Judge Rachel (“Ruchie”) Freier, 52, is the only Hasidic woman judge in the world. She knows she’s an anomaly, and yet she sees nothing contradictory between her deeply held religious beliefs and her high-powered, secular career.
“People always make a big deal that I’m the first Hasidic woman judge, but my husband [mortgage broker David Freier] is the first Hasid who supported his wife, encouraged her to run, financed her campaign and ran around to get endorsements from rabbis,” she said. “He’s a talmudic scholar. He’s the trailblazer.”
The slightly built, elegantly groomed judge, sporting a shaytl, a wig, met with me in her chambers at Kings County Criminal Court. She told me that she’s first and foremost an observant Hasidic Jew and that her defining roles are wife, mother (of six adult children) and grandmother, and member of her native community in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, where she still resides. Without her family’s full support she wouldn’t be carrying out all her work. Pursuing a legal career, let alone a judgeship — which entails generating votes through door-to-door campaigning — would have remained a vague dream at best.
Freier’s spacious office is filled with family photographs interspersed with the many awards, tributes and proclamations in her honor that she has received during her first year as a civil court judge in Brooklyn’s 5th District.
“Look, let me show you something,” she said, flicking through videos on her cell phone. She pointed at one clip featuring young Hasidic men driving down Brooklyn streets in SUVs, loudly singing her praises in Yiddish: “Vote for Mrs. Freier!”
“All the flyers in my neighborhood were in Yiddish, and because a photograph of a woman in a public place would be offensive to many members of my community, my flyers did not feature my picture,” she said.
Hers was an unprecedented David versus Goliath race on many fronts. She was up against a secular Jewish woman and a devout Orthodox man who seemed a shoo-in. She also had to win voters in such demographically mixed communities as Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights and Windsor Terrace.
“I was knocking on the doors of people who were wearing crucifixes,” she said. “I remember one man in particular who invited me into his house and listened to what I had to say with interest. In the end, he said he’d vote for me. I think if voters can put a face to a name and feel a degree of trust for you, you’ll get their vote.”
Exuding a wonderful (albeit low-keyed) defiance, she told me; “I carried my Jewish and Hasidic identity with pride. Many Hasidim will try to blend in, wear a baseball cap over a yarmulke, or a hair covering that looks like everyone else’s hair. You identify who you are and you’re clear about it. I don’t mind if I stand out.”
But what make her victory all the more remarkable are her limited experiences as a lawyer or even a player in the nonsectarian world. Decades after graduating from Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox, all-girl yeshiva, she attended Touro College (an Orthodox institution) and finally graduated from Brooklyn Law School 11 years ago, becoming one of a handful of Hasidic women lawyers. She briefly served as a real estate attorney in the Hasidic community before setting her sights on a judgeship.
“Whenever I achieve one level, I automatically think, ‘Well, what is the next level?’” she said.
Although she won a seat in civil court, she was assigned to criminal court. I observed her in night court as a line of defendants came before her, accused of DUI, third-degree assault, drug possession and violation of court ordered protections. She was soft-spoken but firm as she questioned the defendants, releasing them on their own recognizance or remanding them on bail. In several instances she dropped the charges. “I’m giving you a second chance,” she said to one young man. “Do you know what it means to be given a second chance?”
All the defendants looked downtrodden and impoverished. I overheard one defendant, just released, asking his legal aid attorney where he could find a nearby men’s shelter.
When I asked how she might feel or handle it — recuse herself, perhaps? — if a Hasidic alleged wrongdoer were a defendant, she refused to speculate. Politics is another topic that’s off limits — she says it violates her role as an impartial judge.
She sees herself as a liaison between the Hasidic community and the secular universe, awash in misunderstanding on all sides; and though she eschews the phrase “role model,” she’s obviously an embodiment of the two galaxies residing in peaceful co-existence.
“I don’t tell anyone what to do, but I hope my story shows them what’s possible and that they can still remain in the Hasidic community,” she said.
As far back as she can remember, Freier had a passion for law and justice. A relative was a judge, and she always admired him. In the early years of her marriage she worked as a legal secretary.
Still, matriculating at Brooklyn Law School was culture shock. For the first time in her life she was immersed in a fully secular setting, and there were moments when she worried about losing her values.
“That’s when I made my deal with God,” she recounted. “I said, ‘Help me get through law school without compromising my values, and then when your children come to me for help, I will help them.’ And God wasted no time in testing me. Shortly thereafter, the kids at risk in my community came to my attention, and a few years later the women in my community came to me, too. They wanted my help in establishing an all-woman EMT operation.”
Soon, she was meeting with “high-risk” Hasidic kids — whose issues ran the gamut — arranging constructive activities for them and putting them in touch with social service agencies and compassionate teachers and rabbis. She became their advocate, speaking with their parents and establishing a foundation (B’Derech) on their behalf.
As for the all-woman EMT operation, that was a more complex proposition. She (and her mom) took the requisite courses and were certified as emergency medical technicians; Freier soon moved on to the next level, becoming a certified paramedic.
“I loved it,” she said. “And it makes perfect sense to me that a woman, especially if she’s having a gynecological problem, would prefer to have a woman taking care of her in the ambulance.”
Her initial plan was to work alongside the Hasidic men who run Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance service in their community. But the men didn’t deem it appropriate for women to be employed alongside them, and no cajoling could change their minds. Freier is now in the process of applying for a license to operate a volunteer ambulance service by and for women in her community.
