Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that there was a dispute about kosher standards at a Hanukkah party thrown at the White House by Barbara Bush. The dispute occurred in the early 2000s and involved Laura Bush.
Once Stephanie Doucette decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism, the choice of a rabbi to guide her was obvious: Barry Freundel.
Freundel, leader of the prestigious Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown, was a trusted adviser to the likes of retired U.S. senator Joseph I. Lieberman and literary figure Leon Wieseltier on the endless legal and ethical details Orthodox Jews live by: Is a chicken kosher if its leg is broken? Can infertile couples use donor eggs? What percentage of the mikvah, or ritual bath, must be rainwater?
More important for a convert such as Doucette, Freundel’s judgment was respected by rabbis around the world — no small feat in the divided world of Orthodox Judaism. So highly regarded was the rabbi that Eli’s Restaurant, a gathering spot for Washington’s kosher power players, named a pastrami and smoked turkey sandwich after him.
But Doucette, a George Washington University graduate student, says she started to feel uncomfortable soon after she began meeting with the husky, bearded New Yorker in early 2013. She said he commented regularly about the dating habits or sex lives of women in the congregation and about her own appearance. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old said, she asked to meet Freundel in the sanctuary of tiny Kesher Israel to complain that some men at the synagogue were staring at her and making suggestive comments.
(Related: What is the mikvah all about?)
She says that Freundel, now 62, told her: You have to understand, you’re an attractive young woman; this will happen in whatever community you’re in. “If I was younger and single,” she recalled him saying, “I would be interested in you, too.”
After that, Doucette cut back her meetings with Freundel and her visits to Kesher Israel. But with Freundel’s arrest last month on charges that he secretly videotaped women in the mikvah, Doucette is upset that she stayed — long enough to comply twice with the rabbi’s request that she immerse herself in the ritual bath.
She and the rest of Washington’s Orthodox community are left to reconcile a disturbing paradox: Their arbiter of right and wrong appears to have had a parallel life with its own distorted rules and rituals.
“It’s like that ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ thing. If the person who says stuff is kosher is then not being honest, what do you do?” said David Barak, 42, a Kesher member who converted in the late 1990s with Freundel. He called the rabbi “a towering mentor.”
Freundel, a father of three grown children whose wife, Sharon, is a top administrator at the District’s only Jewish day school, has been silent publicly since his arrest. His defense attorney, Jeffrey Harris, declined to comment for this article. Freundel has pleaded not guilty to six counts of voyeurism. He has been suspended without pay from Kesher Israel.
Almost since his arrival in Washington in the late 1980s, Freundel has elicited intense feelings — from opposite directions.
Was he an advocate for women’s advancement in Orthodoxy or an obstacle? Were his frequent standoffs with other D.C. rabbis a sign that he was bravely guarding Orthodoxy, or was he a power-hungry bully? Was he perceived as cold by many congregants because he was socially awkward, or was he a social climber, addressing only the influential and attractive?
Before his arrest, problems seemed to be catching up with Freundel.
Kesher Israel is the only synagogue near downtown that is Modern Orthodox, the more liberal part of Orthodox Judaism. But in recent years, several other traditional communities have popped up nearby, drawing away members with a more open approach to women’s prayer and, in some cases, leaders considered far more pastoral. While many still treasured what they perceived as Freundel’s brilliant mind, there was less and less tolerance in politically progressive Georgetown for his outspoken criticism of same-sex marriage and his public rebuking of new competitors, whom he called less legitimate.
At a time when the Orthodox world seemed to be exploding with change as well as resistance to that change, Freundel was losing his place of stature between right and left.
“He found himself stuck,” said one longtime congregant.
When Freundel arrived in Washington in 1989, Kesher Israel was still reeling from the recent slaying of its popular longtime rabbi, Philip Rabinowitz, a case that remains unsolved. Freundel, who had studied under Joseph Soloveitchik, a giant in modern Talmud scholarship, was seen as a good match for his young, intellectual congregation. He was considered a thoughtful and reasonable national voice for the Modern Orthodox Jew, comfortable with things such as women wearing pants and girls studying Talmud at the highest levels.
