-changing society.
When Bethany Murphy made her way to Kesher, Freundel was 63 and in his rabbinical prime—and looked the part. He was tall and imposing, with a gray beard and ample girth. He suffered from Bell’s palsy, which caused his right eye to droop and gave his face a slightly twisted look, somehow adding to his mystique.
In the synagogue’s three-story residence—where Freundel lived with his wife, Sharon, and had raised their three children—the shelves were crammed with books. He had been writing on Jewish theology for years. Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity made him a leading proponent of what’s known as “modern Orthodox” practice.
“Barry was intellectually and analytically gifted,” says author and journalist Leon Wieseltier, a longtime Kesher member. “He knew the minutiae of Jewish law.”
An only child, Freundel grew up in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn. “He was very smart,” says Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who attended high school and college with Freundel. “He was the kind of guy who would challenge you intellectually. He never shied away from confrontation.” Childhood friends also recall a prankster who loved to play pickup football.
After Yeshiva University, Freundel sought a doctorate at Baltimore Hebrew University. He served congregations in New York and Connecticut, but it was in Washington that he thrived, helping create the intellectual reputation that drew elites to Kesher. With teaching engagements at Georgetown, Maryland, and Towson University, he became a leading voice in ethics and religion, invited to consult for prestigious advisory bodies such as a presidential panel on cloning.
“He called himself a rabbi’s rabbi,” says Kate Bailey, a Freundel convert now getting her doctorate in Jewish studies.
Though many Kesher congregants ran in power circles, the Freundels never tried to join the capital’s social scene. “There was always an awkwardness to him,” says a Kesher member who worked closely with the rabbi. “I could sense his self-doubt.”
Instead, Freundel entertained select Kesher members and favored converts at his home for Friday dinners, where discussions roamed from foreign policy to morality to the Talmud. Sitting at the head of the table, he was “lord of all surveyed,” says Rebecca Zimmerman, a frequent guest.
Unlike proponents of many religions, Jews have never proselytized. To the contrary, they make it difficult to join the tribe.
There’s a tradition of turning away would-be converts three times to test their devotion. And the Orthodox are the toughest. The process can require more than a year and thousands of dollars.
Oddly, there are few widely accepted rules governing conversions—meaning someone converted by one rabbi could find himself deemed not Jewish by another. “It was like the Wild West,” says Goldin, who now leads a group studying the issue for the Rabbinical Council of America. “Everybody did it on their own.”
In this vacuum, Freundel established himself as the great arbiter of American conversions. As leader of the Rabbinical Council’s conversion committee, he convinced the Israeli rabbinate to sanction converts who went through the process with him and a network of like-minded rabbis. “He became a pivotal person,” says Goldin. “It became his baby.”
Helping matters along, in 2005 Kesher got its own mikvah, the ritual bath Jews use for cleansing—and in which converts must take a dip as a final stage in the process. Technically a separate entity with its own board of directors, the National Capital Mikvah was housed right next door to Kesher. The simple structure contains the small pool, an anteroom with a bench, and a pair of bathrooms with showers. And while the mikvah was there for the use of married women in the community, Freundel was empowered to grant access to would-be converts.
Conversion candidates flocked to Freundel. Kesher became “a convert mecca,” one member says, coining an unlikely term. At times, a quarter of the congregation’s 240 members were converts, according to Kesher president Elanit Jakabovics. And most of those were women. For a guy like Freundel who was awkward in the wider world but reveled in his standing within a small community, it was an especially appealing mix.
“Converts are the most vulnerable creatures of all,” says Wieseltier. “They have left what they had, but they have not quite reached where they are going. They are in limbo. The only support they have is from the converting rabbi.”
Bethany Murphy was thrilled at the prospect of converting under Freundel’s guidance.
While working in Cambodia after college, she packed a suitcase full of books on the rabbi’s required-reading list. She read every one. After returning to the States, she moved to DC, where she rented an apartment near Kesher.
“I’m anxious to meet and get started,” she e-mailed Freundel in July 2010.
Bethany was 24 at the time, petite and attractive. She was determined to marry a Jewish guy and raise an Orthodox family. In New York, she had met Seth Mandel, a journalist from a well-known Orthodox family. They started dating and fell in love. He decided to join her in Washington. Under Orthodox rules, they got separate apartments.
