It must be difficult to be both a force of nature and a relatable role model, but Ruchie Freier of Borough Park seems to manage it as she does everything else.
Gracefully and easily.
Rachel Freier, as she properly is known, also is Judge Freier, a 53-year-old elected civil court judge in New York State, who ran as a Democrat and won office in 2016. She is the first chasidic woman elected to any position in the United States.
She is also a wife and the mother of six children and now a grandmother, a woman who married when she was 19 and started her college career, at Touro, when she was 16. She’s a woman who has broken the stereotypes that say that she never could have done what she has done, and who did it all while maintaining the rigorously halachic life that her upbringing, her community, her family, and her own deeply held faith demand.
She’s also beautiful, dresses modestly and appropriately but crisply rather than dowdily, and speaks with a mild, humanizing Brooklyn accent.
Does the force of nature part come through yet?
She’s also the protagonist of the documentary “93Queen,” made by Teaneck filmmaker Paula Eiselt (who won highly sought-after grants and funding for it). That film shows the fight she and other women in Brooklyn fought to start their all-female ambulance corps, Ezras Nashim, which is dedicated to allowing women to help other women. It’s a service whose members are trained EMS providers.
On Shabbat December 14-15, she will be in Teaneck, first at a private NCSY Shabbaton for girls at Congregation Keter Torah and then at Congregation Rinat Yisrael, where her talk will be open to the public. (See box.)
Ms. Freier has been in Israel with Ms. Eiselt; “93Queen” is opening in theaters there. When she comes to Teaneck, she will talk “about how I navigated my journey and was able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish without compromising my chasidic standards,” she said. She’s firm about wanting to use her story to undermine the stereotypes that say that chasidic women cannot do what she has done, and she would like to encourage girls to forge their own paths while maintaining their own standards.
Ms. Freier went to law school, Ms. Eiselt said, because “she worked as a secretary, and she decided that she didn’t want to be a secretary.” So she went to Brooklyn Law School, which “was perfect for me,” Ms. Freier said. “I was able to stay close to home, and I was able to go part time.” She had wanted to be a lawyer for a long time, not because a lawyer needs analytic skills — which Ms. Freier absolutely and demonstrably has — but because of its potential for advocacy work. “It’s just part of my DNA,” she said. “When I was young I was the advocate for my siblings, and when I was growing up and my parents had issues that had to be dealt with, I was the family advocate.
“I always had a passion for standing up for what is right.”
She is also a natural leader, but she did not cultivate that purposely, she said. “Leadership just evolved. It just happened. Maybe I was a leader in day camp, things like that, but in terms of communal leadership, no. That was not something I was looking for.”
She often is asked if she is a feminist, she said, in response to a question about whether she is a feminist, but she shies away from that — or any other — label, she said. “In the chasidic community, it has a negative connotation. It’s viewed as a woman who wants to usurp the role of a man. But I feel that there is no contradiction in being an empowered woman, someone who wants to achieve and accomplish things.”
As to the term feminist, “I think that all terms and labels are deceptive,” Ms. Freier said. “Everyone has their own understanding of what these terms mean, and they mean different thigs to different people. So I won’t use them. I don’t identify with them.
“I believe in the description of a woman that Shlomo HaMelech” — King Solomon — “wrote in Eishet Chayil” — Woman of Valor, the song, believed to have been written by King Solomon, that Orthodox men sing to their wives at the start of Shabbat dinner. “A woman who is busy, accomplished, up late at night, working. An eishet chayil is what I wanted to be, what I wanted to achieve. And I don’t have to use any other secular terms. I want to stick with what I’m comfortable with.”
She’s entirely comfortable with being a judge, and she feels that it’s a logical role for an eishet chayil to take. “It’s an amazing experience, and I think that a woman’s life experience is the best thing that I bring to the bench. It’s my experience as a mother. Every woman who is a mother is a judge, all the time.”
She credits her own mother with her ascent to the bench. “It didn’t happen overnight,” she said. “I give my mother a lot of credit. She was a very strong woman, very smart, very sensible, and she taught us the value of working hard.
“We grew up in a very chasidic community, in a very frum home, and we never were given the message that being religious is restrictive,” she said. “There were many rules, but we were made to feel that we could accomplish so much. We knew that we had limitations, but we never felt that the limitations would be a barrier for us.”
Ms. Freier also attributes much of her success to her “Beis Yakov background,” she said; Beis Yakov is a network of elementary and high schools for girls from traditionally Orthodox backgrounds. “I had phenomenal teachers, and there was a lot of emphasis in class on the halachic perspective and on philosophy. My teachers impressed on us girls the potential that all Jewish girls have, so I was nurtured in an environment of potential and faith.
“I really have complete faith that Hashem” — God — “can do anything. All we have to do it try.”
She doesn’t think that she’s the only one of her cohort to have become a professional, although she’s the only one who’s a judge. “I think there are many therapists and accountants and other professions who have gone into many other areas,” she said.
“But for me it was so much about outreach, and this is the difference. I think it’s so important. I think that there are a lot of stereotypes today in the media about chasidim, and I feel that if we are not going to open up so the media can capture the true essence of who we are, then people are going to make assumptions about who we are. And most of the time, assumptions are wrong.
“So why not give them the truth, and let them hear it in our own voices?”
She finds herself as a spokeswoman for chasidic women, “but I never said I wanted to be one. It just evolved.”
She hadn’t been sure that she wanted to be in “93Queen,” Ms. Freier said. “I was approached six years ago, and I said absolutely not. I told Paula that I had enough things on my plate, and that this was the last thing that I needed.
“But she didn’t give up. She said to me that if I allow the film, it will break the stereotypes of chasidim in general, and of chasidic women in particular, and that it would create a Kiddush Hashem.” A sanctification of God’s name. “So I spoke to my rabbi, to make sure that it would not violate halacha, and then I said that I would do it.”
“93Queen” drew many disparate audiences in Israel this week, including “a few chasidic women who told me they were pursuing law degrees,” Ms. Freier said.
The week in Israel included “nonstop press and screenings and meetings,” Ms. Eiselt said. “The reaction was incredible.” In Jerusalem, it drew a large number of charedim; “the Cinemateque, where it screened, said that they’d never had an audience like that before. They were over the moon.” In Tel Aviv and Haifa, the audiences were more mixed, ranging from charedi to secular. And “in Jerusalem, a Palestinian EMT came with his wife and daughter. It was so inspiring to see him and Ruchie connect.”
What is Ms. Freier going to do now? “We really want to develop Ezras Nashim more,” she said. “We are now applying for a license to own and operate our own ambulance. I still am dealing with a lot of opposition behind the scenes, which I have to overcome. And I have to work on increasing our funds for the ambulance.
“There is so much that I have to do. How are we going to get this done? How are we going to get that done?
“I am so very grateful to God for giving me these opportunities. There always have been so many challenges, but I have so much hard work ahead that I don’t think about them. That’s the past, and there is so much more to accomplish.”
Who: Judge Ruchie Freier
What: Will talk about “My Journey to the Bench” at Congregation Rinat Yisrael
When: On Saturday, December 15, at 4 p.m.
Where: Rinat is at 389 West Englewood Ave. in Teaneck
For more information about the talk: Go to www.rinat.org
For more information about Ezras Nashim: Go to www.ezras-nashim.org