In September, attorney and Hasidic community activist Rachel Freier won a contested primary for a civil court judgeship in Brooklyn’s 5th Judicial District. Freier easily carried the November general election, and this week she took her seat on the bench as a civil court judge. Freier, who attended Touro College and Brooklyn Law School, is the first Hasidic Jewish woman to hold elected office in the United States. Prior to her election, she founded Ezras Nashim, a volunteer ambulance corps that serves women in Borough Park, and B’Derech, which provides educational services for ultra-Orthodox young adults. She also worked as an attorney in private practice. Gothamist spoke to Freier earlier this week about her career, the role of women in traditional Jewish life, and the historic nature of her judgeship.
Can you speak about your background a bit? I know you became a lawyer a little bit later in life. How did you come to it?
I graduated high school in 1982. At that point in time, there were very few options for post-high school education in terms of college for religious, Orthodox girls. I opted to take a legal stenography course in my senior year, which prepared me to work in a law office. I felt that would be the best opportunity for me in terms of what I could do in the workforce with my education. And I got good jobs.
I was advancing in my career, although I don’t like to use the word “career”—I use the word “profession.” I feel that the word “career” has the connotation of everything is secondary and your job is first. For me, family always came first. I was working in law offices and I really enjoyed the law. It was always my dream to see if I could be a lawyer, but I knew that probably wasn’t possible for a Hasidic young woman.
I was perfectly content; I was happy. I got married at the age of 19 and started raising a family. So anything in terms of higher education wasn’t really an option. It wasn’t until I turned 30 when I decided to consider higher education. At that point, my husband had just graduated Touro College, which had opened up to cater to the Orthodox community. It offers separate classes for men and women.
When my husband graduated, I thought to myself, “Now it’s my turn.” And my husband was supportive, my family was supportive. And I enrolled in Touro, in their women’s division. At that point, I was 30 and I had three children. My three sons were ages eight, six, and four.
I loved it. I majored in political science and I was dreaming of law school. College took me six years because I wasn’t going to compromise on any of my roles, my duties as a mother and a wife. I worked quite hard and I did the night program. I graduated with my bachelor’s, and I applied to law school.
And again, all along on my journey, I was always wondering, “Will I make it? Will I pull through? Will it happen?” And I’m very grateful that I was able to do it my way. And my way was the slow, hard way. But it also meant that I was able to be there for my family. By the time I graduated law school, 10 years later, I was already 40.
So I have to backtrack a little. When I decided to go for law school, that was a big step for me. Because it was the first time that I was going into an academic environment outside of my community. I had been working for many years at law firms in the city and was completely comfortable working outside the Borough Park community, outside the Orthodox community. And I had many friends and acquaintances and colleagues outside of Borough Park.
But law school was the first time that I was going to be entrenched in a completely secular environment for my academic studies. And I was concerned. I think most people have that bit of trepidation when you go into a new environment. I really wanted it to work. And I made a deal with God. I made a deal. I said, “God, help me get through these four years of law school without my compromising any of my standards, and when anybody comes to me for help, your children come to me for help, I will help them.”
Well, God wasted no time in testing me. Because shortly after I graduated, I found out about kids at risk in my community who were crying to me for help. And B’Derech was to help them. And it was a very rewarding experience. And then came Ezras Nashim.
And what was the origin of that organization?
The background behind it was that when Hatzolah was first formed, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was supposed to be a women’s division. And then the women’s division was disbanded shortly after they started operations. The women that were let go always dreamed of starting again. It was hard because you had to maintain your EMT license to make that happen. Some women maintained their licenses; most let it just lapse.
Five years ago, the rabbi in New Square, in upstate New York, when he started to integrate women into the Hatzolah of his town, the women in Brooklyn aspired to have dreams again of perhaps starting it again here. But it didn’t work out. They were advised to get a female attorney that would advocate for them. So they contacted me. At that point, I was very unfamiliar with emergency medicine. I was really intrigued by the idea. And I told them that I would look into it and meet with them, and see if I could be of any help.
Little did I know that that would turn into a real passion of mine. I was overcome by their mission. I was so amazed by the fact that women wanted to serve and help other women. I felt that I was going to get involved and help them. But getting involved meant going for medical training myself. That was a big challenge. The first step was to go for EMT training. Once I started that, I was so inspired and so impressed by what I learned, that I went on to become a paramedic. And we’re up in operation now, we operate 24/7 and we respond to emergency calls by women and we’re having a very positive effect on the community. Any woman can join—anyone who is willing to go to a training and volunteer for time is welcome.