Murphy first met Freundel that August. After morning prayers at Kesher, she sat down at a table in a public foyer and told him her life story. “Wow,” she recalls him saying. “That’s a crazy story.”
Murphy said she had read all of his required books. Freundel quizzed her. She breezed through his questions. “Let’s see if you are serious,” he said. “I want you to come to shul here regularly.”
Bethany and Seth became active in the community. They hosted meals. Seth sometimes led services. “It was a strange congregation,” she says. “There were a lot of converts and young professionals but not many families. It had a transitory feel, as if everyone was new.”
Her experience mirrored those of more than a dozen converts who agreed to be interviewed for this story. They all began the conversion process with high hopes.
“When he accepted me into his program, I couldn’t believe my luck,” says Leah Sugarman, who like Bethany was the daughter of a Jewish father and a gentile mother.
The would-be converts mostly found Freundel gruff and unapproachable. Beyond struggling with the finer points of the Torah during the rabbi’s Wednesday-night classes, Sugarman felt baffled by the conversion process itself. Freundel never spelled out the standards or the timing. Would it take six months? A year? Two? In the meantime, there could be no dating, no driving on the Sabbath, no bending of kosher rules. Getting caught could set back progress.
“All I knew is that I had to put my life on hold,” Sugarman says. “I had to do everything in my power to get through. I felt desperate, with the rabbi in total control. I know many other converts felt the same way.”
There was one way to speed up the conversion process, Freundel told some of the other converts: They could help with administrative work.
So upon request, sometimes at night, Sugarman would appear at Freundel’s house, traipse up the stairs, and sit at a desk in his cramped home office. Conversion prospects say they helped with everything from correspondence to personal medical forms to converting used train tickets into Amtrak rewards.
The arrangement—being alone with an unmarried woman—was a violation of strict Orthodox rules, though Freundel’s wife would occasionally stick her head in the door. Kate Bailey, a Freundel convert, questioned the practice in an e-mail to Kesher and a lengthy letter to the Rabbinical Council. They ordered Freundel to stop. He didn’t.
“We considered it a kind of hazing,” says Murphy. “It was a little weird being alone with him in his office, but it was a good opportunity to get to know him one on one.”
On occasion, it felt more than a little weird. “You are a very attractive woman,” Sugarman recalls him saying one night. “There must be guys all over you. Are you dating?”
“No,” she responded, because she knew dating wasn’t permitted during conversion.
“You don’t have to dress so frummy,” he said on another occasion. “Frum” refers to strict observance of Jewish rules, including one that requires women to cover their arms and legs. When Sugarman mentioned Freundel’s comments to other converts or Kesher members, they said it was just his awkwardness.
Bethany Murphy attended services and spent as much time as she could with Seth. Freundel was aware the two were dating, and he confronted them repeatedly at Kesher, berating Seth for dating a non-Jew. “How do you think that made me feel?” Murphy asks.
And still the conversion process dragged on. Freundel never told her when she might be ready for the final steps: an audience before three rabbis who composed a conversion court plus a ritual purification bath in the mikvah.
Months passed. Murphy waited. At a friend’s wedding, Freundel even taunted her: “This could be you, but it’s not. I control that.”
As Freundel devoted time to new converts, old friends were noticing a change in the rabbi—one that affected the part of him that reveled in his control over his community.
Carrol Cowan, who had known Freundel since 1990—she had converted through a conservative synagogue but begun taking classes with Freundel after growing interested in Orthodox practice—says her friend suddenly “just never had time for me.”
Once upon a time, she’d been a regular at Shabbat dinners and walked Freundel’s children’s dog. In 2005, she was invited to convalesce in the family’s home after breaking her ankle.
“He told me he got very lonely,” she recalls. “You don’t have friends when you are in a position like that.” Then she waves her hand like a windshield wiper. “But he always seemed to have a barrier.”
That barrier became more of a wall until their friendship withered around 2011. Cowan wasn’t the only person who detected something.
What changed? One theory is that Freundel feared he was losing his dominant place in DC’s orthodox universe. In 2004, a young rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, took over Ohev Sholom, a synagogue on upper 16th Street. Herzfeld embraced the “open Orthodox” faith that was less strict than Kesher’s practice. When Herzfeld started calling Ohev Sholom the “National Synagogue” and copyrighted the name, Freundel was furious. Wasn’t Kesher the “national” Orthodox synagogue? He also felt threatened from within when two groups split off from Kesher and began meeting separately. Freundel reacted by lashing out.
