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Friday, July 28, 2017

Judge Ruchie Freier speaks at the OU. (Credit: Elizabeth Kratz)

Judge Ruchie Freier displays her embellished judge’s robe. (Credit: Elizabeth Kratz)

On Wednesday, June 28, Judge Ruchie Freier, the first Chasidic woman to be elected as a civil court judge in U.S. history, spoke at the Orthodox Union’s Women’s Affinity Group, an organization initially established by the OU’s executive vice president, Allen Fagin, in 2015 and co-chaired by Orah Alon, the OU’s human resources manager, and Jewish Action Editor Nechama Carmel.

Freier, who grew up in Boro Park as part of the Bobover Chasidic community, was elected in November 2016 as a civil court judge for the state of New York, though she serves in the criminal court now, primarily in arraignments. In an unprecedented showing for a race that had an Orthodox woman from Boro Park on the ballot for the first time, Freier garnered an astounding 74 percent of the vote.

Nearly 100 women heard her speak in person (with about half of the women being OU employees) and the event was livestreamed and was placed on the OU’s website, available here: https://www.ou.org/watch-judge-ruchie-freier-ou-headquarters/. Judge Freier was the second speaker for the OU Women’s Affinity Group whose speech was open to the public, though the organizers told The Jewish Link they hope to arrange many more.

As part of her intimate presentation to OU women, which included a lively post-talk Q&A, Freier shared that she went to Bais Yaakov High School in Boro Park, Touro College and Brooklyn Law School. Having taken a legal stenography course in Bais Yaakov, she worked as a paralegal before enrolling in college and law school. By the time she began law school, she was 30 and had six children. Once admitted to the bar in 2006, she worked as a real estate attorney before her election to the bench. In addition to being the first female Chasidic court judge, she is widely considered the first female Chasidic lawyer.

In her talk, she spoke about how her Bais Yaakov experience formed and solidified her faith in God and gave her a clear view to her future. Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement, was a particularly inspiring role model to Freier on her journey. Freier noted that Schenirer also faced opposition when embarking on her mission to provide Jewish education for girls, and Freier understood that sometimes leaders have to take action and stand up for what is right, regardless of personal consequences.

Freier related a vignette she read in the book, “Carry Me in Your Heart: The Life and Legacy of Sarah Schenirer,” by Pearl Benisch, saying that a woman’s dress must always have two pockets, each containing a pasuk—the first is Kol kevuda bat Melech penima—All honor [awaits] the King’s daughter who is within (Tehillim 45:14), and the other is Et laasot laHashem heiferu Toratecha—A time to do for Hashem; they have made void Your Torah (Ibid. 119:126). Freier summarized these two verses as having the following combined message: “Go for your dreams and be proud of who you are, but don’t compromise on your religious standards.”

Freier said her role at work embodies this message and that she can withstand her opposers in a modest manner. “I am the one who stands up,” she said. “Mrs. Freier, you have guts,” Freier said one of the rabbanim said when Freier visited when she was seeking supporters for her election.

The speech was composed at times of inspiration, advice and the story of her journey from working as a paralegal to support her husband in kollel, to becoming a real estate transactions lawyer, up to this point of holding elected office. She noted that along the path she was encouraged by Hashem. “If you believe Hashem runs the world, whatever it is that you really want to do, He will help you do it. Just believe, believe that it is possible. Because my story? Everyone said it was never going to happen.” Freier acknowledged the difficulties she experienced on this path and how she was not without doubt, and sometimes she questioned why she was faced with these obstacles.

Perhaps, Freier said, she was faced with these barriers to learn for herself and to show to others that even in spite of obstacles, one is still able to accomplish one’s goals without compromising on their standards. Freier noted that she felt clearly differentiated from both her colleagues at work and law school. However, she found that her differentiation turned out to be an asset. She relayed a story in which one of the non-religious lawyers for whom she worked as a paralegal informed her during a “casual Friday” that her sleeves were too short. “When something is right and you do it for the right reasons, people are going to be impressed by it and they don’t want you to change. They don’t want you to conform and be like them. They want you to be the way you are because they want to have something to look up to,” she said.

Even though her career is important to her, so are her six children and grandchildren, not to mention her husband whom she worked alongside in her real estate law practice. (After kollel, he went to Touro and became a mortgage broker.) She explained that she sees a great difference between a career and a profession. Judge Freier chose to adopt the term “profession” to describe her job. She believes that the term career denotes a job that is one’s primary focus. However, her primary focus is not her job, but rather her family. Freier noted her career is her family, but the law is her profession.

While dressing modestly, she also noted in the Q&A that she had embellished her judge’s robe to reflect the high esteem she has for the job, joking that a Jewish woman must always be dressed up. She displayed a truly queen-like black judge’s robe on which she had jeweled embellishments embroidered on the sleeves.

Judge Freier closed with the following statement: “The more I saw that Hashem was giving me opportunities… the more I realized Hashem is with me,” explaining that her journey to become a leader in a secular position really brought her closer to God. “It made me ‘frummer,’” she said.

In addition to her judgeship, Freier is involved with several non-profit organizations, the most visible of them is Ezras Nashim, an all-female Jewish organization that provides emergency medical care and ambulance service. The goal of the organization is to maintain modesty for women in emergency medical situations, particularly childbirth.

The Women’s Affinity Group was designed to be a place where the women employees of the OU can come together and network with one another across departments. Fagin told The Jewish Link that 52 percent of the OU’s regular (non-part-time or per diem) staff are women. “This group was brought about to act as a forum for women employees to raise issues with the OU of common concerns and to make recommendations to the company on how to improve the environment,” Fagin said, adding that prior to this group’s launch, women were sometimes stovepiped in their departments with very little contact with one another.

This second OU women’s event opened to the public was heralded as a home run. “People really loved her. We were delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response we received,” Orah Alon told The Jewish Link.

Alon added that the mission of the organization in manifold: “We focus on skill-building (‘managing up,’ the art of having difficult conversations, etc.), and on offering motivational speakers on topics of interest to women (such as work-life balance, unconscious bias, finding spirituality in the workplace, etc.). Additionally, we work with management to create family-friendly OU policies.”

By Chani Shulman and Elizabeth Kratz