Graduate student fears she was victimized by Georgetown rabbi

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer

A rabbi at Kesher Israel was charged with six counts of voyeurism for allegedly setting up a hidden camera in a changing stall used for a private ritual bath. The rabbi, Barry Freundel, has also taught at GW as a part-time faculty member.

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer
A rabbi at Kesher Israel was charged with six counts of voyeurism for allegedly setting up a hidden camera in a changing stall used for a private ritual bath. The rabbi, Barry Freundel, has also taught at GW as a part-time faculty member.

When Stephanie Doucette was a junior at GW, she started the months-long process of converting to Orthodox Judaism, meeting with a local rabbi and twice practicing a ritual bath to prepare for the conversion.

Now she is one of potentially several women who may have been secretly filmed by that rabbi during ritual baths at a Georgetown synagogue. Barry Freundel was charged with six counts of voyeurism in D.C. Superior Court last week for setting up a video camera disguised as a clock radio inside a changing stall used during the baths. He has pleaded not guilty.

“Now I have to deal with the fact that I might have been one of the women he videotaped,” Doucette said. “My first reaction was I was very angry. After a week I think things started to hit me and I found myself very depressed and not sure of myself. If I hear a loud noise when I change in my room, I jump.”

Doucette moved to Maryland last spring after graduating from GW and decided not to complete her conversion with Freundel. She had begun to feel uncomfortable at the synagogue after other male members made sexual comments to her, which she said Freundel “shrugged off.”

“He explained, ‘Well, Stephanie, you’re an attractive young female so no matter what community you go to, this is a problem you’ll have.’ He was also like, ‘If I was younger and single, I’d be into you,’” said Doucette, now a first-year graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs. “I found myself backing away and keeping things at a bare minimum with him.”

Freundel taught religion courses as a part-time faculty member at GW as recently as spring 2008, said University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar. Csellar said she did not know if other students had worked with Freundel.

Freundel, 62, also taught at GW in fall 1998 and spring 2000.

Robert Eisen, the chair of the religion department and a professor of religion and Judaic Studies, said a “handful” of GW students every year have attended services at Freundel’s synagogue, Kesher Israel, located at 28th and N streets in Georgetown, though the number of Orthodox students at GW is relatively small. Kesher Israel is the only Orthodox synagogue near campus.

Eisen, who is a former member of the synagogue, said he hired Freundel to teach courses at the University and fill in for him while he was on sabbatical. He called the allegations “upsetting and shocking.”

“He was an intellectual, a gigantic personality, a very important leader and rabbi in the orthodox community,” Eisen said. “No one really saw this coming.”

As a member of a D.C. kosher supervision agency, Freundel also met “a number of times” with Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, the director of GW Hillel, to discuss the kosher eating options that will be offered in GW Hillel’s renovated building, Kaiser-Blueth said.

When Kaiser-Blueth was hired in 2010, he also met with Freundel as part of his interview process.

“The search committee felt it was important for candidates to meet with a broad swath of GW and community professionals,” Kaiser-Blueth said.

He said he did not know of other students besides Doucette who had been going through the conversion process with Freundel, and said he will focus on creating a “safe place” for staff and students to discuss the allegations or express concerns. The full impact of the allegations will “come in focus as the investigation unfolds,” Kaiser-Blueth said.

Metropolitan Police Department detectives say they have found video footage of six women in “various stages of undress,” and set up a hotline and email address this week for other possible for victims to report their connections to Freundel. Doucette said she submitted a photo of herself to MPD so detectives can search for her face in the video footage.

Freundel, who could face up to six years in prison, has been suspended without pay from Kesher Israel. He was also suspended from his teaching job at Towson University in Baltimore. More cameras were found in his Towson University office, and he has been accused of taking Towson students on field trips to the synagogue’s bath.

The bath, known as a mikvah, is used primarily in the process of converting to orthodox Judaism and by orthodox Jewish women for monthly cleansing. Doucette said detectives told her it would be a “few weeks” before she would know if she is one of the women filmed.

“It’s such a personal violation especially when it comes through a religious practice. Your religion should be beautiful and they have turned it into something so ugly,” Doucette said.

The Rabbinical Council of America revealed it knew about past allegations of inappropriate behavior, though not sexual misconduct, brought against Freundel, such as conversion candidates who felt “coerced” to do clerical work in his home, the DCist reported.

Freundel is due back in court Nov. 12.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.