For His Victims, the Nightmare of 'Peeping' Rabbi Freundel Didn’t End With His Sentencing

‘I’ve been saying I wanted him to get 17 years, but then I spent Shabbat hoping he can get kosher food in prison,’ said one.

AP

Watching a downcast Rabbi Barry Freundel being led away to face incarceration immediately after he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on May 15 may not have healed the trauma and pain of his victims, but it marked a milestone for many of them.

Two of the many women in the courtroom who knew they had been videotaped naked by the rabbi while were preparing for their ritual immersions in the mikveh said they had been deeply worried the judge might heed his plea for leniency. They said they were emotionally prepared to see him receive a minimal term or no prison time at all, as Freundel’s defense team had requested.

“There was a lot of fear in the group that he would get nothing or basically nothing,” Kate Bailey, 28, said in a telephone interview shortly after the sentencing.

Bethany Shondark Mandel, 29, said she had tried to keep her expectations low so as not to be disappointed. “I kept saying to myself, as long as it’s more than a year, that will be okay.” When the sentence was finally announced, she said, “I was shocked. We were all anticipating hearing that he would only get six months.” Ultimately, she said, “I think nearly everyone was relieved to hear the sentence. I think people wanted the sentence to make it clear that while this wasn’t rape, it was incredibly traumatic for his victims and total betrayal of trust.”

Bailey, Mandel and the other victims were all seated together in a special section of the gallery, directly behind Freundel. Unsurprisingly, they said, he never turned around to look at them. They said it was the first time some of them had spoken to one another in person. They formed a tight community of support online, with a closed Facebook group of 40 women who underwent the process of converting to Judaism under Freundel. Fifteen of them, including Bailey and Mandel, had come to the courtroom to do more than just watch: They had asked to give victim impact statements before sentencing.

They listened as Freundel’s defense attorney tried to make a case for treating the 52 counts of voyeurism, each of which is punishable by up to a year in prison, as a single offense. (They viewed the argument as a particularly large dose of chutzpah, considering that there were at least 100 additional, documented cases of voyeurism that Freundel was not charged with because they took place before the three-year statute of limitations.)

Their spirits rose when the judge responded by asking whether, if someone were to walk into the courtroom and rob or shoot 30 different people, he should only be charged with a single count of the offense. Mandel said that’s when she thought to herself, “I think he’s actually going to get more than a year, he’s really pissing off that judge.”

Mandel and Bailey belong to a small group of Freundel’s victims who have been willing to be identified by name and share their stories publicly, both in the press and on social media.

Vindication

For Bailey, the sentence represented a vindication. Three years ago, in 2012, she said, she filed a complaint to the Rabbinical Council of America, the supervising body of mainstream Orthodox rabbis, regarding Freundel’s treatment of conversion candidates. Less formally, she’d also argued many times with Freundel’s admirers in his congregation, “trying to convince them that he was a bad dude.” She ran into one such congregant in the courtroom on Friday. “I guess you were right,” he told her sheepishly.

Bailey’s relationship with Freundel began eight years ago when, as a 20-year-old college student, she walked into Freundel’s office at Kesher Israel, also known as the Georgetown synagogue for its downtown Washington, D.C. location, and told him she wanted to convert to Judaism. At first, she said, she appreciated his analytical and intellectual style, which suited her better than some of the “more spiritual,” “touchy-feely” rabbis she had encountered. But his subsequent behavior, both during the conversion process and afterward, made her feel exploited and uncomfortable, she said.

Like many of Freundel’s conversion candidates, she was asked to do hours of unpaid administrative work in his home office until late in the evening. She spent hours taking dictation from him, including of his personal emails, even writing his recommendations for college students. All of this took place in his home office, where sometimes “he would lie on his bed with his laptop, and I would have to go talk to him. It was really creepy. He would also eat and drink in front of me and not even offer me a glass of water,” Bailey related. He never touched her or made direct sexual advances, but he once commented on her appearance and she knew he had made inappropriate comments to other women, she said.

Her mikveh immersion itself, a mandatory part of the conversion process in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, was also unsettling, Bailey recalls, though at the time she didn’t know why. When she completed her conversion, in August 2008, she wasn’t asked to perform “practice dunks” beforehand like some other converts, but afterward she was asked to “redunk” in an unusual manner.

“In 2009, a couple months after my conversion, Freundel called me and said there was a problem with the mikveh on the day of your conversion. He didn’t say I had to, but he said if I wanted to be sure, to cross your t’s and dot your i’s, then I should do it.” He told her “something had been wrong with the mikveh that day” but didn’t say what, Bailey recalled. He said, “I can’t tell you about it, you shouldn’t tell anyone either, it can affect people’s reputations in the community.” Again, she felt “creeped out,” but she decided to go ahead because she wanted her conversion to be unquestioned. When she reported to the mikveh at the appointed time, she saw Freundel had not reconvened the traditional panel of rabbis to witness the “redunk,” and while he was present at the facility, he did not see her re-immersion himself. Only the attendant was present. “I could never get an explanation for the “redunk,” Bailey related. It was only after Freundel was charged and she was told that she was in his “catalogue” of videos that it all made sense to her. The purpose of the “redunk” was to get her on tape.