“Barry Freundel was a deeply political man,” says Leon Wieseltier. “He also had a shocking lack of spirituality. Power was what stimulated him. He became a polarizing, poisonous force.”
At Kesher, members became frustrated at Freundel’s lack of attention to pastoral duties—even as he made time for the extracurricular activity of working with converts. His inability to care for congregants in need became an issue. He traveled more often. He became the absent rabbi.
“There definitely were two camps,” says Rebecca Zimmerman. “Some loved that the rabbi was a leading light in Jewish thought. Others thought he was boorish, cold, and behind the times.”
Says Wieseltier: “We were a community that was happy and unhappy with our rabbi, but increasingly unhappy. We knew he was phoning it in.” Attendance began to fall.
A month after Sugarman began her conversion, Freundel made a request: “I want you to take a practice dunk in the mikvah.”
Sugarman was well aware of the mikvah and its purpose. Devout Jewish women immerse themselves in the ritual bath for spiritual cleanliness, and observant Orthodox married women use it for purification every month. The mikvah might also be used after a physical tragedy such as a miscarriage, after childbirth, after menstruation, or at a special moment of sanctification. She knew that a dip in the mikvah was the final step in her conversion.
Sugarman had never heard of a “practice dunk.” It was neither required nor sanctioned in Jewish law. She had an intuition that something was strange about it. She checked with Murphy. They both agreed it was odd but figured it was necessary in Freundel’s process. Sugarman ignored her misgivings and hoped the dunk would hasten her conversion.
Like Murphy, Sugarman is petite but on the shy side. A brunette, she has big, dark-brown eyes and an engaging smile. Freundel walked her to the mikvah.
About a year later, he asked her to take a second practice dunk. By then, she’d gone to Israel for an internship and returned to Washington to complete her conversion. This time, she remembers meeting Freundel after morning services. He walked her into the bathroom next to the room with the ritual pool and showed her the list of things she had to do to prepare for the bath.
Sugarman showered, wrapped herself in a towel, and pressed a button on the wall. A woman opened the door to the room with the pool. There was always a “mikvah lady,” a volunteer present for the dip.
Sugarman stayed in the pool about five minutes. After she dressed and left the bath, Freundel was still in the waiting room. He had never left. When she walked out, the rabbi remained.
Leah’s “practice dunk” routine was shared by dozens of other Freundel converts. “Be thorough,” many recall him saying. “Take a long shower.” And he added an unusual bit of advice: “Don’t leave your clothes on the sink.”
In the room, more than one convert noticed a small clock radio next to the faucets. They didn’t think much of it, even though there was also a large clock on the wall. At the time, the rabbi was teaching a class in Jewish studies at Towson University. He would offer his students field trips to dip into the bath and experience a real Jewish ritual. Many accepted the offer. Freundel also recalled Kate Bailey long after her conversion. “There was a problem with your mikvah,” he told her. “You should come back and do it again.”
In September 2014, Adela Renna became president of the mikvah board and donated two new wall clocks to the mikvah. These would allow mikvah users to keep track of their time while cleansing and to stay on schedule for the next member.
Renna and her husband were observant Jews in the Foreign Service. Freundel had led her through conversion and officiated at her marriage. When the couple was posted in Africa, where it was hard to find kosher food, they relied on Freundel to help them obey the dietary rules.
Once she and her husband were back in Washington, Adela Renna resumed her role at Kesher, leading the mikvah’s board and volunteering as a mikvah lady. That’s what she was doing one day last fall when she noticed Freundel plugging in a small clock radio with a digital display and placing it on the sink.
“Why do we need a digital clock?” she asked. “We already have the wall clock.”
“It’s a special clock,” he responded. “It blows air and helps with ventilation. Please leave it.”
When Renna returned that night to close up the mikvah, the clock radio was gone.
The oddness of it all—the clock on the sink, Freundel’s strange answer, the idea that the rabbi himself would be worrying about changing-room ventilation—gnawed at Renna. Besides, the room already had a built-in fan for ventilation. On September 29, she discussed it with Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher’s president.
Jakabovics agreed there was something weird about it but hoped there was a good reason. Both women stayed up that night Googling clock radios and ventilation. They found nothing. They did, however, come across mention of clock radios that contained spy cameras. These often cost less than $100.
