Many people look to their religious leaders for guidance in getting through trauma. But what about when the leaders are themselves caught up in the trauma?
That’s what happened at Kesher Israel, a prominent D.C. synagogue that was rocked last fall when its longtime rabbi, Barry Freundel, was charged with secretly videotaping women preparing to use a ritual bath. Freundel, a national Orthodox leader whose arrest made global news, hasn’t said anything since except to enter a guilty plea in February. His wife, Sharon, a well-regarded and popular Jewish educator in the District who shared in leadership at Kesher – a common role for a rabbi’s wife, who is called “rebbetzin” – remained publicly silent as well, until last week, when she gave an unusual and striking lecture.
After six months of pained, emotional and sometimes angry community meetings and worldwide media coverage, Sharon Freundel, director of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at the Jewish Primary Day School in Northwest Washington, chose to communicate to her community for the first time with a talk called “Post-Traumatic Stress Responses in the TaNaKH,” or the Hebrew Bible.
The talk on March 22 was simultaneously intimate and removed. Here was the wife of the central figure of this hugely publicized drama, speaking about sex abuse and murder and the mysteries of the human spirit and the limitations of marriage – but never referring specifically to herself. Instead she spoke about trauma – and responses to trauma — in the Bible, assuming the posture of a teacher. The talk was going on at two levels. Freundel declined to comment for this article.
The talk at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School study center in Rockville, Md., was the first time someone from the rabbi’s family has spoken out since the start of the case, which raised questions of accountability and sexism in Orthodoxy. Over 90 minutes, Freundel reached into Jewish texts and the horror stories that exist there (Noah watching the world get wiped out, Lot seeing his wife get turned into a pillar of salt and Isaac witnessing his father try to kill him, to name a few), saying she wanted to show the range of traumas that humans face and the fact that there are many responses.
She quoted Jewish philosopher-giant Joseph Soloveitchik, who wrote that marriage can be a place we can go at times of trauma and loneliness, “when we believe nobody ‘gets’ us.” In her next sentence, she said Soloveitchik concludes “the ultimate answer is to turn to the one above. The one above will get it.”
The only direct reference she made to herself was at the start of the talk.
“As you all know, I’ve become an expert in PTSD,” she said to the 150 people in the room, many of whom were current or former Kesher members who hadn’t seen her in months. “Researching this has been so therapeutic.”
Freundel disappeared from her community at Kesher, in Georgetown, in the weeks after her husband was arrested. He quickly gave her a Jewish divorce agreement (they are still married under civil law) and she moved to suburban Maryland, where her daughter lives. For people accustomed to seeing her as a major part of synagogue life, watching Freundel stride confidently around the stage was cathartic. They saw a person reclaiming her place.
“She didn’t want to represent the scandal anymore,” said one longtime Kesher member who called her talk a milestone in their healing. “It gave her sense of how she survived it and how the community can survive it. She was educating the community in surviving its misfortune.”
To people who were part of the community, the fact that she spoke in the third person was perfectly fine, and, in fact, tactful. While Kesher members have had many closed meetings among their community and the Freundel case has been a constant topic of talk among D.C.’s Orthodox Jews, there can be a stigma around certain types of public gossip because it runs counter to modesty. Her specific-unspecific talk, one person who attended said, was “elegant. It’s like giving a parable without having to give its meaning. Every syllable of it was happening at two levels.”
Barry Freundel went from being one of the most visible members of the region’s Orthodox community – he was a leader in the regional and national Orthodox rabbinical groups, taught at several local universities and was head of the region’s Orthodox conversion court – to being an immediate pariah. Multiple members of Kesher say they have not spoken with him and know no one who has. He is scheduled to be sentenced May 15.
Baruch Fellner, a longtime member of Kesher who runs the annual lecture series of which Sharon Freundel’s talk was a part, said he heard her speaking of herself when she talked about Abraham’s grief and recovery after Sarah, his lifetime partner, died.
“She came very close to being the Abraham of the topic she addressed – Abraham crying, eulogizing and then picking up the pieces and burying, actively engaging in life,” Fellner said.
Yet Freundel left her own conclusions inexplicit. When she talked about victims of trauma, when she talked about the ways in which our ancestors’ traumas run through us, was she including her husband?
Ultimately, she said, there are things we’ll never be able to explain. “These are things humanity will never have answers for.”
When her talk ended, the audience clapped politely.
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