Victims of a prominent Orthodox rabbi and former Towson University professor who spied for years on women in a ritual bath in Washington have reached a $14.25 million settlement with four Jewish organizations, the rabbi’s former synagogue announced Tuesday.
The settlement, which must be approved by a judge, could close a legal chapter in the scandal that rocked the Orthodox Jewish community regionally and nationally, because of the prominence of Bernard “Barry” Freundel and victims’ allegations that national Orthodox rabbinical bodies could have done more. The Jewish groups named in the lawsuit were: Kesher Israel Congregation, the National Capital Mikvah, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of the United States of America. Freundel was also named in the suit.
Freundel placed a hidden camera in the changing room of a mikvah, a ritual bath Jews use for various purposes, including as part of the conversion process. Many of the victims were conversion students of Freundel, who had a reputation as one of the most stringent and impeccable rabbis for conversion in the modern Orthodox movement, a more liberal segment of Orthodox Judaism.
In 2015, Freundel was sentenced to six and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to videotaping 52 women without their knowledge. The scandal also left the Orthodox community reeling over converts’ allegations that they are often treated disrespectfully in the community — which they said allowed Freundel to exploit his power over them.
According to a news release Tuesday from Kesher Israel, the Georgetown synagogue that Freundel led, a class-action lawsuit had sought $100 million. Class members include over 150 women who were confirmed to have been videotaped, as well as an undetermined number of other women who disrobed or partially disrobed in the mikvah between July 1, 2005, and Oct. 14, 2014, but were not confirmed as having been videotaped. The release said some of the Jewish organizations had sought to dismiss the cases, arguing that they had “no prior knowledge of Freundel’s illegal actions” and were not at fault, and that after the Jewish groups sought to dismiss the case, the victims entered into settlement discussions.
The settlement sum is to be paid by the insurance company for the defendants, Travelers Companies Inc.
Alexandra Harwin, a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp, which represents the class action, said the victims were “very happy” with the settlement. “One of the things that is very appealing to the class members is that payments are easy to access and don’t require an intrusive inquiry,” she said. “What this settlement does is provide substantial and prompt recovery for class members instead of the delays and risks of protracted litigation.”
In addition, Harwin said, the defendants’ insurance policy would not have covered the $100 million they had sought.
In a statement Tuesday, Kesher’s president, Andrew Cooper, said, “Although Kesher is confident that it would have been found without fault if the case were litigated to final judgment, Kesher believes that resolving the case at this time is in its best interests, as well as the best interests of the Kesher community and Freundel’s victims. The settlement would enable the parties to avoid the further burdens of litigation, and would allow Kesher to continue its focus on serving the needs of the Jewish community in Washington, D.C., without the distraction of the lawsuits.”
Kesher noted in the release that it was the one who brought to light Freundel’s crimes. A woman cleaning the mikvah discovered the camera in 2014.
In the settlement, different classes of victims will get different payments. The women who federal prosecutors confirmed had been videotaped would receive $25,000 each and some would be eligible for a supplemental amount in addition to that.
Women who took off their clothes in the mikvah “one or more times” between 2005 and 2014 “and suffered actual emotional distress after learning of Freundel’s videotaping” but who had not been confirmed as having been videotaped would receive $2,500.
Freundel’s lawyer, Jeffrey Harris, said Tuesday that he was glad the three-year-old suit is near completion. “It’s been a long negotiation. I’m glad this is finally going to put this matter to rest,” he said.
A hearing is scheduled in D.C. Superior Court on Sept. 7, when Judge Brian Holeman, who is overseeing the lawsuit, will decide whether the settlement is fair and equitable.
Harris said Freundel remains housed in the D.C. jail and is expected to be released in 2020.
Freundel taught classes on ethics and religion at Towson and was suspended after his arrest. He resigned from the school after his guilty plea.
Keith L. Alexander and Baltimore Sun staff contributed to this report.