The last straw came much later, when she was a member of the synagogue and Freundel called her. It wasn’t the first time, Bailey said: He “kept tabs” on her observance of Judaism and called to check on her when he noticed she had not been to the synagogue for a while. He also, she said, had “spies” who reported to him when it appeared his converts might not be adhering to Orthodox practice such as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.

At first, she said, she thought he was calling to ask her to do more unpaid secretarial work, as he had with other converts. He wasn’t; instead, he wanted money. He asked her if “it was important” to her that the Israeli rabbinate recognize her conversion, and said that if it was she should donate $1,000 to his conversion court. When she explained to him that she was in graduate school and didn’t have that kind of money to give, he quickly backed off. But when she hung up, she said, she asked herself, “Did he just basically say that if I want my conversion recognized, I should give him $1,000?” It wasn’t clear.

That was when she decided to complain to the RCA, detailing the exploitation of her labor, the inappropriate comments about her appearance, the “redunk” and the fundraising attempt. The senior official that she spoke to seemed most perturbed by the fundraising but took no issue with the “redunk,” assuring her that “it was probably fine” and that there was surely a halakhic reason for it.

The RCA told her to submit a formal complaint that included her name and a statement. Later she was told that in order to back up her story she would have to find other women who had similar experiences and encourage them to complain as well.

“I did,” Bailey said, and nothing happened. “They kept telling me, it’s so great, no one would come forward by name in the past, you are so brave ... and then, after telling me how great and brave I was, they kind of dropped off the face of the earth.” The RCA did not respond to requests for comment.

She also spoke to the president of the congregation, informing her of the complaint to the RCA and why she felt that she could no longer be a member of Kesher Israel: “I couldn’t continue to pay his salary in good conscience.”

Eventually, she gave up fighting, realizing “that they would probably never do anything about him and he was going to continue to just lie to people and tell them what they wanted to hear.” Bailey said she watched him repeat his behavior toward her with new converts, using them as unpaid labor in his home. She decided that he could no longer be her rabbi and that she could not continue to be a part of a community that respected him. She moved to a Maryland suburb and joined a different Orthodox synagogue.

The president of Kesher Israel, Elanit Jakabovics, said the synagogue community has been doing its best to support the victims before and after the sentencing. “While we’re still trying to understand the incomprehensible, Kesher has worked hard to focus our energies on healing — offering social services and support groups for all of the victims of these horrible crimes. Just this past Shabbat, Kesher was filled with positive energy as we celebrated a bat mitzvah of a young woman who grew up at Kesher. We still have a long road ahead and the wound still hurts, but I’m confident we can continue down this path of healing, unity, and communal growth,” Jakabovics said.

Closed chapter

Freundel had been a closed chapter in her life, until she heard the news of the voyeurism charges, in October 2014.

Bailey admitted that her commitment to Orthodox Judaism was shaken by the experience, while allowing that from the start she was “not the most faithful” Orthodox Jew. Still, she said, “I always thought that while I might not believe 100 percent of it, that this was something that really enriches my life. But after being a victim of this terrible person, I sometimes think: why am I doing this, why am I keeping kosher and Shabbat just because I made promises to this evil man?”

As she watched Freundel apologized to his victims during the arguments for sentencing — reading from a statement, he said “I was wrong, I am sorry. I did terrible things. I make no bones about it. I was in a terrible place” without looking directly at them — Bailey said she just didn’t buy it.

“He said all the kind of words you’d expect, but he sounded just like he was giving a sermon.” She recalled that as part of her unpaid work, after Freundel delivered sermons on Saturday “I used to go to him on Sunday morning with a little video camera, and he would redo the sermons, in order to put them online ... I remember him sitting on a chair talking, the lilt in his voice, as he tried to make himself sound emotional. I saw him do that in front of a camera on his couch. After seeing that, why would I believe what I saw in court?”

Bailey said she thought the emotional experience of the scandal was easier for women who strongly disliked Freundel when they learned of his crimes and much harder for those who liked or admired him and therefore felt deeper betrayal when they found out what he had done. Seeing him in court, she said, was therapeutic for her. “In my mind, he was the bogeyman but he looked the same as he had ever been. I had been in fear of him, he was so scary and powerful. Now he’s just this creepy weird man and now everyone knows it.”

