Chasidic woman judge keeps her faith

Chasidic woman judge keeps her faith

Credits support from family and husband for success

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Judge Rachel Freier, at left, with Altie, Chana’le, and Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz of Chabad of West Orange.
Photos by Efrat Bunker Weisblatt
Judge Rachel Freier, at left, with Altie, Chana’le, and Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz of Chabad of West Orange. Photos by Efrat Bunker Weisblatt

Rachel (“Ruchie”) Freier, the first chasidic woman to become a judge, offered a two-pronged message when she spoke in West Orange on Jan. 8. Addressing the eighth annual women’s dinner of Chabad of West Orange, the Borough Park, Brooklyn, resident urged the 120 women present to never let their dreams be derailed by naysayers. At the same time, she insisted that no matter what their goals, they can achieve them while holding fast to their religious standards.

As she described it, she never fought with her chasidic community; she simply found ways to be a part of it and create something bigger for herself.

Those “bigger” goals came into view only when she was 30 and married, with three of her six children. That’s when Freier realized she was “bored” working as a legal secretary and wanted to go to college and then law school. The first of the naysayers, she said, came along in the form of her friends. When she told them it would take her six years to finish college and another four in law school, she said, “My friends looked at me; ‘Ruchie, are you kidding? You’re going to be 40 by then.’

“And then they all said, ‘Even if you did…, who is going to come to you as their lawyer? Who is going to come to some chasidic woman who lives in Borough Park with six kids to be their lawyer?’” She said she answered: “You know what? You’re right. But even if I don’t have one client, I need to know that I tried, because if God wants it to happen, it’s going to happen. I don’t want to be a grandmother, years from now, telling my grandchildren, ‘You know, Bubbe could have been a lawyer.’”

Ten years later, she said, she and her friends all turned 40, and, she said, “I was a lawyer.”

Along the way she never deviated from Jewish law and the strictures of her community. In law school, she found a small area behind a staircase where she davened Mincha every day. When she began practicing law, she insisted on leaving doors open when she was in a room alone with men and insisted her colleagues watch their language around her. She dressed modestly, even on dress-down Fridays while working in a Manhattan law firm. (“I’m from Borough Park. I like to dress up. I don’t like to dress down.”) And when she was interviewed by talk-show host Megyn Kelly in December 2017, she requested that Kelly also dress modestly, because she was aware that many of the clips featuring her go viral even within the chasidic community.

Kelly honored her request. “There she was, with a long-sleeved white turtleneck and a long navy-blue skirt, just like a Bais Yaakov girl,” Freier said, as her audience laughed.

She set up a practice in real estate law — most of her clients were Satmar chasidim, she said — and took on several projects in her community, including founding B’Derech, an organization helping at-risk teens in the chasidic community, as well as Ezras Nashim, the first all-women’s volunteer ambulance corps in New York City, which was the subject of a 2018 documentary, “93Queen.”

When Freier decided to run for judge in 2016, she was dismayed that no one would endorse her. She said the head of the Democratic Party said, “We were told a chasidic woman can never win in Borough Park.” She responded, “Judge, if God wants me to win, I’m going to win.” But she didn’t get that endorsement, nor did she get any from the chasidic community. Instead, she secured 1,500 legal signatures to get herself on the ballot.

Judge Freier, New York’s first female chasidic judge called her husband “the real trailblazer.”

Even in her campaign, she continued to adhere to her religious practices and customs, upholding the requirement, for example, that her image not appear on campaign materials. She shared with the audience her own tenacity, and that of her husband and children, while she was on the campaign trail. One Sunday morning, she said, she was knocking on doors, introducing herself and asking people to vote for her. “A guy opens up with a cross around his neck and extends his arm to me, and I said, ‘I’m chasidic. Please forgive me. I can’t shake your hand, but I want your vote.’ By the time I walked away, he said, ‘I’m going to vote for you.’”

Her children wrote a campaign jingle for her in Yiddish while her husband sought the approval of local rabbis. She had two campaign managers, one for the Borough Park community and one for the secular community.

She won the election and was assigned to criminal court, where she has sat for the last two years, although she was recently moved to civil court.

Many of those in attendance said they found her words rousing and encouraging.

“She opened a window into what is possible,” said Marsha Hoch of Morris Plains. Some women think being a religious homemaker and having a career “is not possible. I think it was not easy, and she needed a lot of support, but that does not minimize what she has done.”

Janet Tammam of Parsippany called Freier a “really engaging speaker,” but pointed out that without the kind of family she has, other similarly situated women would not be able to accomplish as much. “I applaud her, but not everyone has the support she does.”

Marilyn Mohr of West Orange found the talk “motivating” and “engaging” and said Freier is “inspiring and a model.” Mohr also acknowledged that the support Freier has made a huge difference in her life.

Freier acknowledged that support—from her husband, her children, and her parents throughout—her talk. While discussing her campaign, she threw the lion’s share of credit for her win to her husband.

“People make a big deal about me being the first Orthodox woman to run for public office,” she said. “Really, my husband is the real trailblazer because he’s the first chasid who not only allowed his wife to run for public office…. He supported me, he financed my campaign, he ran to the rabbis to get their endorsements. So, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here at all today.”

She concluded, “Ladies, let’s face it, we need the support of the men in our lives to be successful.”

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