A modern-day morality play, set in Washington’s Jewish community is sure to ruffle some feathers and get people talking again about the notorious “Peeping Tom” rabbi, Barry Freundel, who is serving a six-and-a-half year sentence for secretly filming 52 women in the bathroom of a ritual bath.
“Constructive Fictions,” a world premiere by local playwright A.J. Campbell, borrows heavily from the Freundel case, using his name and his outsized persona to mold this highly unlikable character for instructive purposes. On stage at the Eastman Studio Theatre on Gallaudet University’s campus through July 23, the play takes an unvarnished look at a power-hungry rabbi and the devastation he causes to a quartet of women who represent the many women he victimized at a moment of spiritual holiness.
Campbell, a Takoma Park, Md., resident and member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, felt compelled to write the piece as she closely watched the scandal unfold. Using court documents, news reports and materials in the public record, she has created a fictional retelling in the voices of the rabbi and some of his victims that attempts to understand what lies at the roots of the once-powerful man’s crimes and misdemeanors.
Campbell presents Freundel, who was a professor at Towson University when the scandal broke, in a spare, ugly cellblock. A picture of Ivanka Trump is taped to a wall, suggesting — as the Freundel character does later in the play — his proximity to American political power. As Freundel, actor Matty Griffiths, bearded and oily hair graying under a kippah, wears his orange prison jumpsuit with a sense of disdain, paralleling the disdain he must have had for his students and congregants he secretly recorded.
Later, in a scene imagined at his pulpit, he dons a tallit and gives a rabbinic drash, subtly sermonizing away his own guilt by postulating the loopholes in Halacha — Jewish law — when it comes to his case, even asserting that he doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness.
Joining Griffiths onstage, Natasja Handy as Leah, Anna Paliga as Rachel, Gianna Rapp as Rebecca and Helen Bard-Sobola as Sarah represent four women at distinct moments in their lives who were violated by Freundel. Named for the biblical matriarchs, they serve as a modest court, revealing their stories of using the mikvah for conversion, to learn about Judaism, to cement a marriage and to recover from familial abuse.
These women are the heroines of the work, representing both those who came forth to testify at the trial and the many more anonymous victims who were also entwined in the controversy and appeared in the thousands of hours of videos he collected and saved and watched again and again, at least according to the playwright’s account.
The work is an important one, though in this first version as part of the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival, both the acting and the production border on the amateurish. The play too can use some close editing. That said, “Constructive Fictions” should not be discounted. Viewing it as a work-in-progress with tremendous potential for its undeniable relevance to 21st-century American Judaism makes it among the more compelling plays debuting this summer season.
For the most important question today — the existential question for modern Jews — is “Who is a Jew?” In an era when every Jew is a “Jew by Choice” — the term that many who convert to Judaism use — Freundel asserted his power over those who wished to have the most “kosher” and respectable conversions. He became widely known in the United States and in Israel as one of the few rabbis whose converts would be accepted by the Israeli rabbinical courts without question.
Opening the week when more than 150 rabbis, among them prominent American Orthodox leaders (like Freundel was prior to his public downfall) have been “blacklisted” by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for conversions that are claimed not to follow Jewish law, “Constructive Fictions” carries an extra frisson.
For the ability to deem some Jews acceptable and some not in the eyes of Israeli law is a most frightening power play by the Israeli rabbinate, particularly among secular and more liberal streams of Judaism. If only a select few rabbis control who is an “official” Jew by marriage or conversion, that rocks the very foundations of the Jewish people. Will Israel write them off? Or will hundreds of thousands of non- or less-observant Jews write off Israel? Either way, disaster looms in the sheer uncertainty when the questions of who is a Jew arises.
Campbell, who grew up in an Orthodox community in Los Angeles observing the intimidating power some rabbis held over their congregants and acolytes, takes on the Freundel case to demonstrate the highly destructive nature of his crimes. He wasn’t a simple “Peeping Tom,” as if that would make his crimes easier to take. Violations of trust and modesty, confidence and privacy too are paramount.
But Campbell makes it clear that he was seeking the ultimate control over the lives and decisions of his targets, victims of multiple crimes, which have a much larger ramification for the larger Jewish community. Will we no longer be able to trust our Jewish spiritual leaders?
“Constructive Fictions” takes on that issue boldly and unapologetically, allowing the story — no simple fiction — to become an enduring lesson about the abuse of power and position for Jews and non-Jews alike.
> “Constructive Fictions” by A.J. Campbell, Capital Fringe Festival at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre, Florida Avenue and 8th Street, NE., Washington: July 20 at 9:30 p.m. and July 23 at 1:45 p.m. Tickets: $17 (plus Fringe Button $7). For tickets, go to capitalfringe.org or call 866-811-4111.
Lisa Traiger is an area freelance writer.