A lawsuit filed Tuesday against a Georgetown synagogue and others accuses the sanctuary’s authorities of covering up a series of unusual practices of an influential rabbi, which the suit says allowed his alleged secret recordings of women in a ritual bath to go unchecked.
The lawsuit was filed by a Georgetown University Law School student, who accuses the rabbi, 62-year-old Barry Freundel, of luring her to the bath as part of her studies at the school. Among the unusual customs, the suit alleges, were the use of practice dunks before the bath, known as a mikvah, and encouraging non-Jews, unmarried women and students to use the bath as part of their studies, which runs counter to accepted Jewish practices.
Also named in the suit are the National Capital Mikvah, where the baths took place, and Georgetown University Law School, where Freundel taught.
Filed in D.C. Superior Court, the lawsuit seeks class-action status and identifies the plaintiff only as a third-year law student. “This case involves an unfathomable breach of trust by a Georgetown professor and religious leader and defendants’ utter failure to prevent and/or stop it,” Baltimore attorney Steven D. Silverman said in the lawsuit. He also said, “Defendants’ turned a blind eye to obvious signs of Freundel’s increasingly bizarre behavior, ignoring the bright red flags that Freundel was acting inappropriately with women subjected to his authority.”
The suit comes as the board that runs Kesher Israel synagogue and the National Capital Mikvah, the adjacent but separately administered bath, announced that they have terminated their contracts with Freundel, a nationally known arbiter of religious laws and a leader in conversions. He has been asked to vacate the rabbinic residence in Georgetown by Jan. 1. A mikvah is primarily used by people converting to Judaism and by religious women and men observing Jewish laws of ritual purification.
D.C. police arrested Freundel in October and charged him with six counts of voyeurism. Police said they found a camera hidden in a clock radio pointed at a shower in the mikvah. Authorities said that an aide to the bath found the hidden camera. Police seized numerous computer storage devices but have not said if more women have been identified as victims.
Freundel is scheduled for a hearing in D.C. Superior Court Jan. 16.
Attorneys for the mikvah, the synagogue and Freundel did not return calls seeking comment. Elissa Free, a spokeswoman for Georgetown’s law school, confirmed Freundel co-taught a law seminar in the spring of 2014.
Rachel Pugh, director of media relations for Georgetown University, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But she said in a statement: “We are horrified by the behavior reported to have taken place at the mikvah. The University is cooperating fully with law enforcement authorities on their investigation, as well as conducting our own investigation of Rabbi Freundel’s conduct.”
The suit alleges that Kesher Israel knew about past complaints but “simply passed” them to the Rabbinical Council of America — a major group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in which Freundel had been a leader — even though Freundel headed that group’s “protocol and standards” committee for conversions. The law student alleges that Georgetown “undertook no investigation into Freundel’s background prior to hiring him” and accuses the school of acting with “willful blindness.”
Religious experts have said that Freundel’s alleged practice of asking conversion students to take “practice dunks” in the ritual bath, before their actual conversion, was a problem. The concept has no basis in Jewish law and the Rabbinical Council of America said in a statement shortly after Freundel’s arrest that had they known of the dunks, it “would have engendered a more severe response.”
The Council was made aware in 2012 of complaints from conversion students who said Freundel was pressuring them to donate money and to do clerical work, but the board simply admonished him to stop.
The National Capital Mikvah advertised until shortly before Freundel’s arrest that it “supports practice dunks for conversions.” It isn’t clear whether Kesher’s leadership ever challenged
Freundel on the practice dunks, or how uncomfortable leaders felt.
Police say “many” women have come forward since Freundel’s arrest to say they used the bath and have declined to confirm an exact number. In many cases the women have no idea whether they were recorded. Silverman, the Georgetown law student’s attorney, said his client also does not know if she was recorded. He said she has not been given any updates from D.C. police, although she gave them a statement and a picture of her face so they can try to match it to images they may find on computer drives seized in searches of the rabbi’s home and synagogue.
Several students from Towson University have come forward to police to say Freundel took them to the synagogue and that some accepted his invitation to use the bath. Police searched Freundel’s office at Towson, where he was a tenured professor, and reported finding, in a bag, numerous cameras hidden in everyday household items, such as a tissue box and a key chain.
The lawsuit describes the Georgetown law student as “devoted to her Jewish faith” but chose to study at the Catholic University for its “reputation for excellency and diversity.”
The student says in the suit that Freundel invited her to services at Kesher Israel and that she joined his family for religious dinners at his home.
She wrote that she had immersed herself in the bath “as a research tool for this paper,” and that she got into the bath twice — on March 2 and April 2. She wanted to return because she didn’t feel her first visit was long enough. She said in the suit that each time, Freundel accompanied her to the changing room and “specifically showed” her “where she should place her clothing when she undressed.” After the rabbi left the room, she disrobed, showered and bathed, the suit said.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.