Hidden Cameras in the Mikveh? Why a Voyeurism Scandal Is Rocking the Jewish World

The shocking charges that Rabbi Barry Freundel in Washington, D.C. videotaped women congregants in their most vulnerable moments are uniquely horrifying.

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Kesher Israel, the only Orthodox synagogue in downtown Washington D.C.
Kesher Israel, the only Orthodox synagogue in downtown Washington D.C.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, it’s a sign of our times that no one is exactly stunned by clergy sex scandals anymore. It is arguable whether sexual impropriety by spiritual leaders happens more now than in the past - or if simply more of the cases now come to light. Either way, it seems that hardly a month goes by when we don’t hear something about a priest, minister, imam or rabbi of accused of some form of bad behavior involving sex. In the Jewish community, as elsewhere, the spectrum of offenses range from the revelations of embezzlement of synagogue funds to hush up affairs to yeshiva rabbis convicted of sexually assaulting their students.

Rabbi Barry Freundel.Credit: Screenshot

Each time it happens, it rocks a community to its core, and creates waves that affect adherents of that religion far beyond the immediate area. The scandals also provide fuel for those who may have an issue with the religion in question or the form in which it is practiced.

But the underlying lesson is usually the same: once again, we learn that every human being, no matter how exalted or respected, is tragically flawed and capable of terrible things. The fact that someone is learned in holy teaching and stands in front of congregations in ritual garments, preaching to them about distinguishing between good and evil doesn’t make anyone immune from giving in to base or unethical urges.

That said, the unfolding news of why Rabbi Barry Freundel, rabbi of the Kesher Israel synagogue in Washington, D.C. in handcuffs and charged with voyeurism, has succeeded in shocking even those who thought they couldn’t be surprised anymore. The details of his arrest as reported by a local television station:

“D.C. police say Rabbi Freundel used cameras set up in a changing area just outside the mikvah to peep on women. According to a police report, Freundel was seen installing a camera hidden in a clock radio above a shower at the mikvah.

He allegedly told a 35-year-old woman who caught him that he was fixing the shower ventilation...Neighbors who live on O Street say D.C. police arrived at the rabbi's home just before 8:30 a.m. and later arrested him in an alley behind his home where witnesses say he was clearly agitated and very upset. Neighbors say as many as five officers came to the house, spent several hours inside and took several items out of the home, including what they believed to be hard drives or computers.”

How is this scandal different from all other scandals and why is the Orthodox world reeling in its aftermath? Here are a few of the reasons it stands out - and has been discussed incessantly across social media since the moment it was reported.

1. The (alleged) violation of the sanctity of a ritual bath known as the mikveh

If there is any place that should be more intimate, more protected and sanctified, it is a space where people not only make themselves spiritually open and vulnerable, but physically as well. In Orthodox Judaism, which puts such a premium on physical modesty, the vulnerability of nudity is multiplied. Watching videos of people who are naked for reasons of ritual immersion would be a terrible betrayal. The idea of an respected rabbi installing a camera to watch his congregants - and others who use the mikveh such as visitors or converts to Judaism for the purpose of sexual gratification is so horrific as to seem inconceivable.

2. The prominent congregation

Kesher Israel isn’t just any modern Orthodox congregation. When I lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1990’s, it was the place where those who were both powerful and observant belonged - if you wanted to plug into the Washington power network, that was where you went to pray. Located in the wealthiest and most prestigious neighborhood of the capital, the synagogue is frequented by members of Congress, key White House aides, top AIPAC staffers. Current congregants include Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Senator and former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and New Republic critic and author Leon Wieseltier.

Founded in 1910, according to its website, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman and other Israeli negotiators attended Yom Kippur Kol Nidre services on October 10, 1978 - and two days later, began negotiating with Egypt at Blair House in an effort to find solutions to the unresolved issues following the Camp David negotiations leading to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

And the mikveh isn’t just any mikveh -- it is called the National Capital Mikveh, founded in 2005 for the purposes of allowing Orthodox women to observe family purity, but also allowing men to immerse before holidays and festivals, for brides and grooms before their wedding days and for “conversions under the aegis of the local court of the Rabbinical Council of America.”

It is located in the basement of the building adjacent to Kesher Israel. While voyeurism seems like more of a victimless crime than outright sex abuse, one must only think of the hundreds, if not thousands of women and men now wondering whether their privacy was violated in their most intimate moments.

3. The respected rabbi in question

Rabbi Barry Freundel, by all accounts, is a high-profile, well-liked member of the Modern Orthodox establishment with a flawless reputation - until now. He holds a doctorate, and, according to the synagogue website, he is “an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University, and a Consultant to the Ethics Review Board of the National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health” and serves as the head of the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and Vice President of the Vaad of Washington.

The fact that the focus of his national work is conversion - and the mikveh is a key part of the conversion process - adds an extra layer of ugliness to the charges he appears to be facing.

No matter which strain of Orthodox Judaism a rabbi in such a scandal belonged to - his positions would be used as some kind of political ammunition in the ongoing intra-Orthodox debate. If he were ultra-Orthodox, there would be charges from liberal quarters that the cloistered and secretive atmosphere of his community made such behavior possible. If he were an ultra-liberal proponent of full female equality, known as Open Orthodoxy, the more conservative forces would say that liberalism was a slippery slope to depravity.

Freundel, as it happens, seems to be as mainstream Orthodox as it gets. He has written in condemnation of homosexual behavior and believes Orthodoxy should “create an environment that is most conducive to motivating the practitioner of homosexuality to want to change his orientation” but if that motivation is absent, “keep this individual within the Torah community” and “create a situation which offers a positive alternative to the "gay synagogue" and to the even worse choice of complete abandonment and assimilation."

He has taken a liberal position regarding women’s prayer groups and holding positions like synagogue president, but spoken out vigorously against Open Orthodoxy since, “being both “open” and Orthodox sounds to me, unfortunately, like an excuse for anything goes, so long as it can be given a veneer of legitimacy through a bit of superficial talmudic casuistry.”

4. The silver lining - the impressive lack of a cover-up

In the context of an event that is clearly “bad for the Jews” a ray of light is what appears to be admirable behavior by the leaders of the congregation in the face of what must have been a painful discovery. Often, such scandals have come to light with an accompanying tale of attempts by institutional leaders to cover up criminal misbehavior of clergy fearing the damage of scandal. This story seems to be different, with the Kesher congregation leaders taking swift action to alert authorities, even while knowing how it would adversely affect the congregation’s image. According to their website:

“Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the Board of Directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials. Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so. After today’s arrest of Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, the Board of Directors suspended him without pay..”

If the congregation turned to law enforcement as swiftly as it appears, their reaction is worthy of praise.

There were plenty of alternative ways they could have reacted: ignoring the problem, sending him to therapy and hoping it would go away, letting him quietly resign scandal-free, which would allow him to take another rabbinical position and potentially re-offend. Instead, they chose to protect their congregation and any potential future victims with quick and decisive action.

The fact that they acted as they did is being noted and praised across social media networks. As one modern Orthodox woman, Sarah Bronson, observed on her Facebook status. “Although it must have been heart-wrenching for them, they cared about their congregants' safety, dignity, and right to privacy more than they care about the synagogue's reputation or the reputation of Orthodox Judaism - as it should be. To me, this isn't a story about a rabbi behaving badly. This is a story about an Orthodox synagogue’s Board of Directors acting courageously. I applaud them for doing the right thing under very difficult circumstances.”

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