Ripped from the headlines, the details were jarring: A prominent Orthodox rabbi, revered by his community, was caught filming secret recordings of women undressing as they prepared to use a Jewish ritual bath and was sent from the pulpit to prison.
It sounded like the stuff of sordid drama. And now it is.
The crimes of Rabbi Barry Freundel, the leader of the prominent Georgetown synagogue Kesher Israel until his 2014 arrest, are now the subject of a play, which premiered last week at the Capital Fringe Festival for eclectic theater.
And some of Freundel’s victims, the women who trusted him as a rabbi before finding out he had been secretly making intimate videos of them, are angry that the playwright would put their ordeal on stage without speaking to any victims about their actual experiences.
The show, called “Constructive Fictions,” is 48-year-old graphic designer A.J. Campbell’s first staged work. The day after the debut performance for an audience of about 30 people, who filled half the seats in the Gallaudet University theater where it was staged, Campbell said that Freundel’s crimes called out to her as a fitting subject for a play almost immediately.
“I knew when I started reading some of the press accounts. I grew up in that world,” she said. “It was upsetting, but I understood the context.”
Raised as an Orthodox Jew, Campbell left the religion when she came out as lesbian. Battling ovarian cancer five years ago, she became interested in faith again and eventually returned to Judaism’s Conservative movement, which has a much more inclusive views about the roles and rights of women and LGBT people than the Orthodox movement.
In Campbell’s script, Freundel is unrepentant. “There are real criminals in here. No, not like me,” he says in his prison cell in one of his first lines in the play, standing in an orange jumpsuit with a Jewish prayer shawl over it.
Campbell posits in the play that Freundel started recording the women as they prepared for the ritual bath because of his obsession with getting every detail of the Jewish conversion process correct, not because of prurient interest, and then his lust took over. It’s her own theory, as is her belief that Freundel is not sorry, since his lawyer didn’t respond to her request to interview Freundel, who is serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence after pleading guilty to recording 52 women.
In the play, Freundel says half-boastfully, “I am not going to stand here like some weeping goyishe televangelist begging for your forgiveness.”
He whines at length about the prison food and the bedding. He blames the prosecutor who tried his case and the witnesses who testified. He compares himself to Biblical heroes Noah, Joseph and Moses and frequently indulges in more of-the-moment name-dropping as well. “I know that Jared and Ivanka would have been at my synagogue,” he says.
Freundel’s character talks far more than the four women who play his victims.
The real-life victims discussed the play in a private Facebook group, and most were upset to hear about it, some victims said.
“It was pretty triggering for everyone,” said Bethany Mandel, one of the victims. “People don’t realize it’s actually an emotional thing that affected our lives very deeply. It’s not just a ‘Law and Order’ episode.”
Kate Bailey, another victim who has spoken publicly about the crime, agreed, “Our pain is there for public consumption in a way that no one had any say in.”
Both Mandel and Bailey were most bothered by the fact that Campbell wrote about their experience without interviewing any victims. “She called Freundel’s lawyer because she wanted to interview him. She felt that it was relevant to talk to him but not to us, which is pretty insulting,” Mandel said. “She doesn’t seem to have put any thought into our perspective as victims. She didn’t try to talk to any of us.”
Bailey pointed out that one of the characters in the play is a woman who moved into an apartment arranged by Freundel to escape her abusive husband — an actual person whom Campbell learned about from court documents, not a composite character. “She was an abuse survivor who was targeted, who was a real person who has real feelings,” Bailey said. And for her own part, hearing about the play brought up memories that she can’t shake. “I think about Freundel almost every night when I go to my bathroom at night — oh my gosh, is he hiding behind the shower curtain?”
Synagogue leaders at Kesher Israel declined to discuss the play.
In an interview, Campbell said at first that she purposely chose not to contact any victims while she was writing her play. “I didn’t feel like I could do their individual stories justice,” she said. “I’m not a reporter…. They can tell their story better than I could, couldn’t they?”
She said she did not feel any ethical qualms about staging their story, especially since the prominent rabbi’s arrest was the subject of international news coverage. “I don’t want them to be upset, but I think the story in a way belongs to all of us now,” she said.
Later on in the same interview, she seemed to reconsider. “I would totally love to meet with them. It didn’t occur to me,” she said. “Maybe I could rewrite it with more of their information, if that’s something they would be open to. I wonder what their thinking is.”
Campbell has wide-ranging ambitions for future works — she’s writing a musical comedy about the merger of two pharmaceutical companies, and she wants to write an adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest” for transgender actors and one of “Lysistrata” about current-day partisan battles.
But for this play, she said, her goal is not just to entertain audiences but to caution them. She recalls hearing an explanation for why Jews retell the story of the wicked Haman each year at Purim: “We tell the story so we know when he shows up again, we’ll recognize him.”
She wants synagogues to include more women in leadership roles, so that they will recognize the next Freundel.
“As women become elevated, it becomes harder and harder for these things to happen. The cure is women,” she said. “More women on the board. More women in roles of power. More women involved in the conversion process. That’s the cure.”
The play will run for two more performances, on July 20 and 23.