WASHINGTON — An Orthodox rabbi and Towson University associate professor admitted in court Thursday that he secretly videotaped dozens of women as they undressed for a ritual bath, using cameras hidden in a clock radio, a tissue box and a tabletop fan.
Inside a packed courtroom in D.C. Superior Court, Barry Freundel, 63, pleaded guilty to 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism — one for each woman prosecutors say he recorded at the National Capital Mikvah between 2012 and 2014.
The U.S. attorney's office said the rabbi secretly recorded about 100 additional women before that period, starting in 2009, but the statute of limitations is three years for a charge of voyeurism.
A mikvah is a ritual bath used primarily by Orthodox women for spiritual cleansing, and by others as a final step in converting to Judaism.
Freundel has been on paid leave since October from Towson University, where he has taught courses about rabbinical history and religious perspectives on medical ethics, and took students on field trips to the mikvah.
It is unclear how many of the victims included in the 52 counts attended the university, but a Baltimore law firm representing women in civil litigation involving Freundel says it has identified at least a half-dozen victims from the school.
University spokesman Ray Feldmann said school officials continue to investigate how many students could have been affected.
"Now that he has been found guilty by the court, at some point there will be a university administrative hearing to determine his permanent status," Feldmann said in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
Each of the 52 misdemeanor counts carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Freundel, who was arrested in October, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 15.
Prosecutors said they would seek jail time. Defense attorney Jeffrey Harris said he didn't want to predict what sentence the judge would impose, but he said it is unlikely that Freundel would receive the maximum sentence.
Wearing a dark suit and yarmulke, Freundel did not speak at length at his hearing, but he answered routine questions from Judge Geoffrey Alprin about the terms of his plea. As attorneys finalized details in a hallway, the rabbi sat with his hands crossed, occasionally looking back at the crowd watching him in the courtroom.
Later, as lawyers worked out scheduling issues with the judge for the sentencing, Harris noted that Freundel would need to be out of court by sundown on his sentencing day in order to observe the Jewish Sabbath.
Outside the courthouse, Harris told reporters that his client took responsibility for his actions, "which he understands now to be terribly wrong."
"He wants to get his life in order and move on," Harris said. "He decided that the best way to do that was to take responsibility, plead guilty, face whatever sentence is going to be imposed."
Jeffrey Shulevitz, whose wife, Emma, was among the rabbi's victims, said he was shocked that a plea agreement had been reached.
"He answered today in front of a lot of his victims," said Shulevitz, who said his wife could not attend the hearing. "Fifty-two counts, that's not a laughing matter."
Shulevitz's wife has spoken publicly about the incident, at one point alongside experts from the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Prosecutors said Freundel sometimes used up to three hidden cameras — in the clock radio, tissue box and fan — at the same time to get different angles of women as they prepared for the mikvah.
He was arrested last October after a person associated with the mikvah found the hidden camera in the clock radio, which police said contained six videos of women undressing. At least one of the videos also showed Freundel's face as he set up the time on the clock radio, according to prosecutors. The device was placed on a sink countertop so it faced a shower area.
The rabbi was initially charged with six counts of voyeurism, but additional charges were added after searches by police uncovered numerous media storage devices and items that Freundel used to record the women.
In Freundel's university office, investigators found items including a receipt for a hidden camera, a Securemate tissue box camera, a Securemate computer charger hidden camera, and an empty box for a car-key microcamera, prosecutors said.
Victims are expected to speak at Freundel's sentencing. In a statement, Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that the rabbi "exploited his position of power to victimize dozens of women who entered a sacred, intimate space of religious ritual."
"He betrayed the trust of every woman whose private moments he caught on camera, along with an entire community that counted on him for moral leadership," Machen said. "We hope that this guilty plea will allow each of his victims to move forward and heal. We will be seeking a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of this disturbing assault on the privacy and dignity of so many victims."
Last week, prosecutors held a meeting with some of the victims. But Steven J. Kelly, a Baltimore attorney representing some of the women in civil litigation, said not all victims received proper notice of the plea agreement terms.
"They did not confer with the victims about the terms of the deal, and that's unfortunate," Kelly said. "There are victims who are left out in the cold."
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Still, he said, many of the women he has spoken to did not want the case to go to trial, fearing that video evidence would be shown in open court.
"This is deeply humiliating and personal to them," Kelly said. "So I think in a lot of ways many of the victims feel good about the fact that this phase is behind them, that they can move forward to the sentencing phase and start to move on and heal."
A Towson University student is among the women named in a civil lawsuit filed by Kelly involving Freundel. The woman claims that even though she was not Jewish and did not want to convert to Judaism, the rabbi urged her to bathe in the mikvah for a research paper.
Freundel was a rabbi at the Kesher Israel synagogue in Washington for more than 25 years before his arrest. He has since been fired.