Touro College hosts Brooklyn judge Rachel “Ruchie” Freier for its Presidential Lecture Series
America’s first female Hasidic elected official returns to her roots at Lander College
John Wayne, actor and icon of all things traditional, told the Harvard Crimson in response to a question about the women’s movement: “I think women have a right to work anywhere they want to … as long as they have dinner [ready] when you want it.”
Some women fumed while some men smiled.
Who could possibly have imagined those four decades prior that the Duke’s ideal would come to be embodied in a 5-foot-nothing Hasidic lady from Borough Park — Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, or, as she is now characterized, the Hon. Rachel Freier, Criminal Court judge of Brooklyn’s 5th Judicial District?
“My family always comes first,” Freier explained on Nov. 20 after fulsome introductions by Touro College President Alan Kadish and Vice President Dr. Robert Goldschmidt. Despite being the first Hasidic woman ever to win elective office in the U.S., Freier deflected the spotlight: “I’m not the real big deal. The big deal here is my husband, David, who is the first Hasid ever to let his wife run for office.”
Freier’s return to Lander College, her undergraduate alma mater, was part of Touro College & University’s Presidential Lecture Series: Justice Rachel Freier’s Trailblazing Journey.
The auditorium was nearly SRO by the time Freier began her remarks. Most of those attending were young women, students at Lander College. One, however, Fran Collins, came from Queens: “I’m not a student,” she said, “I just thought it sounded interesting.” Others — students in majors ranging from biology to psychology — echoed Collins’s sentiment — though they have no plans to study law, or run for office themselves, Freier’s story intrigued and perhaps inspired them. They wanted to hear more.
Goldschmidt recalled: “Before she graduated summa cum laude, Ruchie was very active in extra-curricular affairs. She was, for example, head of the college’s pre-law group.”
And all of this while pregnant with her daughter, working as a paralegal and maintaining a scrupulously observant household.
“Whatever your religious standards are,” Freier exhorted, “Don’t compromise them … When you show that you are committed and you are honest and you won’t compromise what you believe in, you will win the respect of your employer and your colleagues.”
When asked by audience member Hillel Gross what her approach would be in adjudicating a case that somehow conflicted with her religious beliefs, Freier said she’d recuse herself from hearing it.
Was Gross satisfied by her answer? He nodded: “I am. My inspiration for this was [the late Supreme Court Justice] Antonin Scalia’s approach to capital punishment as a practicing Catholic. Sometimes the conflict is subtle, but the possibility of religious faith clashing with secular law is pervasive in all faiths.”
“As a role model,” asked another student, “what’s your advice to women?”
“Get a mentor,” Freier replied. “Tap into your potential, but remember, you don’t know what that is until you try the next thing. Diversity is how the wind is blowing, so don’t be shy about who you are.”
With accession to Brooklyn’s 5th Judicial District just the latest in a resume that includes founding an all-women ambulance service, Ezras Nashim; creating Chasdei Devorah, Inc, a charity for poor Jewish families; and co-founding B’Derech, a GED program for Haredi youth — all while raising five children, working and maintaining a proper kosher household — Freier herself moves from beyond being just a mentor to an outright inspiration.
“I said to the rebbitzin [wife of a rabbi who often counsels women in the Haredi community] that instead of bringing my work home, I bring my home to work,” Freier told the audience. “My role as a mother helps me when during arraignment defense counsel pleads: ‘But, your honor, he’s just a child!’ I just tell him: ‘I’ve raised six!’ And that shuts that argument down.”
Ruchie is a no-nonsense jurist who guides herself by way of traditional values — while still managing to get dinner on the table.
The Duke would have to approve.
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