Police searched a D.C. rabbi’s office at Towson University on Tuesday as students and campus officials expressed growing alarm over news that the rabbi, who was a professor there, took students on field trips to his Georgetown synagogue and invited them to use a ritual bath where he is now accused of secretly recording women.
Students in two of Barry Freundel’s religious classes said on Tuesday that the professor who replaced the suspended rabbi let students vent and that in back-to-back sessions, several said they either had been invited to shed their clothes and use the bath, called a mikvah, and had declined, or knew classmates who had participated.
“It was very emotional, confusing, frustrating,” said Jenna Taylor, a 22-year-old majoring in health-care management, describing her class on faith perspectives in medical history now being taught by Avram Reisner, a rabbi and theologian from the Baltimore area. Freundel began teaching at the school in 1989.
A woman who had helped Freundel with the ritual bath from late 2013 through May said she assisted at least a half-dozen Towson University students as they showered and immersed themselves in the mikvah as part of the field trips. The woman said she is in contact with D.C. police.
The slowly emerging information, much of it from women who say they are frightened or embarrassed to come forward, could expand the victim base as police continue to collect statements, meet with possible victims, and examine cameras, recordings and files — many of them deleted — that were seized at the rabbi’s home, synagogue and adjacent bathhouse. The university’s spokesman, Ray Feldmann, confirmed that police searched Freundel’s office in the College of Liberal Arts building.
Thus far, the 62-year-old Freundel, arrested last week, has been charged with six counts of voyeurism, all concerning incidents within the past several months, although police say in court documents that they suspect the recording to be more widespread. One woman has told The Washington Post that she saw a clock, in which Freundel had allegedly installed a camera, in the bath area as far back as 2012. Police have given no indication, at least in public, that Towson students were recorded. Two meetings with concerned congregants, sex-crime prosecutors and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier have been closed to media.
D.C. police have declined to comment, as they did again Tuesday, on whether any women beyond the six referred to in the criminal complaint have been identified, but they are encouraging anyone who used the bath to come forward. The U.S. attorney’s office also declined to comment.
Freundel is free from jail pending a preliminary hearing Nov. 12. Reisner, who has a doctorate in the Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and a master’s in bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania, said he spent most of his time in class Tuesday getting to know the students and understanding the curriculum. He said he allowed students to talk about what happened and that most were outraged.
“You already know that some students were invited to go into the mikvah,” Reisner said, adding that his students did not indicate that they had accepted the invitation. He would not elaborate further on the class discussion.
One student in Reisner’s class, Jonathan Munshaw, the editor of the campus newspaper, described his honors seminar on Judeo-Christian medical ethics as an exercise in anger and disbelief. He said three female students told classmates that they had been invited to the ritual bath in a previous year but declined. But he said they said they knew as many as 15 students who had been invited and accepted.
Munshaw said that several students broke down in tears, one fled the room and another indicated that her parents were seeking legal counsel. He declined to name the students who spoke.
The student paper, the Towerlight, reported Monday night that Nicole Coniglio, a Towson senior, was among the students invited to the bath. She declined but said two classmates accepted. “He proposed it as a special opportunity, something that you wouldn’t be able to participate in every day,” she told the newspaper.
The woman who said she helped with the mikvah said she at first thought the field trips were helpful and agreed to talk to the students about her own conversion. The woman spoke on the condition that she not be identified because of sensitivities around the case and the pending criminal investigation.
The woman said she helped Towson students undress for the shower, taken before the ritual bath. She said she trusted Freundel that this was accepted. “He was the authority,” she said. “Nobody questioned it. These students drove all the way from Towson to see this and learn more about it.”
The woman said she noticed the clock and a fan at times in the shower. Police said in a search warrant that in addition to the clock, that they found a manual for a fan with a hidden camera in Freundel’s bedroom at his home. The woman said she did not know whether any of the students under her watch were recorded, although she fears now that they were.
Feldmann, the university spokesman, said officials are encouraging students to talk with people with whom they feel comfortable and have passed along contact numbers for campus police, D.C. police and prosecutors. “There are a lot of moving pieces,” he said.
The university has acknowledged that Freundel took his students to Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown, but Feldmann said that officials were not told of the trips and that they were unauthorized. “That would have been over the line and inappropriate for a professor teaching a class here,” he said.
Freundel, a modern Orthodox, is one of the country’s best-known advocates for converts and has fought Israel to recognize more conversions in the United States. The ritual bath is used primarily by Jewish women and people converting to the religion.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that a national rabbinical board investigated Freundel in 2012 after female converts’ complaints of inappropriate behavior.
The Rabbinical Council of America questioned Freundel’s policy of asking those preparing for conversion to take “practice dunks” in the bath, which has no basis in Jewish law.
Coniglio, the Towson student, told the Towerlight that she believed Freundel “wanted students to use the mikvah for the experience,” although she stressed that she never felt pressured after she declined.
“He basically said that not all Orthodox synagogues have [a mikvah], so it was kind of a rarity,” Coniglio told the student paper. “He told us he was instrumental in getting it to his synagogue. He was proud of it. He proposed it as a special opportunity, something that you wouldn’t be able to participate in every day.”
Students on the tour also observed Freundel talk with women whom he was helping convert to Judaism, she said.
After Freundel’s arrest, Coniglio told the paper she was “completely, completely shocked.”
Michelle Boorstein and Julie Tate contributed to this report.