All of a sudden, Freundel’s response to Renna’s gift seemed not just awkward but possibly sinister.
“We had three options,” Jakabovics says. “We could have done nothing. We could have called police immediately. Or we could have gotten a lawyer. We chose option three.”
Rather than raising the matter with Freundel, Jakabovics called an attorney who also sat on the synagogue’s board. Renna contacted a lawyer who was a board trustee.
The following weekend was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Jakabovics, Renna, and a few other Kesher board members listened to Freundel sermonize about sin and repentance and wondered whether this might be his last time.
Renna checked every day for the clock radio, but it didn’t show up. Freundel knew the mikvah president had questioned the need for the clock. He must have weighed his compulsion against the chances he might get caught.
A week later, on October 12, Freundel notified the mikvah that he was bringing Towson students by on a field trip and would offer them a chance to try the pool. While he was lecturing students in the kesher sanctuary, Adela Renna went to the mikvah prep room. The clock radio had reappeared, carefully placed on the sink.
“Longest two weeks of my life,” says Jakabovics.
This time, Renna snagged the device and brought it to her lawyers. They noted the digital SD card in the back and phoned police. A patrol officer arrived quickly and took it to the district headquarters. A call was placed to US prosecutors.
At the US Attorney’s office, the clock radio wound up in the hands of John Marsh, who runs a three-person electronic-forensics unit.
He’d been enjoying an evening at home with his family when the call came in. Experience had taught Marsh that whoever owned the radio probably knew it was gone—and, perhaps, suspected that it was in the hands of the authorities. They needed to move fast.
Marsh drove down to the office on Fourth Street to help get a warrant with assistant US Attorney Sharon Marcus-Kurn. A night judge granted it. When Marsh got access to the camera’s recordings, he saw separate images of six women carefully slipping out of their clothes and entering the shower naked. The video then captured them stepping out of the shower, toweling off, and getting dressed.
“It was clear to me that they were completely unaware they were being taped,” he says. “When they closed the door to the changing room, they believed there was no chance that anyone else, especially the rabbi, would be looking at them. That’s the violation.”
In some videos, Marsh saw Freundel’s face as he positioned the clock so the camera was properly aimed. The rabbi would arrange it on the sink, step back to make sure it would take in the best angles, and reposition it if necessary.
By 3 am, Marcus-Kurn and the electronic-forensics unit determined that the contents of the clock radio included enough evidence for arrest and search warrants. They knew there had to be more evidence. That morning, police raided the rabbi’s residence. By 10 am, Freundel was in handcuffs, en route to DC Jail.
Marsh and his crew came away from the Freundel residence with five desktop computers, seven laptops, six external hard drives, 20 memory cards, and 11 flash drives. They also executed search warrants on Kesher, the mikvah, and Freundel’s office at Towson University.
Not much surprises John Marsh, but he was impressed by the sheer quantity of storage devices. “And,” he says, “I had never seen voyeurism in this sacred setting.”
Bethany Murphy—by now Bethany Mandel—was home with her baby when a friend e-mailed to tell her about the arrest. “No way,” she said. “For what?”
She and Seth Mandel had married, had a daughter, and were living in New Jersey. They were stunned. “Gotta have to do with sex,” Seth said when she called him at work.
Sure enough, news dribbled out that police were investigating accusations of voyeurism. Bethany had thought it had to do with finances.
Then came details of cameras in the mikvah, and it started to make sense. She phoned Seth. “He totally taped my practice dunk,” she told her husband. She called friends who had converted around the same time. At that point, they were shocked more than angry, but that would change.
A few days later, assistant US Attorney Amy Zubrensky accompanied DC police chief Cathy Lanier to meet with potential victims in Kesher’s sanctuary. Congregation members packed the room, including dozens of women who feared they had been videotaped. They wanted to know who would get to see the videos. They wanted to hear how the images would be protected from hackers. Most of all, they wanted to know if the rabbi had taped them.
“These women were devastated,” says Jelahn Stewart, a prosecutor and chief of the victim witness-assistance unit. “To think that this man they trusted and revered was spying on them and making videos of them at their most vulnerable, spiritual moment was so destructive.”
Documenting those moments involved two months of forensic investigation. Freundel predominantly targeted converts and students, investigators found. He choreographed his videos carefully—scheduling the practice dunks, setting up the camera, waiting in the anteroom, retrieving the clock radio. The prosecutors set up a website and asked potential victims to send photographs and dates of their conversion. The statute of limitations went back three years, so women who were videotaped prior to October 2011 couldn’t be parties to the prosecution.
