Prosecutors have asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to impose a 17-year prison sentence for Barry Freundel, the once-influential Orthodox rabbi who secretly videotaped dozens of nude women as they prepared for a ritual bath.
Freundel, 64, was arrested in October on charges that he videotaped six women in the nude while he was at Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown. Prosecutors said a review of his computer equipment revealed that many more women had been recorded by Freundel as they prepared for the bath known as a mikvah — used as part of a purification ritual by people converting to Judaism and by married women as a way to sanctify sex.
Freundel ultimately pleaded guilty to videotaping 52 women, and the punishment proposed by prosecutors would translate to four months for each victim. The longtime rabbi had recorded about 100 additional women, prosecutors have said, but those alleged crimes occurred outside the three-year statute of limitations. The videotaping occurred between 2009 and 2014.
Sentencing is set for May 15 before Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin, and dozens of the victims — including several who will fly in from Israel — are scheduled to attend. The judge can adopt or reject the prosecutors’ recommended sentence.
In a 25-page memo, prosecutors attacked Freundel’s credibility as a religious leader and said he lived a “double life.” Prosecutors said they found videos of the rabbi, who is married, having sex with several women.
In another part of the memo, prosecutors wrote of a woman videotaped by Freundel who had been a victim of domestic abuse for more than 10 years. Freundel offered her support, even setting her up in an apartment away from her husband. Yet, unbeknownst to the woman, Freundel placed recording devices in the apartment’s bedroom and bathroom, according to the memo.
Prosecutors said Freundel used an “elaborate” cataloguing system to identify each video of his victims by number and included the women’s names or initials.
“He used his position of trust to take advantage of a place of peacefulness, spirituality, and privacy, deceiving women into attending, and surreptitiously recording his congregants, students, and potential converts naked,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Zubrensky wrote in the memo.
Authorities initially said Freundel hid a camera in a clock radio in an area where the women changed for the baths. Further investigations revealed Freundel had also set up mini-cameras in a tissue box and a tabletop fan.
Apparently in order to get women near the cameras, Freundel came up with the concept of “practice dunks,” in which women would submerge before their conversion, ostensibly to get comfortable with doing it correctly. In their memo, prosecutors said Freundel told some women there was something technically wrong with their practice dunk and that they had to repeat it. He also told those women not to tell anyone about the re-dunks, the memo said.
Prosecutors said Freundel even had some of those female students use the mikvah, a practice that is contrary to Jewish law because the women were neither converting nor married.
In an interview, Jeffrey Harris, Freundel’s attorney, said the suggested sentence was too severe. “Murderers and rapists do less time than that,” Harris said.
Some of the victims said they believe a tough prison sentence is warranted.
One of the victims, Bethany Mandel, a Freundel convert who has been outspoken about problems with the conversion system, wrote in her victim impact statement that the Jewish world is watching this case.
“Initially, I thought [the requested sentence] was too much, given what we knew, especially considering his age,” Mandel said in an interview. “But after hearing from victims who were violated in the most egregious ways, both in the statement and one-on-one, I think it’s fair, if not too lenient.”
In statements filed with the court, many of the women have requested that their names be redacted to protect their identities.
The rabbi’s arrest brought about a dramatic plunge from power. He lost key national and regional positions in the Jewish community and teaching jobs at places that included Georgetown and Towson universities.
For 25 years, Freundel led Kesher Israel, one of the Washington region’s most prominent Orthodox synagogues and spiritual home to such figures as former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Leon Wieseltier, a well-known literary critic.
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.
In November, Kesher Israel’s board fired Freundel.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which is the world’s largest Modern Orthodox body and in which Freundel once played a leadership role, announced after his arrest the creation of a body that will recommend ways to improve the conversion process and protect converts. Many advocates for gender equality have written in recent months about reforming the mikvah to give more authority to women, and some Orthodox rabbis pushed for such reforms as allowing women, instead of men, to oversee the dunking in the bath.