Chasidic Judge Interviewed Before Packed Crowd About Her Unique Background, Passions, And Achievements
By now, the story of Judge Ruchie Freier is well-publicized: a chasidic woman who graduated law school, founded a volunteer women’s EMS, founded B’Derech for at-risk teens in need of high school degrees, and was elected Civil Court Judge in 2016, while raising six children and never compromising her values. How much better to hear this story in person from the source?
Last Sunday, Freier spoke to a packed shul at the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates, interviewed about her life and work by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt. Like Freier, Goldschmidt also has a biography that stands out, as a rebbetzin who writes for The Forward, a generally liberal publication. In her columns and reporting, Goldschmidt introduces readers to the Orthodox community in a way that can only be told by someone who lives this lifestyle. “Each of them shares something, a search for words and a search for the truth,” said event sponsor Sharon Blumenthal. Together with two dozen other members of her shul, they transformed the beis k’neses into what looked like a television studio for the guest speaker and her interviewer.
Potential for Greatness
“It is being m’kadeish shem shamayim to share my story,” said Freier as she started her story. “It was a simple upbringing with average hardworking parents who believed that their children had potential as long as it wasn’t illegal, immoral, or against the Torah.”
When she was in school, there were few opportunities expected for chasidic women, but a hint of her future was the trust her mother placed in Ruchie. A sheitel-maker, she relied on her daughter to make sure that customers paid for their orders. One career option that her classmates were offered was stenography, where students learned to type words in shorthand at a rapid pace, and as lessons increased in difficulty, the number of students dwindled. “I became a legal secretary and I was happy.” Engaged at 18 and married a year later to David Freier, their family grew, and the husband who learned Gemara went to school to learn a trade. “By then I was 30, we had three sons, and I felt that it was my turn.”
Everyone in the family was supportive of her desire for a career – David, her parents, and his parents. “The parents were ecstatic.” At the same time, Freier continued to make supper every night for her family while working and attending classes. “College took six years to complete. That was my dream, and with G-d’s help I accomplished it.” She began at Touro College and earned her JD from Brooklyn Law School, which took ten years in total to complete, with three daughters born during this time.
Freier said that she is not alone among Borough Park women seeking meaningful careers. “Support exists but it is quiet. If I can inspire somebody, I am going to speak up.”
Before she completed law school, Freier opened up her first office in Monroe, with many of her clients living in the nearby Satmar village of Kiryas Joel. At the time, most residents would not talk to the media, and reporters did not have an accurate or detailed understanding of this community. “I told my clients to reach out to reporters and invite them in.” But with little knowledge of the secular press, her clients were reluctant. Freier took matters into her own hands by inviting Chris, a Catholic Irish-American reporter, to her bungalow colony home. The Shabbos visit changed his view of Orthodox Jews, and in turn, Freier said that he taught her to trust the media. Prior to this invitation, Chris had never spoken to a chasidic woman.
Education for Teens
As she stood out for her choice of career, Freier easily noticed young adults who did not fit in with their expected roles in a chasidic community. With her husband, she invited up to 30 young men to her home for Shabbos, which led to the founding of B’Derech for those seeking a GED as a pathway to a career. “Our board includes Rabbi Paysach Krohn. He suggested that they get an education,” said Freier. “Sometimes they need to feel that someone believes in them.”
Freier said that the lack of secular education in her community stems from a desire for more religious learning. Growing up, she felt that she had a good secular education, but like many in her generation, she wanted her children to have higher standards in religious learning. Eventually, schools were no longer as open and began accepting students based on predetermined criteria, with those rejected falling through the cracks.
“Hatzalah for Women”
On her way to work, Freier carries a medical bag along with her EMT license, should the need arise. This element of her life goes a back a few years when she heard whispers of a women’s group seeking to create an emergency medical service for women. “Three hundred women were trained in Borough Park, Williamsburg, and Monroe in the 1970s,” said Freier, but they were never given the opportunity to follow through on their training. “Hatzalah did not imagine that it would be delivering babies.”
Recognizing opposition to the idea on grounds of modesty and that it was never done before, she went to prominent rabbis for support, which they offered privately. Freier said that as scholars, it is not their place to engage in public activism. “I took it to the top and we got our license to operate, then another license for an ambulance.” Freier took her EMT classes with her mother, which took a year and a half to complete. “There was not one boring class. Every part of our body is amazing.”
Candidate for Judge
When an opening for Civil Court Judge presented itself in 2016, Freier expressed interest, with her husband as her first supporter. “He financed the campaign, ran around getting rabbis to endorse me. He’s the real hero,” said Freier. On his first day petitioning, David Freier visited the neighborhood’s minyanim and places of study, gathering 40 signatures. Then their children picked up the clipboards and put palm cards where they would be read – including restrooms. “They were amazing,” Freier said of her children. “My daughter in Israel davened for me at the Kosel.” Her rabbi also gave his nod, with the rebbetzin adding that Devorah the prophetess was a leader in her time. “I’m a secular judge in a secular court deciding secular law. There is no halachic issue at all. I did not break any rules.”
In line with her community’s strict standards of tz’nius, her image did not appear on palm cards, and Yiddish literature referred to her as Mrs. Freier, not by her first name. “Whatever your religious standards are, don’t compromise them,” she said. Concerning the high tz’nius standards of her campaign materials, she said that her name is commonly known among Borough Park voters.
Now that she is a public figure, Freier receives numerous requests for interviews from mainstream media, including “Today Show” host Megyn Kelly last December. Freier does not consider herself a feminist, pointing out that her work and activism fit within the halachic framework.
As a judge, she keeps away from partisan politics and uses her public voice only when she feels it could have a meaningful impact. One such example was her Vos Iz Neias opinion piece following the drug overdose death of Malky Klein. “Malky was wearing the uniform of the school that had expelled her, because she was hurt and ashamed and did not want anyone to know that she had no school,” she wrote of meeting the young lady when she was 14. “As we reject more children, the death rate goes up. The Chazon Ish said that a decision to expel a child is dinei n’fashos and halachically requires a beis din of 23 members.”
Freier always returns to the reason for her public work and activism. “I use the voice that I have in the right way to help others.”
By Sergey Kadinsky