Barry Freundel, a once-influential D.C. rabbi, admitted in court Thursday that he had secretly videotaped dozens of nude women as they prepared for a ritual bath, ending a painful chapter for his synagogue and the Modern Orthodox world that has been badly shaken by his abrupt, scandalous fall.
In a hearing in D.C. Superior Court, Freundel pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism — one for each woman prosecutors identified as having been taped within the past three years. The longtime rabbi had recorded about 100 additional women, prosecutors said, but those alleged crimes occurred outside the statute of limitations.
Emma Shulevitz, 27, of Rockville, one of the victims, was not able to attend because she recently had a baby. But reached after the hearing, Shulevitz said she was “satisfied” with Freundel’s guilty plea, though she still had many questions.
“I want to know why he did this,” said Shulevitz, whose husband went to the proceedings. “He has to explain himself. Maybe jail time is appropriate, but I wouldn’t say more than two or three years.”
Each misdemeanor count carries a maximum sentence of one year, and the agreement with prosecutors does not call for a specific punishment. Freundel is set to be sentenced May 15.
Freundel had for 25 years led Kesher Israel, one of the D.C. region’s most prominent Orthodox synagogues and spiritual home to well-known figures including former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Leon Wieseltier, who had been literary editor of the New Republic.
The rabbi was also a major figure in the bigger world of Orthodox conversions and was known among the Israeli rabbinate as a go-between in the sensitive realm of whom Israel considers legitimately Jewish.
Freundel, 63, was arrested in October on charges that he videotaped six women in the nude while he was at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown. But prosecutors said a review of his computer equipment revealed that more women had been recorded by Freundel as they prepared for the bath known as a mikvah.
A mikvah is used most often as part of a purification ritual by people converting to Judaism and by observant Jewish women seven days after the end of their menstrual cycle so they can have sex with their husbands. Authorities previously said Freundel hid a camera in a clock radio in an area where the women changed for the baths.
At Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors revealed new details about the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Zubrensky said in addition to the camera in a clock radio, Freundel set up mini-cameras in a tissue box as well as a table-top fan. Many of the videos were labeled with the victims’ initials, prosecutors said. And one of the cameras caught Freundel on video, adjusting the time on the clock radio. The mikvah is housed in a building across a courtyard from Kesher Israel.
A flush-faced Freundel said very little during the hearing. After prosecutors outlined their charges, Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin asked how he would plead.
“Guilty, your honor,” said Freundel, standing next to his attorney Jeffrey Harris.
The case has shocked Jewish communities in Washington and across the country.
The rabbi’s arrest brought about a dramatic plunge from power. He lost key national and regional positions — as well as teaching jobs at places including Georgetown and Towson universities — and became a pariah in a community where he towered for decades.
In a statement, the Kesher Israel Board of Directors wrote that the “scope and duration of these horrible crimes are still hard to completely comprehend” and said therapists were available to those who wished to meet with them.
“Despite this great betrayal by Rabbi Freundel and our communal pain, we have seen a community that has come together and whose members have leaned on one another for support. As we move forward, we will continue to grow stronger and are committed to ensuring that our community remains a warm, welcoming, and safe place to gather, worship, and learn,” the board wrote.
Freundel’s crimes also put the spotlight on a historic tradition in many Jewish communities. The mikvah goes back to early Judaism, when the Israelites immersed themselves in a bath before entering Jerusalem’s Holy Temple.
“The community is very, very disturbed by the actions of Rabbi Freundel,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the Rabbinnical Council of America. “These are supposed to be safe places. Clearly this is an aberration.”
The Rabbinnical Council of America, the world’s largest Modern Orthodox body and one in which Freundel once played a leadership role, announced after his arrest the creation of a body to recommend ways to prevent abuses. Many advocates for gender equality wrote and spoke about reforming the mikvah to give more authority to women, and some Orthodox rabbis pushed for reforms such as allowing women — not men — to oversee the dunking in the bath that is part of the conversion process.
Kesher Israel’s board fired Freundel in November and told him to leave the synagogue-owned home by Jan. 1, which he hasn’t, leading to another dispute.
At the close of the hearing, prosecutors asked that Freundel be put on GPS monitoring and be forced to check in with court officials to ensure that he does not flee the area. Freundel’s attorney objected. The judge denied the prosecution’s request.
In an e-mail to victims, prosecutors reminded the women that they would have an opportunity to submit written statements about how the crime affected them or to speak in person at the sentencing.
Bethany Mandel, 28, went through conversion with Freundel and was told by authorities that she had been taped in 2011, outside the statute of limitations for voyeurism. She has since moved to New Jersey, but she said she watched women’s reactions about the plea through social networks.
“The hope is that he doesn’t just get a year in prison. They want to see more than a slap on the wrist,” Mandel said. “I don’t know if anyone wants to see him serve 52 years in prison, but I’m nervous.”