Civil Action Against D.C.’s Voyeur Rabbi Opens Old Wounds

Posted August 19th, 2016.

As It Appeared On
Haaretz

More than a year after Barry Freundel was put behind bars, some women are loath to endure more testimony on his attempts to view them during ritual baths.

Allison Kaplan Sommer

Renewed attention on a $100 million class-action suit against Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was imprisoned for installing cameras in ritual baths to ogle naked women as they showered and prepared for immersion, has reopened old wounds.

Nearly two years after his arrest and more than a year after Freundel was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars, the civil action against the rabbi and the religious institutions that allegedly enabled his crimes is only gearing up now.

The lawsuit, which consolidates three separate civil actions filed back in 2014 after Freundel’s arrest, has expanded the number of institutions it is targeting. In addition to suing Freundel personally, the list of targets includes the National Capital Mikvah where the crimes took place, Freundel’s synagogue of 25 years Kesher Israel, and the Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella organization for Orthodox rabbis. Another target has been newly announced – the Beth Din of America, the religious court.

All these organizations “flagrantly broke their promises, egregiously breached their duties to the women who used the mikveh, and let Rabbi Freundel’s crimes go unchecked for years,” said David Sanford, lead counsel in the class-action suit. “We will ask a D.C. jury to hold all defendants liable and impose punitive damages in order to send a strong message that even institutions draped in the cloak of spirituality won’t escape punishment when they violate their legal obligations.”

Currently, only a small group of Freundel’s many victims – a list estimated to run as high as 150 – are plaintiffs in the case, but the list is likely grow once the group of women is certified by the courts as a class and the legal action moves forward.

Some victims though, are refraining from filing suit for a variety of reasons. Some simply want to leave the traumatic incident in the past. After enduring the criminal case that put Freundel behind bars, they say they don’t want to relive seeing his behavior detailed in a courtroom.

“I just want to move past it. I think most of us who have been most seriously affected feel like that. The victims in this aren’t the only victims and this [lawsuit] has the potential to ruin lives more,” said Bethany Shondark Mandel, a journalist who has become the most public voice of Freundel’s victims.

She said she and other victims were deeply worried about the tapes showing them being screened in court and were disturbed even by the idea that they would be viewed by additional judges and lawyers. She said there was deep concern that even if they chose not to sue, the tapes would be subpoenaed nonetheless.

Concerns about the congregation

Another reason for hesitation by some victims is the precarious financial state of the Kesher Israel congregation, where some of them are members. One victim, who asked that her name not be published, told Haaretz that she chose not to sue because she does not want to harm the synagogue.

“I didn’t want to bankrupt Kesher Israel. The synagogue barely pulled off fixing its heating two winters ago, so I can’t imagine where it would find the money to compensate victims,” she said.

“As for Freundel, who will get out of prison eventually, I doubt he has much money to his name either. Am I owed something for my pain? I suppose so, but I’m mostly happy that D.C.’s Crime Victims Compensation Program covered the costs of therapy [mental health counseling], which I certainly needed after this incredible betrayal and breach of trust.”

If the suit had only been filed against the Rabbinical Council of America and rabbinical courts, she might have felt otherwise, as she believes these groups were fully aware of multiple complaints of unconventional practices by Freundel. These included his unconventional recommendations that women take a “practice dunk” in the mikveh before conversion ceremonies, or requiring that they “re-dunk” afterward because of undefined problems with their immersion. Presumably, the requests were made to give him more opportunities to tape the women.

“The RCA and Beit Din should have realized something was off,” she said. “Practice dunks are not normal and they had received tips over the years about inappropriate behavior.”

Most of Freundel’s victims were candidates for conversion to Judaism, but also included Kesher Israel congregants who were not converts, as well students at Towson University in Maryland, where Freundel taught classes on religion and ethics.

Shondark Mandel said that she, too, is reluctant to inflict financial distress on the Kesher Israel congregation, whose leaders, she said “responded professionally and swiftly when suspicions arose” that Freundel had been abusing his access to the mikveh.

The only good thing

But perhaps, she added, fear of a substantive lawsuit would be the wake-up call that some of the larger religious organizations needed to be more responsive to allegations of impropriety by spiritual leaders.

“The only good I see coming out it is that institutions will realize … that they have to respond to the allegations professionally and with clearly outline policies,” Shondark Mandel said. “I don’t think they’ve learned their lesson.”

She pointed to the handling of the “sauna rabbi” scandal involving Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale in the Bronx, which followed the Freundel affair, as a sign that religious institutions still tended to protect their own when impropriety was suspected.

Beth Din of America, the National Capital Mikvah and the Rabbinical Council of America have not responded to inquiries on the lawsuit.

Elanit Jakabovics, Kesher Israel’s president, declined to comment directly on the legal case in a phone conversation. She acknowledged, however, that there was deep concern among congregants as to how heavy civil damages could affect them if the courts found them liable. “Our congregation is not a rich congregation and we have one of the least expensive dues structures around,” she said.

Since Freundel’s departure in 2014, Kesher Israel has not hired another full-time rabbi, spending a long period where congregants led their own services. And for the past year a part-time interim spiritual leader, Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, has been on board. Jakabovics said this has helped the congregation begin to overcome the behavior of the man who led them for 25 years, and look forward to the future with what she called “an energy that is refreshing and uplifting.”

Freundel’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, called the story “old news” and said the attorneys for the class action were exaggerating the importance of amending existing lawsuits in order to generate publicity.

“As is true with many class actions in the United States, the only winners will be the lawyers,” he said. “If they are successful they will have used these Jewish women to destroy the synagogue.”

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