His sermons were on relevant, public topics, but he didn’t get too political — deliberately in a synagogue where pews are filled with high-ranking national players from both parties.
“He always said, ‘Whatever opinion I have, the person who wrote the [official] opinion was probably in the audience and the person who wrote the counter-opinion was probably also in the audience,” Barak said.
Freundel was known for inspired Q&A sessions, during which he’d field questions on anything from bioethics to whether Star Trek members could convert to Judaism.
“It’s quite dazzling,” David Epstein, a longtime Kesher member, said of listening to Freundel riff.
Yet conflicts began quickly during the rabbi’s tenure — including several related to Freundel’s focus on building his own mikvah.
Judaism teaches that a mikvah is so important that it should be built in a community before a synagogue is. It has been used for various spiritual purposes over the millennia by men and women, but today mikvahs are visited mostly by converts and by married women seeking to satisfy Judaism’s requirement that they immerse themselves after their menstrual periods and before they resume sex with their husbands.
Freundel challenged one existing mikvah nearby as not rigorous enough and then rebuffed other projects that had significant donors because he disagreed with aspects of how they would be built, members said. Freundel wanted a mikvah that would be under his supervision, open to converts and not for use by other Orthodox rabbis.
Among the donors he approached was Jonathan Javitt, a doctor and former Kesher member.
“He said he would be the one to decide what happened there,” said Javitt, who recently emigrated to Israel.
Asher Kaufman, a onetime Kesher member, tried to broker the donation of a home for a community mikvah in the mid-1990s. He and Freundel disagreed over whether it should be limited to routine use by Jews or also be used by conversion students.
“He said: ‘I’m the rabbi! You’re just a layman!’ ” said Kaufman, who now lives in New York. “We thought, it’s just ego, he wanted to show it’s his, it’s under his control.”
Freundel was on the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington in the early 2000s when the body challenged the White House over a kosher caterer Laura Bush selected for a Hanukkah party and threatened to go public, someone close to the incident said.
These were the kinds of disputes that divided Washington’s Orthodox Jews into Freundel lovers or haters. Some saw him as a defender of rigorous standards; others, as a bully.
About 2000, divisions at Kesher over the rabbi’s behavior became more severe. Some complaints were fairly mundane — that his style was too brusque and that he wasn’t making pastoral visits. A few people alleged that Freundel was diverting money donated for the synagogue to his effort to build a mikvah. Epstein, a past synagogue president, recalled that the conflict was resolved after the board appointed a committee to decide how to spend the money.
At one point, there were enough people bad-mouthing Freundel that some board members drafted a document calling for an end to criticism of the rabbi. The document uses the term “lashon hara,” meaning slanderous, negative talk, which is considered sinful in Judaism.
“We propose to bind ourselves and invite others to do the same . . . to cease to participate in any Lashon Hara, to stop listening to insinuations and attacks, to disassociate ourselves from them, and finally to respond forcefully in opposition to Lashon Hara” against the rabbi, the document stated.
“The majority of the congregation supported him, and the continued sniping was not consistent with the mores of the congregation,” said Epstein, who drafted the letter. People’s criticisms over the years “had no foresight approximating anything like what has happened.”
At the same time, Freundel’s profile in the larger Modern Orthodox community was rising.
Not only was he vice president of the Washington region’s body of Orthodox rabbis, but he was ascending within the Rabbinical Council of America, the world’s largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis. By the mid-2000s, he was chairman of a key committee charged with standardizing the systems for conversion. Debates within Orthodoxy over who gets to decide someone’s Jewishness had become very heated, both in the United States and in Israel, and Freundel was a major broker.
