Thursday, September 10, 2015

Is it Enough?

Barry Freundel leaving D.C. Superior Court House after pleading guilty 
It is the season of repentance. The former rabbi at Washington DC’s Kesher Israel Congregation, Barry Freundel, has issued a public apology (available in its entirety at the Washington Jewish Week) to the many women he secretly viewed and video-recorded as they undressed for immersion into a Mikvah.

I can’t read his mind. So I cannot be 100% sure his apology is sincere. But it does seem to be. He is contrite and I tend to believe him. I think he finally realizes what he did and the impact it had – not only on the women directly affected by it, but on the Orthodox rabbinate – specifically those of the Modern Orthodox camp - and the entire Jewish community.

The more prestige a person achieves in life – the greater the fall from grace it is when he fails so miserably and deliberately at his mission. Barry Freundel’s fall from grace was immense. He was one of the most respected Rabbis in Modern Orthodoxy -  considered an expert in matters of conversion to Judaism.

Barry Freundel may now be the most disgraced rabbi in all of Modern Orthodoxy. He has lost it all. His reputation, his wife, and now sits in prison – serving a 6 and ½ year sentence for the crime of voyeurism. 52 counts of it. 

He has had therapy and some time to think. He now seems to understand what he did and the damage he caused to so many. A damage that cannot be undone. This is something he must live with the rest of his life. Long after he serves his prison sentence.

He apparently found out some truths about himself that caused him to go so terribly off the track all while being oblivious to the harm he caused to people that he says he ‘genuinely cared about’.  He now knows that he ‘shattered the worlds’ of the people he was close to.  In the words of one victim, ‘He violated a sacred and holy ritual and made it into something wrong and disgusting’. I think he understand that now.

He makes no excuses and offers what he believes to be the only thing he can do, a public apology. He says that he wishes he could apologize to each and every victim personally but he thinks it would make them even more uncomfortable. So he has done what he believes is a kinder alternative – sparing his victims even more embarrassment. He made his apology public. (I’m sure that if he were to find out that a victim nevertheless did want a personal apology, he would do so.)

Here are some excerpts from his apology published a Forward article: 
“No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough,”
“I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions.”
“On May 15th, as I sat in the courtroom listening the victim impact statements, each felt like a blade entering my gut. The speakers expressed their feelings of rage, hurt, humiliation, vulnerability and violation. How could I have been so incredibly blind, so unaware of my impact on others? I ask myself that question every day,”
“I became a rabbi precisely because I wanted to help people, as well as being drawn to the depth and the scholarship of Judaism, and I have tainted that miserably.”
“I am aware that my actions have had very negative repercussions not only in the D.C. area, but throughout the Jewish world,” he wrote. “In particular, I would ask for forgiveness from other rabbanim [rabbis] and Orthodox scholars, who may have had to fight harder than normal to uphold halakhic [Jewish legal] standards of observance in the face of criticism.”
“There is no excuse for what I’ve done. Again, I’m truly sorry.” 
It is not for me to forgive – or not forgive him for what he did. That can only be done by his victims. But I do think it is important to contrast Barry Freundel with other prominent rabbis that have been caught in a variety of criminal activity ranging from financial fraud to sex crimes. Although in one case there was an apology of sorts, it was more about embarrassing the Frum community than for what he actually did. I do not recall anyone else even trying to apologize. Those convicted of sex crimes have either been silent, or still maintain their innocence in spite of the evidence that convicted them and put them in prison for a long time.

I believe his stated motivation for entering the Orthodox rabbinate. He was an idealist. But one with a psychological disorder – a sexual compulsion that led him astray. He was weak and could not control it. And he took advantage of his position of respect and trust to satisfy those compulsions.

I have mixed feelings about Barry Freundel. He seems to now understand how wrong he was to do what he did - and realizes all the pain it caused to the victims and beyond.  He is paying a price. A big one. I do feel sorry for him. On the other hand I feel sorrier for the victims who cannot undo what he did to them. They were violated in so many ways by a man who at the time couldn’t care less about how his actions affected them.

Is his contrition enough? I can’t answer the question. Only the victims can.