WASHINGTON (JTA/Washington Jewish Week) — Rabbi Barry Freundel, the former spiritual leader at a prominent Washington synagogue, pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.
The plea Thursday means that Freundel could be sentenced to a maximum penalty of 52 years in prison and ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Sentencing was postponed until May 15.
The afternoon hearing was moved to a larger courtroom that could accommodate the number of victims.
During the hearing, Freundel appeared red-faced, kept his head bowed low and made no eye contact with the more than a dozen victims who packed the second-floor courtroom. He wore a black fur hat, a black rumpled and dirty suit, a black-and-gray tie and a black-and-gray kippah.
Freundel, 63, was arrested last October on six charges of voyeurism after investigators discovered secret cameras installed in the mikvah shower room and additional recording devices in his home. His Orthodox synagogue, Kesher Israel, immediately suspended him and later fired him, ordering the rabbi to vacate the shul’s rabbinic residence.
The government requested that Freundel wear an electronic ankle bracelet.
Judge Geoffrey Alprin asked Freundel, “Are you going to make me look stupid and flee the jurisdiction prior to sentencing?” In a loud voice, Freundel responded, “Absolutely not, your honor.”
The judge took him at his word, addressing him as Rabbi Freundel, and released him on his own recognizance until his May sentencing.
Lawyers and court officials considered when Shabbat begins on May 15. The court was satisfied that the 1 p.m. hearing would be concluded prior to sundown.
The plea deal was announced in a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia to Freundel’s victims that was obtained by the Washington Jewish Week.
An oral agreement was reached on a plea offer, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The plea offer included one count for every victim recorded during the statute of limitations and identified by a photograph submitted to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“We also did not restrict our ability to seek incarceration or restitution for those victims identified during the statute of limitations in any way,” the letter said.
Prosecutors have told alleged victims that Freundel secretly recorded more than 150 women undressing at the mikvah.
Women who were videotaped as they used The National Capital Mikvah in the Georgetown section may submit a victim impact statement “expressing how this crime has impacted you,” the letter said. They also can give an oral impact hearing during sentencing.
“I didn’t expect it to be over. I am glad it is,” said Jeffrey Shulevitz, the husband of Emma Shulevitz, one of Freundel’s victims. “The rabbi was a brilliant man, and he used it to harm people instead of making the world a better place.”
Civil suits have been filed against Freundel, the synagogue, the mikvah and the Rabbinical Council of America.
“Rabbi Freundel’s plea today in Superior Court is the first step in achieving justice for his victims,” said David Haynes, the managing attorney at the Cochran Firm in Washington, one of the firms handling civil litigation.
The plea “will also be an important element in establishing liability in the related civil cases, which will focus on why the synagogue and the other defendants did not prevent or stop Freundel from using their facilities for his illicit purposes for such an extended period of time despite his strange conduct and the many prior complaints about him,” Haynes said in a statement.
Freundel, who reportedly separated from his wife after his arrest, had refused to leave his synagogue-owned residence, and the congregation has taken the case to the Beth Din of America. WTOP, a local news radio station, reported that he is now planning to vacate the house within two weeks.
The synagogue and the mikvah issued statements following the plea hearing.
“Despite this great betrayal by Rabbi Freundel and our communal pain, we have seen a community that has come together and whose members have leaned on one another for support,” Kesher Israel said. “As we move forward, we will continue to grow stronger and are committed to ensuring that our community remains a warm, welcoming, and safe place to gather, worship, and learn.”
The National Capital Mikvah noted in its statement that its staff was the first to alert police to Freundel’s crimes.
“We are grateful that we were able to detect and stop such despicable illegal activity,” it said. “We are saddened to see a Torah scholar cause his own downfall.”
(With reporting by JTA Washington Bureau chief Ron Kampeas.)