Right now, we’re only in Borough Park. We need to make sure that we have enough volunteers before we go outside of the Borough Park community. But anybody in Borough Park can call.
Why did you want to become a judge?
Through my years of being an attorney, I’ve done lots of public advocacy. As I was doing my advocacy work, my pro bono work, I found myself finding lots of satisfaction in helping other people. And I reached a point where my pro bono work was exceeding my for-profit work. I also have a passion for law. So the natural combination that results when you combine advocacy, public service, and law, is the position of being a judge. That would be the highest way that you can serve the public with the law.
So it was something that was circulating in my mind, and I said, “I would love to do it, I would love to do it.” I just didn’t know if it would come into my hands to have this happen.
You also have to be a lawyer for at least 10 years. I just reached my tenth year this past October. And this seat was known traditionally as the Orthodox seat. You know, there are different judgeships within the court system, different seats to represent different communities. So when this seat opened up, I was told that this really is my chance. I knew that if this is a chance that I have, I can’t just let it go.
The Democratic Party, I think they ultimately were advised that a woman couldn’t win in the Hasidic community. And when they told me that was the reason for not supporting me, I knew that was not 100 percent accurate. I knew that I had a chance of winning. I know Borough Park, I know the people of Borough Park. We’re open-minded people; we’re not a group of Hasidim who don’t know how the world operates. And if somebody’s a good candidate, we’ll vote for the candidate, whether it’s a man or a woman.
It wasn’t that I’m anti-establishment; I just ran on the anti-establishment ticket because the establishment felt that a man had a greater chance of winning. And I kept on saying all along, “If God wants me to win, I’m going to win. I just have to try.” It wasn’t because I felt like I can beat the party. I felt that Borough Park, which has a very big say in the primary, would support me. So that’s why I jumped into it.
Do you see your election as significant, that you’re a role model or a trailblazer?
It’s interesting because I didn’t realize what a sensation it would create. When people ask me about being a role model, I shy away from that title. Because a role model would be someone who you’ll tell your daughter, “Be just like her.” But I will say that I’m a trailblazer. Because I showed women in my community, and all women out there, that you don’t have to give up your role of being a mother, your role as a wife—and I’m a grandmother too—you can have it all and still succeed in the professional world.
I wanted to blaze that trail and show women the way that I did it. My way of doing it was very slowly. I took courses slowly, I didn’t take any accelerated programs because I felt that if I did anything too quickly, it would compromise my family. I didn’t want to do that.
Rachel Freier during a volunteer shift for the Flatlands Ambulance Corps. (Ezras Nashim)
Can you talk about your vision for women and women’s rights in the context of Jewish life?
I think there’s a misconception out there that the Jewish religion oppresses women. That is absolutely not true. The Jewish religion venerates women. The biggest proof of that is that women are the bearers of the religion: What determines if someone is Jewish is who their mother is.
Your father can be the greatest rabbi of the century, but if your mom is not a Jew, then according to Jewish law, you’re not a Jew. So the Jewish religion puts them on a high pedestal.
We’re now in the middle of the holiday of Hannukah. The woman who made the miracle happen, her name was Judith. It happened to a woman. And the miracle of Purim also happened to a woman—Esther. The exodus through Egypt, it’s also to the credit of women.
So I don’t see that the Jewish religion oppresses women. I think I’m able to prove that point. Maybe in modern times we don’t realize that, but if a woman wants to do something and she’s capable, it’s possible without compromising any aspect of Jewish halakha, or Jewish law.
But you wouldn’t call yourself a feminist?
People always ask me this question. And the reason I have to clarify is because the word “feminist” is a tricky word. Because on the one hand, when it comes to women’s position, women’s opportunity, women’s empowerment, I’m there. Because I feel that the Torah gives us that as women.
The Torah gives us our role as women as well. According to the Torah, I am the mother of my home—a very important position in my home.
You walk into any home, it’s a reflection of the mother. And I carry that tradition with pride. What I’ve found is that feminism, in their search for equality, blurs the role between men and women. I appreciate my role as a woman. I am not looking to take over the role of my husband. My husband is the father, he’s the man of the house.
