Barry Freundel was a rabbi with a big problem. If police reports cited in the press are to be believed, he was a compulsive voyeur who exploited his position as a senior rabbi and university professor. His utter control over his synagogue and adjacent mikveh allowed him to feed a need to surreptitiously and criminally watch women undress. Allegedly, of course.
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Yes, it is true that his particular - alleged - fetish had the advantage of utter secrecy and total distance from his victims. That’s the difference between the Freundel affair and other sex abuse scandals: Freundel is charged with crimes, in which the victims were, until now, oblivious.
But as the scandal widened in the time since his arrest, with the revelation that Freundel had been under investigation in 2012 by the Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella organization for Orthodox rabbis for whom he served as national chairman of the group’s conversion system for, as described in the RCA statement on Freundel, “allegations of impropriety” regarding his treatment of converts which include coercing them into doing secretarial work for him and soliciting donations from them both before and after their conversions.
How in the world did this man stay at the helm of the prestigious and savvy Orthodox congregation that included senators, congressmen and cabinet members, and, most famously, the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate, in the heart of nation’s capital for 25 years? When I began talking to current and former Kesher congregants looking for answers to that question, I expected to find people who were shocked and devastated that their longtime beloved senior rabbi was capable of treating anyone badly.
But I was surprised. The way Freundel treated converts, it seems, was not terribly different from the way he treated members of his own congregation and many rabbinical colleagues.
Freundel was not beloved, he was respected. But mostly, he was feared. Numerous current and former congregants and fellow rabbis I spoke with on the phone and communicated with on email painted a picture of a powerful man who nursed vendettas, held grudges, and punished those who crossed him. The description one former congregant offered sounded like a rabbinical version of the wily and vengeful politician Frank Underwood from the popular Netflix series set in Washington “House of Cards.”
Andrew Cooper, an environmental attorney and a current member of Kesher who has been a member for eleven years kept going back to two words when asked to describe Freundel’s treatment of his congregation: “intimidating” and “dismissive.”
He described his son’s recent Bar Mitzvah with Freundel. “Literally the night before the Bar Mitzvah, he said ‘tell me something about him.’ This kid had been at the shul at least every week since he was under two years old, and this is a shul where the congregation has maybe two or three B’nai Mitzvah a year, not some huge synagogue with 100 kids. But the rabbi hardly knew him.”
He hadn’t been surprised. Over the years, there were numerous complaints about Freundel’s “brusque and abrasive” manner that could turn into fury to those who defied him. When that happened, the former congregant told me, “he would step all over you, make you feel like an ant, try to squash you and shut you out.”
Still, Cooper stressed that despite his off-putting behavior, until last week, there was no way the congregation could have suspected their rabbi could possibly be an accused mikveh voyeur. “From the fact he was intimidating or he wasn’t warm and fuzzy to THIS? That is a huge leap to make the jump from the personality issues to allegations of pervasive criminal activity - it is staggering.”
Rabbis who dealt with him felt similarly. “Certainly, it’s hard to anticipate that he was doing this thing specifically, but Rabbi Freundel definitely had a pattern of abusing power,” says Rabbi Joshua Maroof, who spent nine years as an Orthodox rabbi in a congregation in the neighboring community of Rockville, Maryland told me.
Although Freundel had the official national stamp of approval from the Rabbinical Council of America and Maroof did not, several Freundel conversion candidates felt so uncomfortable with him, that mid-conversion, they left and asked to convert with Maroof instead. Maroof recalled being told by the conversion candidates who came to him that they found the Kesher Israel rabbi “manipulative, intimidating and threatening.”
Despite a personally contentious relationship with Freundel - and not only over conversion issues - Maroof contends the RCA did the best they can with the information they were given. “Since none of us had any inkling of how deep and absolutely terrible the situation was - most of us believed he was just a slightly delusional and idiosyncratic personality with an exaggerated sense of self importance and a lack of empathy, hardly a crime or even a rarity in the rabbinate - there was no way the RCA could have acted any more swiftly or decisively to address these wrongs.”
But Cooper thinks the RCA was remiss to deliberately withhold misgivings about Freundel from his congregants and not raising a red flag sooner. “If you look at this board and the strong decisive rapid action they took now, you have to ask: do these look like people who, had they been informed earlier about wrongdoing, would have let it go?”
That congregation, it seems, for years had lived with trade-off that while their rabbi wasn’t a cuddly figure, he was nationally respected, both in academia with his PhD and multiple university affiliations, and in the power circles of the RCA. And - very important in Washington - he proved that he got things done.
The congregation tasked him with two primary goals and he achieved both. One, ironically, was getting a mikveh built. His other big accomplishment was getting an eruv put around Washington - one that includes the National Mall, the White House and other monuments, making life easier for Orthodox residents and visitors. And his shortcomings in interpersonal relations were softened by the people skills of his wife Sharon, a Jewish educator who is beloved in the community.
Cooper is hopeful that the congregation will weather the storm. A bit of relief is detectable in his voice - despite the stain of scandal - he thinks the loss of Freundel may mean the return of congregants who left. And once they are able to deal with the pain of the victims, which include congregants, converts, as well as students he taught at Towson University, and sort through the difficult financial and legal fallout of the affair, they may come out better for it. “I'm hopeful that people will see us as a congregation pulling through and doing the right thing.”
And perhaps the rest of us are better off, too, as the Freundel case hammers home the lesson that no matter how senior or learned - or intimidating - an authority figure in our lives may be - they are still prone to any imaginable - or unimaginable - human failing.