In the interim she and other EMT-certified women in the community are part of a volunteer organization, Ezras Nashim, that responds to OB-GYN, pediatric, adolescent and geriatric emergencies. Her EMT operation is the subject of an upcoming documentary, “93Queen.”
Freier does not call herself a “feminist.” For her, the word connotes taking on a man’s role within a religious context. She has no need to be a rabbi or to participate in a minyan. On many fronts, she views the Hasidic world as matriarchal. Either way, she will not trample on or challenge Jewish law. Indeed, even in the secular world she doesn’t want to be a pioneer in the policymaking arena.
Freier does not own a television, yet she will occasionally see a movie, usually a DVD at home (most Hasidim shun all secular culture). Unlike many Hasidic women, she drives; she admitted that (here comes an unexpected revelation) she loves roller skating and ice skating.
In law school Freier says that she had amicable relationships with everybody, though it was understood that she would not be hanging out with her classmates at bars or parties. And these days she has little problem finding judges who will fill in for her on Friday evenings and Saturdays. As for the defendants who have paraded before her in court, she says they have never made anti-Semitic comments, either, but then they would have no idea of her religious identity. Her shaytl wouldn’t register with anyone who is not in the know.
Still, occasions have cropped up when she’s had to stand her ground. As an intern at a law firm, she found herself among several male office mates who used off-color language among themselves, but audible enough for her to hear. Ultimately she felt she had to say something about it.
“In Bais Yaakov we were taught that if we encountered something that bothered us and didn’t do anything about it, eventually it would no longer bother us and then we’d like it,” she recalled. “And I did not want that to happen.”
She told the prime “offender” that she was Hasidic and that it was difficult for her to listen to his expletives. He promptly agreed to clean up his speech when she was around, and from that time on, whenever she arrived in the office, he or one of the others would proclaim loudly, “She’s here now!”
“It was all in good fun and I found nothing derisive about it,” Freier said. “In fact, I put a charity box on my desk — it was intended as a collection for the poor in Israel — and I told them, ‘Every time you curse, you’re going to have to put a quarter in the box.’ One guy rolled out a $10 bill and said, ‘This is an advance.’”
Shaking a man’s hand was slightly more problematic for Freier, who acknowledged it’s one of those laws that are not quite as inviolate as, say, refusing to eat pork. Still, in the end she knew she’d be uncomfortable breaching the custom.
“When a man extends his hand to me, I’ll say: ‘I’m Hasidic, and men and women don’t shake hands. That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,’” she said. “That usually works, though one time, a colleague who knew me and the tradition forgot all about it. As he extended his hand to me I said, ‘Oh, Mike, you know I can’t shake your hand.’ He apologized profusely and proceeded to hug me. That was so much worse,” she said with a laugh.
Baila Olidort, editor-in-chief of Chabad Lubavitch International magazine, believes that Freier is a trailblazer precisely because she’s managed to accomplish everything without compromising her traditional values. Olidort also believes that Freier is just the beginning of a potential movement.
“My guess is that it’s only a matter of time before we see more women from the Hasidic community — motivated by a desire to have some influence on society at large — move into high-profile, political roles,” Olidort said. “The model Judge Freier represents doesn’t seem to pose a threat to the Hasidic community. To the contrary, I imagine it will be a good day for all of us when politics as we know it will be elevated by these strong women, their traditional sensibilities and their nurturing family and community values.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, is also enormously impressed with Freier, but he is not convinced that many will be following in her footsteps. “Judge Freier is clearly an unusual person, leaving aside entirely the fact of her Hasidic identity,” he said. “There aren’t many men or women, Hasidic, non-Hasidic — or non-Jewish — who are sufficiently determined, energetic and talented to become an EMT, direct an ambulance service, found an educational program for troubled teens, go to law school, pass the bar and successfully win an election to become a criminal court judge, all while raising six children.
“So I don’t know how many, if any, Hasidic or other Orthodox women see the judge’s path — even just the law school part of it — as something they would wish to follow. I think that most Orthodox Jewish women blessed with children, and finding parenthood a sufficient challenge in itself, will likely relegate law school and elections to a very low rung on their hierarchy of goals.”
Shuly Rubin Schwartz, dean of the graduate and undergraduate schools at Jewish Theological Seminary, and an enthusiastic champion of Freier, believes the judge’s presence “can’t help but ignite the imagination of women in her community, make them think about possibilities they might not have considered before.”
Asked to speculate on what might happen to the Hasidic family and, by extension, its culture if large numbers of women followed in Freier’s footsteps, she paused. “That’s hard to answer,” she said. “The Hasidic world is diverse. The Satmars are threatened. By contrast, the Chabad-Lubavitch is more open and not so easily threatened.”
Freier is optimistic about her future and is a strong believer in the interconnectedness of life’s events, the idea that if you do something good for someone else, eventually your actions will come back to serve you.
“Helping women in medical crises has given me greater understanding of the victim’s experience,” she said. “That’s important for me as a judge. And working with high-risk youngsters in the Hasidic community has made me see youthful defenders in a more compassionate light and appreciate more than ever the value of supportive, educational programs as an alternative to incarceration. I know they work.”
Simi Horwitz received a 2017 Simon Rockower Award and the National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award for the Forward article, “These Frum Filmmakers Are Revolutionizing Orthodox Cinema.”