Posted August 16th, 2016.
By Julie Zauzmer
The victims of a D.C. rabbi who was convicted of illegally recording naked women as they prepared for a ritual bath are demanding at least $100 million in a lawsuit against the rabbi and several Orthodox Jewish institutions that supervised him.
Rabbi Barry Freundel, formerly an influential leader at Georgetown’s Kesher Israel synagogue and in the Modern Orthodox movement nationwide, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison last year for surreptitiously videotaping dozens of women.
On Tuesday, nine of the women who are seeking to bring a class-action lawsuit against him named the amount they are seeking in court — at least $100 million, or $1 million for each victim, their lawyer David Sanford said.
Freundel pleaded guilty to taping 52 women, but prosecutors said he recorded more than 100 additional victims earlier than the three-year statute of limitations. “We don’t believe it’s unreasonable to seek a million dollars per person before a jury,” Sanford said.
The team of lawyers also amended their complaint on Tuesday to include an additional defendant. Along with Freundel, Kesher Israel, the ritual bath where Freundel’s crimes took place and the Rabbinical Council of America, the victims are now suing the Beth Din of America, the Orthodox court that supervised Freundel.
Sanford said he expects the court won’t rule on certifying the victims as a class until next year, meaning a trial wouldn’t happen until 2018.
The Beth Din, which is affiliated with the RCA, declined to comment on Tuesday. The RCA did not respond to a voice mail and an email requesting comment. Freundel’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, did not respond to a voice mail request for comment.
Married women go to the ritual bath, called a mikvah, after they menstruate each month to purify themselves before having sex again with their husbands. Converts also immerse themselves in the mikvah to complete the process of becoming a Jew. Freundel oversaw the conversion court for the Washington area, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America.
The lawsuit tells of numerous plaintiffs who went through the conversion process. One woman said she came to see Freundel as a father figure in the four years he tutored her to prepare for her conversion and was devastated when she learned that Freundel had recorded her using the mikvah during the conversion and during the “practice dunk” that he told her to try. Another found out that Freundel had recorded not only her, but also her daughter, a minor.
One victim said she completed two “practice dunks,” an idea of Freundel’s that is not found in Jewish tradition. When she found out Freundel had recorded her, she did not go through with converting to Judaism.
Freundel’s unconventional “practice dunks” in preparation for conversion, and “re-dunks” after converting, should have made the RCA and the Beth Din suspicious, the lawsuit says: “The Institutional Defendants knew or should have known of these practices and their impropriety but took no action to stop them.”
Freundel was prominent in the District, with a congregation that included such figures as former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, and nationally. He spoke at Princeton and Yale, addressed Congress and wrote dozens of books and articles.
On Monday, the victims’ lawyers said that members of the Orthodox community had raised complaints about Freundel — including uncomfortable comments he made to young women, and suspicions of extramarital affairs — and the RCA and Beth Din, two of the leading institutions of Modern Orthodox Judaism in America, were negligent in not further investigating his behavior.
The RCA said shortly after Freundel’s arrest that it had investigated him in 2012 and 2013 but had not informed his synagogue. The arrest prompted nationwide outcry in the Modern Orthodox community about how to prevent rabbis’ misconduct from going undetected.
Bethany Mandel, a victim who has spoken out about the crime and who has not participated in the lawsuit, said, “Good for them,” when she heard the women are suing the Beth Din.
“Do I think that they knew there were cameras? No, I don’t think anyone could have fathomed that before his arrest,” Mandel said of the Beth Din and RCA. “But they received complaints from women about inappropriate behavior, and they heard reports about extramarital issues that were going on … I think they’re learning a hard lesson with Freundel — I hope they’re realizing that this is not the way to handle complaints.”
As for the demand of a million dollars per victim — it’s hard to put a price on what Freundel stole from her, Mandel said.
“This was life-altering for a lot of us. This wasn’t just any violation of our privacy,” Mandel said. For her and for many others, Freundel was the person who guided her conversion to Judaism. “He turned out to be a complete scumbag. It’s very hard to hold onto your faith when that trust is so violated.”