This past Shabbat, members of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., filled the synagogue’s social hall for a synagogue-sponsored dinner.
The meal, according to longtime congregant Elliot Lowenstein, was an ad-hoc attempt to pull together a community rocked by the arrest of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Barry Freundel, less than two weeks ago.
Police led Freundel, 62, out of his Georgetown home in handcuffs on Oct. 14. He was charged with six counts of voyeurism after secret video cameras were found in the community mikvah disguised as clock radios.
Lowenstein described the Kesher community’s reaction to the allegations as “rallying around the flag.”
“It’s brought our community closer,” he said. “I feel like a part of something bigger.”
Amidst the media hubbub and growing list of accusations against Rabbi Freundel, the shul has sought to keep congregants informed and united. Over the holiday of Simchat Torah, just days after the arrest, informal discussion groups were held for women and specifically for female converts, giving potential victims a first chance to process their shock and dismay, congregants said.
The Modern Orthodox synagogue, located just 14 blocks from the White House, is known for its prominent congregants, who have included former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier. (I visited the shul last winter five times while my husband was a rabbinic intern there, staying with congregants and once with Rabbi Freundel.)
The community has since been addressed by the Metropolitan Police Department, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and representatives from the Jewish Social Service Agency and the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse. Additional counseling for the victims will be compensated by the U.S. attorney general’s office according to a congregant and former board member, and Kesher compiled a list of professionals in the area for congregants in need of extra support, congregants said.
But beneath the efforts, cracks persist. Two female converts and potential victims of the videotaping, Stephanie Doucette and Emma Schulevitz, insist that Kesher refused to heed the warning signals, far before the full extent of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged violations came out.
“People followed him with blind faith,” said Doucette, a 22-year-old graduate student in international affairs at George Washington University. Douchette decided to freeze her conversion process with Rabbi Freundel after he made repeated comments about her appearance that made her feel increasingly uncomfortable.
“On several occasions, he made comments that I’m a young, attractive female,” said Doucette, who said the remarks continued for several months and became more frequent as time went on.
Rabbi Freundel asked Doucette to perform two “practice dunkings” at the local mikvah. According to Doucette, he personally escorted her to the changing area, and explained what she was supposed to do.
Though she approached several members of the synagogue with her concerns before leaving Kesher earlier this year, she said that her comments were “dismissed.”
“In the wake of this tragedy, people don’t want to hear that there were signs that were overlooked,” said Doucette.
Schulevitz had a similar experience. After beginning her conversion process with Rabbi Freundel in June 2012, she said that “things got fishy” when he asked her to do several “practice dunks” in the mikvah. She has since left the Kesher community.
“No one can understand the power he had,” said Schulevitz in a recent phone interview. “His word was law. Those who tried to question some of his strange practices were brushed aside.”
Responding to these accusations, president of the Kesher board Elanit Jakabovics said via email, “Unfortunately, neither of these individuals contacted me directly nor was I made aware of any complaints made to anyone in Kesher Israel leadership about anything that had to do with the horrific alleged criminal acts.” She urged potential victims and anyone else with additional information to reach out to “reach out to law enforcement to help them do their job.”
Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, psychiatrist and executive medical director at Four Winds Hospitals, said the divide between protecting the community’s reputation and accusing the synagogue is understandable.
“Public organizations tend to be very protective of their reputations when a key person in the system behaves badly,” said Klagsbrun. “The irony is that trying to be overly protective can further damage their reputation down the line.”
In Rabbi Freundel’s case, disregarding some of the signs early on was a grave mistake, he said. “Protecting a rabbi’s ‘good name’ might be short-term strategy, but in the long run, the community will be weakened,” he said.
To be sure, the problem of clergymen abusing power is not exclusive to the Jewish community. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, author of “Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church,” has been working with sexual abuse survivors for 30 years. She explained that when a priest is ordained in the Catholic Church, it’s as if he’s “perfumed with the divine.”
“The priest becomes an alter-Christ,” said Frawley-O’Dea, who was raised in a devoutly Catholic home. “For too many people, this faith is immature. A more mature faith understands that a clergy is a person with special training, but he is human and fallible.”
Amy Neustein, author of “Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals,” described a similar phenomenon in synagogues.
“Rabbis are given a semi-God like status,” she said. Neustein did not describe this tendency as a criticism, but rather as a natural human need.
“In order to trust someone to lead you in a time of personal crisis, a congregant needs to put the leader on a pedestal,” she said. “Otherwise, they would never accept his guidance or authority.”
For this reason, Neustein said the phenomenon of whitewashing a leader’s record is common. She referred to the tendency as “community inertia.”
“When an opinion or perception is formed up front, any kind of challenge to that perception is something we minimize and push out of our mind,” said Neustein. “We do it with marriage prospects, stocks — and community rabbis.”
If the synagogue was negligent in heeding the warning signs, she said, the blame should rest more upon the institution of the rabbinate than upon members of the board.
“The rabbinate is not on its toes,” she said, citing the many incidents of sexual abuse she has chronicled in her career. “There’s a tsunami out there, and every now and again children and women become the victims.”
Former Kesher board member Stephanie Vidikan defended the synagogue’s leadership, saying there weren’t red flags for them to miss.
“Now, with the luxury of hindsight, we can of course see that something was wrong,” she said. “Hindsight is 20/20. But, prior to this, there was nothing to indicate any type of criminal activity on Freundel’s part.
“This is a horrible thing, but I don’t think there’s any reasonable way the board could have known or suspected this,” she added.
Vidikan, who been instrumental in organizing the post-arrest discussion sessions, said more support groups and open table discussions would undoubtedly be made available to congregants in the coming months, even after the initial shock has subsided.
“The question is where do we go from here,” she said.
One critical step towards recovery is combating the shame and embarrassment that victims of sexual abuse often feel, said Dr. Ziv E. Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist who works on the Upper West Side.
“Even though feeling shame is irrational, it is a normal and expected response in victims of sexual abuse,” said Cohen, who used to be a staff psychiatrist for the Israeli Defense Force, focusing on cases of sexual abuse. “Victims somehow feel it is their fault, or that they could have prevented it. They’re often scared that if they come forward, it will draw attention to something embarrassing about them,” he said.
This response, though common, can be fought on a communal level, Cohen noted.
“Community leaders can play an essential role by acknowledging that there has been a breach of trust,” he said. “When the community takes responsibility for what happened, it validates the experiences of the victims.”
Frawley-O’Dea said “shunning the victim” is a tendency within the Catholic Church as well as in the Orthodox community.
“When confronted with accusations of abuse, it’s common for the church to back the abuser over the victim,” she said. The most helpful way to recover from an instance of sexual abuse is through “transparency,” she said, though this is “sadly rare.”
“A bishop should come visit the congregation where the abuse occurred to acknowledge what happened, and to apologize,” she said, explaining that that’s the recommended procedure for Catholic churches. “The community needs a space to talk about what happened, and come to grips with their disappointment.”
Officials of the Rabbinical Council of America, the central policy-making body for Orthodox rabbis, paid a visit to Kesher last week to acknowledge and apologize for what happened. Rabbi Freundel was a longtime and influential member of RCA’s executive committee.
All of these efforts have helped the congregation stay unified, said Rella Kaplowitz, another longtime member of Kesher. “We’re all grieving together,” she said.
“Everyone wants to be surrounded by others going through the same rollercoaster of emotions,” she said. “We’re all grappling with the same things. We were betrayed. There are no secrets anymore.”