First Hasidic woman judge takes office

Brooklyn Currents | 1/02/2017 | 0 comments




From the Associated Press

In some ways, Rachel Freier has a background that might be expected in a new civil court judge. She is a real estate lawyer who volunteers in family court and in her community, where she even serves as a paramedic.

But Freier started work Tuesday, Jan. 3 as something quite unexpected. She's believed to be the first woman from the Hasidic community to be elected as a judge in the United States.

A proud product of a world with strict customs concerning gender roles and modesty, the new Brooklyn civil court judge started college as a married, 30-year-old mother of three children and had three more before graduating. A pathbreaker who embraces tradition, she has sometimes had to explain herself to both outsiders and fellow believers.

"My commitment to the public and my commitment to my religion and my community — the two can go hand in hand," she says.

At a swearing-in ceremony last month, she  vowed to both uphold the Constitution and  to illuminate the Hasidic world for her new colleagues.

"This is a dream," she told the gathering. "It's the American dream."

There's no official tally of American judges' religions, but experts aren't aware of any Hasidic woman before Freier winning a judicial post. It is rare even in Israel for Hasidic or other Orthodox women to hold elected positions.

Freier, a political newcomer whose uncle is a former judge, won a three-way Democratic primary and the general election in a swath of Brooklyn that includes heavily Hasidic Borough Park.

Her election is "a step for the Orthodox community at large," showing it's open to women making progress on the political ladder, said Yossi Gestetner, a longtime Hasidic political activist and public relations consultant who co-managed Freier's campaign.

Hasidic Jews and other Orthodox groups together make up only 6 percent of America's estimated 5.3 million adult Jews, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study.

"The very idea that an Orthodox woman could be a judge" is notable, said Samuel Heilman, a City University of New York sociology professor who studies Orthodox Judaism. Under the strictest interpretations of Jewish law, women can't be judges or largely even witnesses in the rabbinical court, the beis din,  that weighs various disputes in Orthodox communities. Freier stressed that her new post is separate from the beis din, and her supporters noted during the campaign that women have served as judges in the Jewish community throughout history.

Freier, 51, nicknamed Ruchie, started working as a legal secretary after high school. College wasn't customary for Hasidic women, though it has since become more common.

But when her husband, David, got a college degree, she aspired to one of her own. After graduating from a women-only program at private Touro College, she went on to Brooklyn Law School, finishing in 2005.

Some other Hasidic Jews questioned what she was doing. But they came to realize "I was completely devoted to our religion and our tradition, and this was something I wanted to do regardless," she says.

"I didn't want to ever be considered someone who was turning away from my community," but rather to work within its structure, she said.

If there's a message she hopes her election sends, it's "Don't give up."

"And don't let go of your standards."

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