The Lurid Scandal of DC’s Most Powerful Rabbi

As we discussed last week, mean men at the helm of a company are bad enough but at the head of a spiritual institution can be even more insidious, affecting the personal lives of congregants and doing lasting damage to the communities they’re involved with. Mean men of faith are able to exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims on a deeper level than any bad boss could, as congregants often trust them with their most personal, intimate details and place the utmost faith in them. Barry Freundel joined the big leagues of the Modern Orthodox movement in 1989 when he was hired to lead one of Washington’s most prestigious synagogues Kesher Israel, which has included cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and innumerable other influential Beltway professionals as members. In addition to his rabbinical work, Freundel held adjunct faculty positions at American University, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton, Yale, and Cornell and guest lectured at Columbia and the University of Chicago, cutting a wide swath of influence in academia as well as in religious life.

It became crystal clear that Freundel wasn’t the paragon of virtue he appeared to be when he copped to a plea deal in February 2015 for a lurid charge of voyeurism, admitting guilt to peeping at fifty-two women while they went to the mikvah, the sacred ritual bath into which converts to Orthodox Judaism must wade. He had watched hundreds of women undress and shower via a small video camera embedded in a clock radio on the shelf. Prosecutors say he spied on one hundred more women, but some incidents fall outside the statute of limitations. As the story unfolded, it revealed a very dark side to Freundel indeed, and his voyeurism was the tip of the iceberg.

“Certainly, it’s hard to anticipate that he was doing this thing specifically,” noted former rabbinic colleague Rabbi Joshua Maroof, “but Rabbi Freundel definitely had a pattern of abusing power.” Conversion candidates had complained to Maroof that they found Freundel “manipulative, intimidating, and threatening.” One former Georgetown congregant was quoted as calling Freundel “brusque and abrasive” and noted that if he disagreed “he would step all over you, make you feel like an ant, try to squash you and shut you out.”

His abuses of power went far beyond the sexual allegations. One of Freundel’s victims, Bethany Mandel, told the Daily Beast that the public didn’t know the half of it. “People keep calling him a pervert and yes, he’s a pervert, but he’s also a power hungry sociopath,” Mandel said. “It wasn’t about porn. It was about power, and this was additional power no one knew he had.”

At the time, Freundel not only was vice president of the Washington region’s body of Orthodox rabbis, but was ascending within the world’s largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). By the mid-2000s, he was chairman of a key committee charged with standardizing the systems for conversion. Debates within Orthodoxy over who gets to decide someone’s

“Jewishness” had become very heated, both in the United States and in Israel, and Freundel was a major influencer.

Given his status as one of the country’s experts on conversion, congregants didn’t question him when he created a new concept at Kesher Israel: “practice dunks,” which he required of his young female conversion students, despite there being no such mandate in Judaism. He also allegedly urged college students he taught—including non-Jews and single women, not normally allowed at an Orthodox mikvah—to come try out the mikvah, flouting basic Orthodox norms around the ritual bath.

Two new lawsuits in mid-2015 were filed to hold Modern Orthodoxy’s largest rabbinic organization—the RCA—responsible in the scandal. They both alleged that the Rabbinical Council of America and Freundel’s own synagogue were aware of inappropriate conduct by Freundel long before the discovery of the hidden camera. The class action lawsuits charged that the RCA and Congregation Kesher Israel should have taken measures to remove him from his positions of responsibility based on his earlier behavior. This is the pivot point where the influence and power accumulated by men like Freundel really run amok. The higher these men rise, the fewer checks and balances seem to be in place for potential abuse.

“The real issue with [Freundel] is, he was just bragging about the amount of power he had,” said Steven J. Kelly, an attorney with the law firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White, who is representing the plaintiffs in the earlier of the two suits. “These women needed [his] stamp to get married in some cases . . . to do all sorts of things.”

Both suits claim that the total number of Freundel victims is far larger than the number of accusers who came forward.

An RCA conversion committee that Freundel headed, known as the Geirus Policy and Standards Committee (GPS), was responsible for implementing a new and controversial conversion process that centralized all conversion authority with a few selected rabbinical courts. Prior to 2006, individual rabbis within the RCA were permitted to convert on their own authority.

Here’s the rub: Freundel was not only the head of the RCA’s conversion committee, but also the head of a regional rabbinical court tasked by that committee with approving conversions in the Washington area. The lawsuit filed by attorney Kelly’s plaintiffs alleges that Freundel used that combination to put himself in a unique position “to sexually and otherwise exploit converts, over whom he exercised great power and control.”

One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Emma Shulevitz, claims that while she met with Freundel about her desire to convert to Judaism, the rabbi “made repeated references to [her] ‘looks’ and did not seem interested in discussing her spiritual development.” The suit also alleges that Freundel “bragged about his prominence within the RCA and touted his relationship with the Chief Rabbi in Israel.”

When Shulevitz later said she planned to find a new rabbi to convert her, Freundel allegedly responded, “Fine, but it won’t be accepted in Israel.” Rabbi Marc Angel, a longtime critic of the RCA’s new conversion system, told the Forward—a prominent publication with an American Jewish audience—that the allegations, if true, reaffirm concerns about the centralization of conversion powers. “This is a bad example of the fears we have had all along,” Angel said. “If you concentrate too much power in few hands, then there is bound to be abuse, and this just confirms our deepest fears.”

Working under a mean boss like Peter Arnell or Dov Charney can certainly have lasting impacts, but there is almost nothing that can cut quite so deep as abuse within a religious community. From Mark Driscoll to the abuses within the Catholic church to the sordid downfall of Freundel, these often secretive communities rely on the vigilance of their members and those victims brave enough to risk it all by coming forward.