We have various different commandments—mitzvot—for women and for men. For example, when the Sabbath comes, I light the candles. That’s my mitzvah. I value that. And my husband, he goes to a synagogue and he prays with the minyan; I don’t.
I’m not part of the group of women who want equality because they want to pray with the men, or they want to wear the prayer shawl of the men. I’m satisfied and I’m content with my role as a woman.
The part of feminism which seeks to give women opportunity, that’s where I say, “I agree. Women should have opportunity.” But I’m here within the framework of Judaism. And that sometimes gets tricky when you start speaking about feminism. Because sometimes it overlaps with my vision and my beliefs, and sometimes it goes beyond that.
I believe that feminists sometimes have gone beyond the role of giving women opportunities to the role of equality. And for me, I don’t understand the term—it doesn’t work for me—because I don’t think that women should lose their identity as women. We have a very special place in God’s world as women. And I value that position. I’m not willing to give that up whatsoever.
That’s why my journey was such a long journey. Because while I was studying for my degree, I was having my children, I was raising my children. I wasn’t going to give that up for anything. When I started college, my three sons were born; by the time I graduated college, my three daughters were born.
I have to make myself clear because it’s not something you can answer in one sentence. Yes, I’ve benefited from all these people who championed civil rights, I benefited from the feminist movement. And just because I benefited from it doesn’t mean that I necessarily adopt all of their theories and all their missions.
I appreciate the opportunity that I have. But I have to be very clear of the fact that Judaism gives women opportunities. In fact, in Biblical times, there was a judge, who was also a prophetess, and her name was Devorah. And she led the Jewish people during her lifetime in battle, and also she judged them.
I am from the Hasidic community and I follow the Torah and I don’t think there’s any contradiction to the life that I live.
If that’s the trail that I’m blazing, then I’ll call myself a trailblazer. But a role model is too tricky. Because everyone has their different standard and different lifestyles. And a role model would somehow indicate that it’s just, “Do whatever she does and you’ll be ok.” And it’s not like that.
Judge Freier with her three daughters at her robing ceremony in December 2016. (Andre Reichmann Photography)
In the Hasidic community, there’s this practice of “self-policing,” where matters that would normally be handled by the state are handled internally. There have been instances, for example, with cases of alleged sexual abuse. What exactly is the role of civil courts in these situations?
As a judge-elect, I’m going to say that everything should be done the legal way, everything should be done the right way. Everything should be done the fair way. I’m going to have to say that that’s how things should be done.
These things really are a case-by-case basis. If there’s someone who has trouble at home and just needed a little bit of additional assistance, a little bit of guidance, if anything can be done without the necessity of civil authorities, I think that would be commendable. But if it reaches the level where authorities need to be contacted, where a crime has been committed, we have to follow the law of the land.
What if there’s a conflict between religious and civil law?
So there is a dictum in the Talmud, that’s dina d’malkhuta dina. Which is Aramaic for, “The law of the land is the law.” If something comes to the courtroom, it’s the law of the United States that applies. When two religious Jews have a dispute and they arbitrate in front of the beis din, then the beis din has the authority to make the decision. Because they chose arbitration. But once something comes into a court of law, it’s the law of the country that applies. It’s not even a question.
Have you felt cultural resistance to your professional trajectory?
There was no resistance because I was doing everything the right way. I was completely devoted as a wife and a mother. And I was not compromising the standards that are so important to the Hasidic community. I will say that there were people who probably would question my motives because it was different. There were people who were probably concerned.
My family is a nice family, my husband is a very prominent member of the community. That helped. And my family was very supportive. That’s something that’s so important when people do things, to have the support of their family.
What is your judicial philosophy?
I want to be fair, and that’s following the law. That’s the vision that every judge has to have: to uphold the Constitution and the laws to the best of my ability. What I want to bring to the bench is my sense of community and my knowledge of the religious Jewish community. I didn’t grow up in a bubble. Like I said, I’ve been working for many, many years—more than three decades—in the secular world. So I have a good understanding of life in the city of New York. And I’ve also been volunteering as a paramedic out in Canarsie at an ambulance corps called Flatlands. So I’ve been always straddling between two worlds.
What I want to be able to bring to the bench is my perspective as a woman from the religious community. And I think that would just add another layer of understanding to the bench right now. I’ve raised six children. I’m now a grandmother. There’s a lot that I see from my position that I don’t think everybody has.