Both Bailey and Mandel said it was “scary” when it was their turn to stand up and give their statements to the court but they felt strongly that it was something they needed to do. Mandel said that during their testimony most of the women addressed the judge, but she and one other woman faced Freundel and made their remarks directly to him.

Mandel’s baby had become restless during the proceedings, and she wore him in a baby carrier on her chest as she spoke. As she made her statement, he never met her gaze. “He kept his head down the whole time. I don’t think he could have sunk farther in his seat. It was harder than I thought it would be. There I was, full of righteous indignation, and I was wearing a 2-month-old, bouncing and rocking to keep him quiet, while I was calling the rabbi a sociopath.”

While most of Freundel’s shocking offenses were detailed in the prosecution memo, and the women in the Facebook had learned from each other about his various modi operandi, there were nevertheless some revelations in the courtroom. They discovered that in addition to suggesting that his non-Jewish students at Towson University try out the mikveh for the experience and actively luring other women to the ritual bath, suggesting that immersion could help them after traumatic personal events, Freundel had surreptitiously filmed vulnerable women in other locations as well. Mandel said Freundel was aware that many of his female converts had suffered sexual abuse in the past and had to have known that if his abuse of them was revealed, it would open old wounds.

Mandel had all of this in mind when she advocated in court for a harsh sentence. “This case doesn’t just affect 152 victims. It affects the entire Jewish community and future victims of sex crimes at the hands of rabbis,” she told Freundel. “Will they think it’s worth it to come forward? Will they feel safe? If you get off lightly today, I fear what will happen the next time a rabbi is exposed as a deviant.”

Mandel praised the Kesher Israel leadership for going to the police when they discovered his transgression, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug, to quietly demand that he resign and not explain why he was leaving. They could have easily done so, knowing the financial damage and harm to their congregation’s reputation that could and did ensue when their rabbi was charged. But they “did the right thing,” Mandel said, instead of allowing him to leave and probably to offend again in a new community, the way that clergymen who molested children have been “shuffled around” when their misdeeds were discovered by congregants.

Better off not knowing

Mandel pointed out that when Freundel’s victims discuss the case, they often say that personally they would have been better off had they not known the details of how they were violated.

“Part of me wishes he never got caught,” Mandel said. “It’s the part of me that wishes I never would have had to find out that this happened to me, that feels I would be better off if I never knew.”

But she also said she believed he was getting bolder over time and his offenses may have gotten worse. The prosecution memo refers to Freundel taping his own sexual encounters, without specifying who the women were. Both Bailey and Mandel said they hope fervently the women involved in these acts were in a consensual relationship with Freundel, stressing that a convert was not someone in a position to consent freely.

The final legal chapter has not yet been written in the Freundel affair. His attorney has said he plans to appeal the sentence. In addition, civil class actions were filed after the criminal convictions. The security surrounding mikveh and the way in which conversions take place in the United States have already been affected by the case, and additional changes are likely: Mandel herself belongs to a committee established by the RCA to review the conversion process.

After the sentencing was read, the women affected by Freundel’s crimes could not linger in the courthouse to discuss any of this. The hearing ended late on Friday afternoon; Shabbat was fast approaching, and as Orthodox Jews they had to hurry home to prepare.

It was to be Freundel’s first Sabbath as a prison inmate. As soon as the sentence was read, Mandel recounted, “marshals swarmed around him, it was very quick. His lawyers tried to ask for him to have time get ready, but the judge said that he had already had three months, he should have been ready.”

That’s when, Mandel said, her “Jewish-mother instinct” kicked in. “I thought, my God, but he’s not ready for Shabbat. I know that’s not a normal reaction, but that was my first thought, that it was just a couple hours before Shabbat, and he hadn’t gotten ready. I wondered about things like did he bring his tallis [prayer shawl], and what if they lead him through electrical equipment while processing him?” causing him to violate the Sabbath.

Mandel said that while she never liked Freundel personally, she has a relationship with his family: She knows his children, and calls his wife Sharon a “wonderful person.”

Unlike victims of Freundel like Bailey, who are having a crisis of faith as a result of their experience, Mandel retained her faith despite the betrayal. She attributes it, at least in part, to the fact that from the outset she kept her commitment to Orthodox Judaism separate from her relationship with Freundel. “I got through my conversion by saying to myself, ‘This man isn’t Judaism,’” Mandel said.

Her conflicted feelings about Freundel have even penetrated her unconscious. She has had dreams in which he tracks her down and hurts her because she has been the most public and outspoken of all his victims. Yet after the sentencing she dreamed she helped him escape from prison.

It’s a contradiction she accepts and is learning to live with. “I’ve been saying repeatedly and publicly that I wanted him to get the full 17-year sentence” requested by the prosecution, “but then I spent all of Shabbat hoping that he was able to get kosher food in prison. Yes, he may be a sociopath, but he’s also a father and a Jew.”