Just before Emma Shulevitz shed her clothes to practice for a sacred, private ritual bath at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown two years ago, she said, she was warned against disturbing a digital clock radio sitting on a sink.
The 27-year-old from Rockville was in the process of converting to Judaism and thought nothing of the request. But she said she was reminded of the conversation after the synagogue’s rabbi, Barry Freundel, was arrested and charged with spying on congregants with a camera hidden in the clock.
As she waited for Freundel to make his first appearance in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday, Shulevitz said Freundel told her in 2012 that “I could take as many practice dunks as I needed.” A police official confirmed that Shulevitz had been in touch with authorities about her allegations.
The 62-year-old rabbi, renowned in the religious community as an authority on Jewish law and ethics and an intellectual giant, was ordered released from custody by the judge and ordered to stay away from the women, Kesher Israel and the National Capital Mikvah, a ritual bath located in the basement of a building next to the synagogue.
Freundel stood in the well of the courtroom, wearing a black and gray yarmulke, blue jeans and a blue collared shirt. His wife, Sharon Freundel — who has been a leader of Kesher’s monthly women’s study and prayer group and is the director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital — sat in the courtroom with one of their three children.
The rabbi was charged with six counts of voyeurism and faces up to six years in prison. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris, told the judge that his client pleaded not guilty. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Marcus Kurn stressed that investigators were only “at the beginning” of looking into the case. “There could be children on these tapes,” she told the judge. “There could be men. . . . He violated the laws up in the heavens and down.” Freundel is due back in court Nov. 12.
Freundel has been suspended without pay from Kesher Israel, which has included among its congregants U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, longtime U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, author Herman Wouk, pundit Peter Beinart and literary figure Leon Wieseltier. The synagogue is part of Judaism’s modern Orthodox movement, which emphasizes Jewish law and tradition while trying to accommodate modern trends, such as the rise of women in leadership.
The rabbi also has been suspended from his role as the Rav Hamachshir, supervisor of the ritual bath, or mikvah, which he was instrumental in getting built in 2005. A mikvah is used primarily for people converting to Judaism and by observant Jewish women at very intimate times as a way of coming closer to God.
In newly filed court documents and a police report, authorities say they received a tip from someone who reported seeing the rabbi plugging in the clock in the shower area of the ritual bath; Freundel said it was for ventilation. The clock radio is called a Dream Machine and includes a camera activated by motion sensors. It is also equipped to save the images. It is advertised as a “self-contained surveillance device.”
Police also said in the documents that they found recordings of six women — in partial or full undress — on two dates in 2014.
According to Kesher’s Web site, Freundel heads the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and is vice president of the region’s Vaad, which oversees kosher dietary laws at Jewish institutions. He has a law degree and a doctorate and is affiliated with several area universities, including Georgetown University’s law school, the University of Maryland and Towson University, north of the Baltimore, where he taught a class titled “Faith Perspectives in Medical History.” Towson suspended Freundel on Wednesday.
Members of Georgetown’s Kesher community seemed stunned at the spying claims. In interviews, people spoke haltingly about Freundel’s many accomplishments and good works for the community but kept returning to the accusations.
They talked about how he had boosted the city’s Orthodox community with such things as the mikvah and an “eruv” — a ritual enclosure common in very observant neighborhoods. But he was also known to spend a good deal of his energy on his national and international work.
Congregants and conversion students of Freundel described him as a towering — sometimes intimidating — figure, as much for his résumé and spiritual role as for his personality, which they called formal.
Freundel holds top leadership positions in the regional and national bodies of Orthodox rabbis and is considered one of the national arbiters on conversion issues between modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States and religious leaders in Israel.
But the allegations have shaken some of the congregants. “To be honest, straight up — I don’t think I’ll ever go to a mikvah again,” said a District woman who converted to Judaism under Freundel’s tutelage and who has used the mikvah at Kesher monthly, as is traditional Jewish practice. Wary of offending the synagogue, she, like most congregants interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“That’s a big part of my family life,” the woman said of the bath. “How can you trust? Now I feel not only was my privacy violated, but now my conversion could be challenged. . . . He was my connection to Judaism. For me, this is extremely complex, because he was how I found my way into Judaism. Now I don’t know what my place is.”
Another congregant who knows Freundel said, “We are struggling with making sense of this.” She added: “We don’t want to lose our faith, but what do we say to our kids? You just want to know that you can have faith. You put your trust in these people. This is someone we have grown to admire and love over the years. God asks us to be slow to judgment.”
That the alleged abuse occurred in the mikvah hurt congregants to their religious core, several said. The bath is considered holy and private; many have inconspicuous entrances so women won’t be seen entering. Women are required to be naked, to fully submerge under the water and to recite a blessing. The only other person present is a female attendant who by Jewish law is charged with making sure that the woman is totally submerged. There is a solemn blessing before submersion.
“I’ll never be able to trust,” said one of the female congregants. “It makes this thing something dirty. . . . I’m devastated to think someone might have been watching me. It’s the rhythm of modern Orthodox Jewish life. It’s part of your connection with God, with your husband, your family.”
Late Wednesday, officials of the synagogue and the mikvah sent a note to its members seeking to reassure those who converted to Judaism under Freundel. The note said that the national body of Orthodox rabbis — the Rabbinical Council of America, which had included Freundel on its executive committee — “will do what it can to [ensure] the validity of those conversions so that the impacted individuals can move on with their lives.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified the defense attorney at a court hearing. That attorney was Jeffrey Harris, not Sean Brebbia.