Investigators discovered two other cameras: one in a fan, another in a tissue box. (None of the devices was actually pointed at the bath itself.) They found he had edited, saved, and labeled many of his videos. Freundel appeared on video multiple times, setting up the cameras at just the right angle.
Zubrensky and Marsh matched 52 faces with videos shot within the previous three years. Each woman became the victim of a criminal offense. In addition, Freundel had taken images of nearly 100 more naked women from 2009 to 2011. One of them was Bethany Mandel.
In personal phone calls and face-to-face interviews, Zubrensky, Stewart, and victim advocate Lezlie Richardson revealed the news to every victim.
“One hyperventilated and couldn’t speak,” Stewart says. “I had to do breathing exercises with her.”
One video was unlike the rest. Rather than being taken in the mikvah, it had the backdrop of an apartment. Zubrensky set it aside, in hopes she could unravel the mystery. Weeks later, she received a testimonial that described a different scenario. It came from a Jewish woman who had fled an abusive Orthodox husband. Living in an ultra-Orthodox community where men are extended power over women, she’d found herself ostracized. Desperate for shelter, she contacted a friend in the District who put her in touch with Freundel. The rabbi offered the apartment of a congregant who was traveling. The woman used the three weeks to arrange her escape.
The man she thought had made “a place of peace and an oasis of hope” had set up cameras in the bedroom and in the bathroom.
When Zubrensky connected the face, the name, the dates, and the videos, it felt like a punch in the gut. Unbelievable, she thought. This is at a whole different level. Then she phoned the woman with the horrible news.
The arrest of Barry Freundel was huge in the Jewish world.
In Haaretz, Israel’s largest English-language daily, the story ran alongside news of war in Gaza and the Ebola outbreak.
In short order, Kesher suspended the rabbi and then fired him. Towson University suspended him. But Freundel refused to leave the house that the synagogue owned. Kesher brought the matter to a Jewish court.
Freundel wouldn’t budge. Instead, he organized conference calls so he could continue to discuss the finer points of Jewish law with people who’d taken part in his weekly classes.
It’s possible that Freundel thought he might get off with no jail time. Voyeurism is a misdemeanor; this would be his first offense. Who knew—given his reputation, a judge might show leniency. At his arraignment, Freundel pleaded not guilty. Victims feared that prosecutors would go easy on Freundel because he was such a big shot.
Zubrensky, though, gathered her evidence and summoned Freundel’s lawyer, Jeffrey Harris. Zubrensky proposed that he plead to 52 counts, one for each victim. She said she’d be glad to take the case to court.
Freundel agreed to plead to the 52 counts.
Zubrensky still had to explain the plea offer to victims. She and US Attorney Ronald Machen met with them one night in February. A trial, they said, would expose the women to public scrutiny; the tapes would have to be entered into evidence. A plea deal was safer, even though they ran the risk that Freundel would get no jail time.
Zubrensky would ask for 17 years.
“At the sentencing,” she told the women, “you will all get your day in court.”
On May 15, 2015, Bethany Mandel showed up in DC Superior Court with her newborn son on her hip.
She was one of more than a dozen women—all converts—who testified against Freundel. One testified that the rabbi made her hate the mikvah. Another said one convert felt “as though you took God away from me.”
Bethany addressed the rabbi directly. “Knowing you,” she said, “you probably think you’re entitled to get off lightly today.” Wearing a yarmulke, suit, and tie, Freundel sat about 20 feet away at the defense table, head in hand, occasionally glancing up. “You’re a sociopath,” Mandel continued.
The woman whom Freundel had put in a safe house was in the courtroom, too. Stewart read her statement.
“I thought I saw a holy man of God,” it said, “a man whom I could trust to protect me from the outside evils, but I have come to see the blackness which hid beneath the garments. . . . The dreadful symptoms I once banished have returned. I cry when I am awake, and I scream out against the darkness in the nightmares of my sleep. . . . I am afraid to spend the night in a room which I have not prepared.”
Freundel stood to deliver a short apology. “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.”
But in court—as in his other public apology in Washington Jewish Week—Freundel never explained what had prompted him to go to that place at all.
