If you don’t know who Rachel Freier is, you should. She’s the first Hasidic woman elected to public office in the U.S. ever. Isn’t that crazy to think about? In November, Freier won a contested primary for a civil court judgeship in Brooklyn’s 5th Judicial District. This week, she finally took her seat on the bench as a civil court judge–which is why Gothamist recently interviewed her about her unusual journey to becoming a judge–and the role of women in Jewish life.
Besides being an attorney and judge, she’s also a mom of six (and now she’s a bubbe!), so you know, basically nothing can stop her. Here are my favorite moments from the interview:
1. She didn’t get her start until age 30, proving that it’s never to late to start working on your dream. She said:
“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.”
2. Freier didn’t think becoming the first female Hasidic judge would cause a sensation. Clearly, she was wrong, explaining:
“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.”
3. She doesn’t think Judaism, or Jewish culture, oppresses women. This is why:
“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.
… 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.”
4. She doesn’t consider herself a feminist. She explained:
“On the one hand, when it comes to women’s position, women’s opportunity, women’s empowerment, I’m there… 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.
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.
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 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.”
While I don’t necessarily agree with Freier about why she doesn’t consider herself a feminist, it’s also not my place to tell someone what to identify as, or how to view the line between men and women–especially in this case where the word is somewhat subjective.
It’s important to celebrate different beliefs and respect them. Her work is very real and very necessary to the Hasidic community, and I’m glad she’s out there doing the hard work to help others.