WASHINGTON — A prominent Georgetown Orthodox synagogue whose former chief rabbi spied on women taking ritual baths reached a settlement with the victims Tuesday.
Kesher Israel Congregation announced that it had reached an agreement that will put a halt to a class action seeking $100 million in damages, pending the approval of a federal judge, in which $14.25 million will be paid by the defendants’ insurance.
The litigation came years after Rabbi Barry Freundel, who led Kesher for years, was convicted for placing a hidden camera in a mikvah ritual bath and recording women while they were naked, in a scandal that shocked the local Jewish community.
Many of the women spied on were undergoing the conversion process. A woman cleaning the facility in 2014 noticed the camera.
In 2015, a Washington judge sentenced Freundel to 6.5 years in prison for video recording 52 women naked without their knowledge or consent.
Kesher’s co-defendants in the lawsuit, the National Capital Mikvah, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Beth Din of America, were also party to the settlement.
Plaintiffs had claimed that the mikvah, the synagogue, the religious court, and the RCA ignored warning signs of Freundel’s behavior.
Both sides told JTA they agreed to settle to avoid a lengthy, painful and uncertain legal process that had already dragged on for years. Under the terms of the settlement, each of the women videotaped will receive at least $25,000, and any woman who used the mikvah from July 2005 to October 2014 is eligible to receive at least $2,500.
“In a case this disturbing and sensitive, it’s important to make the procedures for class members as straightforward and easy as possible,” said Alexandra Harwin, a lawyer for the victims, referring to women represented by the class action suit. “We want to make sure class members have the opportunity to participate without aggravating what is obviously an extremely distressing situation.”
“In one way it feels like closure because it’s been out there for so long,” wrote Bethany Mandel, a columnist who has written about her experience as one of Freundel’s victims, in a message to JTA. “But this case has a way of reopening itself again and again. The last time was the false alarm about his release, the next time will likely be the actual release.”
In a statement announcing the settlement, Kesher said that it was confident it would have prevailed had the lawsuit advanced to trial, but that it wanted to move on from the controversy.
“Although Kesher believes that we would have won, the settlement will provide a measure of compensation to the victims of Freundel’s illegal actions,” said Elanit Jakabovics, former president of Kesher’s board of directors.
Kesher and National Mikvah, which is located right next to the synagogue, said they were without fault, as neither organization had prior knowledge of Freundel’s behavior and that the two reported Freundel the authorities once they became aware of his actions, they said in a joint statement.
Drew Cooper, the current president of Kesher’s Board of Directors, said that: “This settlement will enable Kesher to put the litigation behind us, and to put one hundred percent of its focus where it belongs – on serving its members and the larger community.”
A victim could receive more than the designated amount if she experienced additional harm in a number of ways. This includes women who were videotaped multiple times or for an extended period of time, or women whose conversion was adversely affected by the videotaping. It also includes women who suffered sickness or physical or emotional distress, or who received treatment or a medical diagnosis due to the abuse. Women whose romantic relationship, Jewish practice or professional or social lives were adversely affected are also eligible for additional payment.
Before the revelations came to light, Freundel was one of the most prominent and respected modern Orthodox rabbis in America.
Kesher was known for having several high-profile members, including former vice presidential nominee and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and former New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier, whose book “Kaddish” largely takes place there.