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There was something so very depraved about the October voyeurism charges lodged against Rabbi Barry Freundel, the now-former pastoral leader of the modern Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown. The rabbi is accused of using his position to spy on naked women while they participated in a holy ritual at his synagogue, by secretly filming women while they showered in preparation for a mikveh, a Jewish ritual cleansing bath. Police say videos show Freundel setting up the camera attached to a clock radio, which captured at least six partially naked or naked women in the shower area. He pleaded not guilty in October.
But evidence suggests that the scope of his voyeurism extends far beyond those six women. The Metropolitan Police Department reportedly found a recording device that belonged to Freundel with more than 100 deleted files dating back to last February. Some were labeled with women’s names. Other women from the congregation have been coming forward saying they fear they were also violated. Several female students at Towson University, where Freundel taught, said they used the mikveh at Kesher Israel at Freundel’s suggestion. Police found tiny cameras and memory cards at the rabbi’s university office, too.
In hopes of figuring out just how many victims there are, the U.S. Attorney’s office even created a website explaining the case and providing contact information for victims’ rights advocates.
Freundel’s alleged crimes rightfully shook Kesher Israel community and the wider Jewish community. Mikvehs are part of the conversion process to Judaism for men and women; observant women go to the mikveh after having a baby, or in very religious circumstances, at the end of their menstrual cycles. Some simply decide to have a mikveh when they are depressed or just had a major life event.
In a mikveh, the idea is to be completely naked and rinse the body so nothing stands between the person and the ritual water, not even dirt. What authorities say Freundel did would have ruined this intimate spiritual place for so many women—with his camera and his eyes coming in between the women, the spiritual cleansing, and even God. The synagogue finally and officially fired Freundel in December (he was suspended prior to his firing) and says in the wake of these serious allegations it has “emerged stronger than we were before.”
Fortunately, 2014 wasn’t all bad news in the D.C. rabbinical world. In October, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf—the chief rabbi at Cleveland Park’s Adas Israel, the largest Conservative congregation in the District—wrote a personal note to his congregants announcing that he is gay and that, after having three kids and being married for 20 years, he and his wife are divorcing. Steinlauf, 45, asked for his congregants to continue to trust him as their spiritual leader, as he has been since 2008.
To his relief, neither his congregants nor the greater D.C. community really seemed to care. “I am overwhelmed by the love and support that is literally by the moment flooding in,” Steinlauf told Washington City Paper at the time. “People keep telling me they are more proud than ever to be a part of the congregation. I hoped for [this reaction], prayed for it, and it looks like that’s what’s happening.”