Shuffling into Superior Court Magistrate Judge William Nooter’s courtroom late Wednesday in ankle chains and handcuffs, a black kippah atop his head and a grave, pensive expression on his face, Rabbi Barry Freundel entered a plea of not guilty to six charges of voyeurism.
The rabbi’s wife, Sharon, and a young woman who appeared to be the rabbi’s daughter, sat emotionless in the gallery as they had the entire day waiting for the preliminary arraignment.
In contrast to their apparent stoicism, Emma Shulevitz, 27, of Rockville, one of the alleged victims in the case was outspoken in her reaction to being allegedly recorded undressing before a practice run of her mikvah ceremony required as part of her conversion to Judaism.
“I feel violated,” she said. “The ceremony is supposed to be between a woman and God and not between a woman and her rabbi.”
Freundel, who had served as head rabbi at the Modern Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown and is currently suspended without pay, is accused of making secret video recordings of women in the bathroom and shower area of the National Capital Mikvah, which is separated from the main synagogue by a courtyard. Although a separate legal entity for tax and legal purposes, the mikvah is affiliated with the synagogue.
According to a report by investigators with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) obtained by Washington Jewish Week, police were notified of the surreptitious recording device by an individual associated with the mikvah on Oct. 12, who also reported witnessing Freundel plugging in and operating the recording device secreted in a Dream Machine digital clock radio while she was setting up the mikvah’s showers. Freundel said that he was using it “for ventilation of the shower area.”
Police obtained a search warrant for the recording device on the very next day and reviewed numerous sets of recordings stored on the camera’s memory card.
The first three recordings on the camera’s memory card, timestamped June 2, capture three women separately “partially undressing” or changing clothes in view of the camera. The second occasion, timestamped Sept. 13, the camera recorded the face and voice of Freundel appearing to adjust the camera’s display time and “positioning it on the counter to face the shower stall area.” Six more recordings on the same day included four women “undressed or changing clothes” before entering the shower and drying off after.
A third set of videos dated Oct. 6, shows the rabbi again positioning the camera, followed by a video of when the camera was discovered. Because the camera was discovered on Oct. 12, at least on this day, the camera’s timestamp was behind by six days.
According to the criminal complaint obtained by WJW, none of the women depicted on the videos had knowledge of the recordings or gave consent for them. Also, according to the complaint, an operating manual for the recording device was found in the rabbi’s bedroom and was seized as evidence. A preliminary examination of a computer seized from Freundel’s residence at the time of his arrest contained files downloaded from the camera’s memory card.
Freundel’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, a partner with the D.C. law firm of Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke LLP, entered the rabbi’s not guilty plea on his client’s behalf, requested pre-trial discovery and further asked that Freundel be released on his own recognizance (without a monetary bond) pending trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Marcus-Kurn argued that Freundel is a flight risk, asked the court to order Freundel not to leave the country and to outfit Freundel with an ankle-strapped GPS tracking device. The prosecutor further asked the judge to order that Freundel stay away from women whose conversions he supervised and any others associated with the mikvah, Kesher Israel or the mikvah building.
Harris responded by saying that although the defense accepts the “stay away” orders and the travel restriction, he did not view the electronic monitoring as necessary, as he believes the rabbi will appear at future court dates.
“With all due respect, your honor,” said Harris, “I’ve seen this court hear worse offenders and flight risks today than Freundel” without ordering electronic monitoring. “I believe the defendant will obey court orders and I do not believe” the taxpayer expense is necessary.
The back and forth continued as the prosecution describe why it believes the rabbi is a flight risk.
As someone who was responsible for conversions and upholding [Jewish] laws, “the defendant has proven that he has no respect for those laws” by recording women on multiple occasions over a period of time, said Marcus-Kurn. “[The defendant] has violated laws up into heaven and down — and that’s according to the defendant’s laws.”
Marcus-Kurn also added that although so far none of the evidence indicates violence or felonies, the investigation is still in its early stages.
“The GPS monitor is only asked for by the government because of the visibility [of the case] and not the charges,” responded Harris. “Why that makes him a flight risk, I don’t know.”
The magistrate sided with the defense on the monitoring issue in light of Freundel’s lack of a prior criminal record. Yet, he ordered Freundel to report in person to pretrial services (probation) every week before the trial begins. He also granted the government’s request to hold on to Freundel’s passport.
Freundel left the courthouse with his wife and the young woman in a chauffeured SUV, declining to answer questions from a mob of reporters, so numerous that they broke the escalator leading out of the courthouse.
Freundel is scheduled to reappear in D.C. Superior Court at 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 12 for a status hearing.
Dmitriy Shapiro is political reporter at Washington Jewish Week, the Jewish Times’ sister publication.