Sunday, November 09, 2014

Prominent D.C. rabbi accused of voyeurism presents a disturbing paradox 

Once Stephanie Doucette decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism, the choice of a rabbi to guide her was obvious: Barry Freundel.

Freundel, leader of the prestigious Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown, was a trusted adviser to the likes of retired U.S. senator Joseph I. Lieberman and literary figure Leon Wieseltier on the endless legal and ethical details Orthodox Jews live by: Is a chicken kosher if its leg is broken? Can infertile couples use donor eggs? What percentage of the mikvah, or ritual bath, must be rainwater?

More important for a convert such as Doucette, Freundel’s judgment was respected by rabbis around the world — no small feat in the divided world of Orthodox Judaism. So highly regarded was the rabbi that Eli’s Restaurant, a gathering spot for Washington’s kosher power players, named a pastrami and smoked turkey sandwich after him.

But Doucette, a George Washington University graduate student, says she started to feel uncomfortable soon after she began meeting with the husky, bearded New Yorker in early 2013. She said he commented regularly about the dating habits or sex lives of women in the congregation and about her own appearance. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old said, she asked to meet Freundel in the sanctuary of tiny Kesher Israel to complain that some men at the synagogue were staring at her and making suggestive comments.

She says that Freundel, now 62, told her: You have to understand, you’re an attractive young woman; this will happen in whatever community you’re in. “If I was younger and single,” she recalled him saying, “I would be interested in you, too.”

After that, Doucette cut back her meetings with Freundel and her visits to Kesher Israel. But with Freundel’s arrest last month on charges that he secretly videotaped women in the mikvah, Doucette is upset that she stayed — long enough to comply twice with the rabbi’s request that she immerse herself in the ritual bath.

She and the rest of Washington’s Orthodox community are left to reconcile a disturbing paradox: Their arbiter of right and wrong appears to have had a parallel life with its own distorted rules and rituals.

“It’s like that ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ thing. If the person who says stuff is kosher is then not being honest, what do you do?” said David Barak, 42, a Kesher member who converted in the late 1990s with Freundel. He called the rabbi “a towering mentor.”

Freundel, a father of three grown children whose wife, Sharon, is a top administrator at the District’s only Jewish day school, has been silent publicly since his arrest. His defense attorney, Jeffrey Harris, declined to comment for this article. Freundel has pleaded not guilty to six counts of voyeurism. He has been suspended without pay from Kesher Israel.

Almost since his arrival in Washington in the late 1980s, Freundel has elicited intense feelings — from opposite directions.

Was he an advocate for women’s advancement in Orthodoxy or an obstacle? Were his frequent standoffs with other D.C. rabbis a sign that he was bravely guarding Orthodoxy, or was he a power-hungry bully? Was he perceived as cold by many congregants because he was socially awkward, or was he a social climber, addressing only the influential and attractive?


Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Chaptzem! Blog