To Amy Kauffman and her husband, Ken Weinstein, Freundel has been a support — both when Weinstein’s mother died in the mid-2000s and, recently, while their teenage son has been sick with cancer.
“He has been there for our family. If you made the effort, he was everything a rabbi should be. You had to engage him,” she said. “And when you talk about his faults, the reason he was where he was, was because he could get up with two words on an index card and deliver a [teaching] that had people thinking, arguing, weeping. . . . That’s why people put up with the things they didn’t like, because he was so outstanding.”
Freundel’s frequent absences from Kesher for travel and sabbaticals, as well as the transience of his congregation, helped keep tensions below the boiling point. Freundel was a huge part of Kesher Israel, but not everything, some members said.
“Most people in our community felt a commitment to Kesher, not necessarily a commitment to the Rabbi himself. There’s a difference,” Kesher’s president, Elanit Jakabovics, said in an e-mail.
In 2005, Freundel opened the National Capital Mikvah, the city’s only Orthodox mikvah, in the basement of the building next to Kesher Israel.
As its rabbi, Freundel oversaw the mikvah, which is tucked behind a fence and down some stairs — a typical hidden entrance for a ritual spot considered very private.
Because Freundel is regarded as one of the country’s experts on conversion, congregants didn’t question him when he created a new concept there: “practice dunks,” which he required of his young female conversion students, despite there being no such mandate in Judaism. He also allegedly urged college students he taught at Towson University — including non-Jews and single women, not normally welcomed to an Orthodox mikvah — to come try out the mikvah, flouting basic Orthodox norms around who is supposed to use the ritual bath and why.
As Freundel’s case progresses — with a hearing scheduled for Wednesday — police are asking women who used the mikvah and are worried they may have been videotaped to send head shots. Since Freundel’s arrest, police have seized many video recording and storage devices, including some labeled with women’s first names.
Even as Freundel was seen by some as an advocate for women — he encouraged their religious education — congregants said in interviews that there have always been comments made over the years about the attention the rabbi showed some women. A common quip was that all conversion students were attractive young women.
“It was a big joke at Kesher — that he’d only give the time of day to women,” said Leah Sugarman, 30, of Silver Spring, Md., who converted with him. As soon as they started working together in 2010, she said, he would make “borderline sexual” comments, constantly praising her appearance and asking her about her dating life. “He’d say, ‘You know, you don’t have to dress so conservatively.’ In the Orthodox world, rabbis don’t talk to women that way,” she said.
Sugarman said the board knew that he was acting inappropriately with converts.
Jakabovics would respond to questions only via e-mail and declined to answer whether she had heard prior complaints about the rabbi’s behavior toward women.
Now Freundel’s many students are left to sort through his contradictions.
One man who converted with Freundel in about 2000 recalled the rabbi’s reaction at the time to a dramatic breaking-news story about people dying in a bridge accident.
“He said, ‘Those people, whether you know it or not, they had done some kind of wrong.’ The concept was that if something bad happens to you, you deserve it,” said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his own family is divided over the Freundel case. “Let’s assume in his best moments he must have understood there was a contradiction in his behavior and his status. But within the Orthodox community, where does he go? The community is so based on these judgments of behavior.”
Freundel’s alleged crimes came into view one day in late September after an attendant at the mikvah noted the rabbi behaving strangely when he came into the ritual bath to plug in a clock. She pointed out that there already was a clock, and the rabbi mumbled something about it providing ventilation, according to police. Soon after, the clock disappeared.
The attendant shared her observations with leaders of the mikvah and the synagogue. A lawyer was called.
The next time the woman saw the clock, she took it. Two days later, on Oct. 14, Freundel was led away from his home in handcuffs.
Congregants say Kesher Israel leaders had been discussing not renewing Freundel’s contract when it expires in 2016. Freundel purchased an apartment in Jerusalem, and some expected that he would retire there. Next door to the apartment is a mikvah.
Pamela Constable, Peter Hermann, Eddy Palanzo and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.