Washington — A young woman jogging down O Street Thursday night slowed down as she passed by Kesher Israel synagogue, in the heart of Georgetown. “My father used to go here,” she told a group of congregants standing outside, before entering services on the eve of Simchat Torah. “I just wanted to tell you to be strong.”
For members of the synagogue, being strong following news of their rabbi’s arrest Tuesday meant going forward with the mitzvah of celebrating the Torah, even as he faced charges of peeping on women bathing in the mikveh, or ritual bath.
The scene at Kesher Thursday night made clear that its members were trying extra hard to celebrate this year. Rabbi Barry Freundel, leader of the prominent Washington, D.C. Orthodox congregation, was released to his home on Wednesday and banned from visiting the synagogue or being in touch with his alleged victims. Freundel is accused of installing a hidden camera in the synagogue’s mikveh and taping female congregants as they disrobed and dipped in the ritual bath. Investigators have seized his computer, on which they say they found nude images of at least six women he peeped on.
The holiday service was lay-led, not unusual for Kesher, and though Rabbi Freundel was undoubtedly on the mind of many, they did not allow the news hamper their celebrations. One member explained that this is the source of the congregation’s strength. “We have to continue,” he explained. “We are obliged to go ahead with the holiday services.”
By Thursday, members of Kesher Israel had already had their chance to digest the events. It is a close-knit congregation with a few high-profile Washington players who walk to the Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, and many younger congregants. A recurring theme in conversations was that, alongside the shock and disgust at Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions, there was also some pride in the swift and uncompromising way the synagogue dealt with events, turning immediately to the authorities and cutting ties with the rabbi.
Several dozen congregants attended the holiday service in the small synagogue, with a dozen more women following from the upper level gallery. As the synagogue entered the ceremony of Hakafot, the traditional circular dance carrying Torah scrolls, the atmosphere grew excited. Led by young congregants who made up the bulk of the crowd, the synagogue burst into dancing, carrying the scrolls down the stairs and out to the dark residential street.
There, men and women in separate circles danced with the Torahs, singing with full throats while taking turns carrying the scrolls.
Sounds of the cheerful crowd celebrating Simchat Torah easily reached the next block, where, behind dark windows in one of the homes, Rabbi Freundel spent the evening.