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Orthodox Jewish organizations reach $14.25 million settlement with victims of voyeur-rabbi Barry Freundel

August 28, 2018 05:05 pm Updated: August 28, 2018 05:05 pm

WASHINGTON - Victims of a prominent Orthodox rabbi 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 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 placed a hidden camera in 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.

The scandal sent Freundel to prison and left the Orthodox community reeling over converts' allegation 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 for more than 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 videotaped. It 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. . . .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, it was not clear that the defendants' insurance policy would have covered the $100 million they had sought.

Kesher and the National Mikvah - located adjacent to the synagogue - argued in the release that they were the ones 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, including $25,000 for people who federal prosecutors confirmed had been videotaped, and $2,500 for people 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."

Freundel's lawyer, Jeffrey Harris, said Tuesday that although his client was not a defendant in the class action lawsuit he was glad the three-year-old suit is near competition. "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 if the settlement is fair and equitable.

In 2015, Freundel was sentenced to six and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to videotaping 52 women without their knowledge. Harris said Freundel remains housed in D.C. jail and is expected to be released in 2020.