Judge Geoffrey Alprin declared Freundel guilty of a “classic abuse of power.” He sentenced him to 6½ years behind bars. Harris asked that his client have time to prepare for jail. Alprin said no. He ordered marshals to take Freundel away.
The victims clapped and cheered.
In early March of this year, no-parking signs appeared on the street in front of the Kesher-owned residence. A moving truck drove away with Freundel’s possessions.
Months after his firing, the rabbi was finally out of Kesher’s house.
Sharon Freundel had moved out six months earlier, landing in suburban Maryland, where one of the couple’s grown children lives. She’d begun divorce proceedings. Today, she remains a beloved member of the Jewish community and is director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at DC’s Jewish Primary Day School. All the same, victims say, they can’t help but wonder if, all that time while she was just a room away, she ever suspected anything.
“As you all know, I’ve become an expert in PTSD,” Sharon Freundel told a gathering at a Jewish study center in Rockville in March who came to hear her lecture on trauma. “Researching this has been so therapeutic.”
Likewise, more than a year after his stunning fall, Freundel’s shadow still lingers over the congregation, though many believe Kesher has emerged stronger under Elanit Jakabovics’s exceptional leadership. The congregation’s website offers links to legal documents, contacts for therapists, and announcements about support groups. There is still no permanent new rabbi; members don’t expect one until 2017. In the meantime, Kesher and the mikvah—along with the Rabbinical Council of America—have been named in two class-action civil suits.
“What’s been reported is the tip of the iceberg,” says Steven Kelly, a lawyer for the anonymous plaintiffs in one of the cases.
“He defiled so many things,” Wieseltier says. “Kesher, his congregants, his students, the mikvah, modern Orthodoxy.”
Washingtonian attempted to reach Freundel through his attorney. He declined an interview. But Freundel still has his fans. And he still counts at least one friend: Carrol Cowan, who nursed her broken ankle at his house back before the videotaping started.
Cowan says she visited Freundel in DC Jail, where he’ll likely spend his entire sentence. Once he pleaded guilty, she visited Freundel and brought Comet, his dog who had become hers. At trial, Cowan was one of the few people who testified on Freundel’s behalf. After he was jailed, she mourned the fact that he spent his first two months in solitary confinement. She was horrified by the treatment he’d received after suffering a gall-bladder attack behind bars.
In jail, visitors talk to inmates via videoconference with a scratchy connection. A friend who accompanied Cowan on one visit was talking to Freundel when the rabbi suddenly interjected: “Why is Carrol crying?”
“Because I can see that his wrists are bleeding,” Cowan told her friend.
“They were bleeding from the hand-cuffs,” Cowan says. “He never complained about it.”
Cowan refuses to judge Freundel: “No one is all good, no one is all bad. He’s not even a bad person. I’ve known him long enough to know he’s a good person. He screwed up.”
Even after everything that has happened, Leah Sugarman recalls with a kind of joy the actual ritual that completed her official conversion five years ago.
After showering, she donned a white sheet and entered the mikvah. Three rabbis stood at the other door with their backs to her. Freundel was one. She stepped into the pool. The rabbis asked her three questions: Did she believe in the Torah? Would she commit to raise her children in the Jewish faith? How would she describe her faith in Judaism?
She remembers physically quivering in the water, feeling “wonderful and weird.” After she committed to the faith and the men left the room, she lowered her head into the pool, experiencing a tranquility and belonging that bound her to generations and generations.
“I was totally elated,” she says. “I felt as if I had gained a whole new component to my soul. I was on a spiritual high for a month.”
Today, Sugarman remains devoted, though she has moved on from Kesher. She and her husband have become members of Ohev Sholom, the “open Orthodox” synagogue led by Shmuel Herzfeld, Freundel’s old enemy.
Likewise, Bethany and Seth Mandel are raising religious children in New Jersey. In essays for Jewish publications and on her blog, she has focused on fixing the conversion process to prevent abuses of power like Freundel’s. The Rabbinical Council of America recently asked her to join a committee tasked with suggesting reforms.
Still, while Bethany’s faith in the God of Isaac and Abraham remains vibrant, her faith in the institutions that nurtured Barry Freundel is still broken. She has a hunch that the man who once held her identity in his hands—and so abused her trust—will be just fine.
“He will move to Israel,” she says. “He will be accepted and welcomed there. They will consider what he did a ‘kosher’ crime. He will be fine.”
This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.