Hasidic grandmother breaks barriers on Brooklyn judicial bench and serves as role model

BOROUGH PARK, Brooklyn — A Brooklyn judge who’s spent a year deciding criminal cases won her seat on the bench without once shaking a man’s hand.

Rachel Freier was sworn in on Dec. 22, 2016. Her term started Jan. 3, 2017. (Courtesy Freier family)

That would compromise Rachel Freier’s religious beliefs, and she couldn’t do that as a woman running for office in one of the most religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Now she uses her religious values and faith as a guiding force in her decisions from the bench.

“It doesn't mean being soft on crime. It means being an understanding judge,” she said. “You have somebody and you can impress upon them, 'You're responsible for your actions.’”

Freier was sworn in on Dec. 22, 2016 and took the bench on Jan. 3, 2017. She was elected as a civil court judge, but ended up being assigned to criminal court by the Office of Court Administration.

She deals mostly with misdemeanor cases, but also rules on felonies. Many of the defendants who stand before her each day are adolescents who've been arrested for a first or second time.

"There's something that has to be done here before he spirals all the way down," she said she considers each time.

The 52-year-old grandmother stepped out of her comfort zone with the new role.

“It was really a whole new world for me,” Freier said. "It's something that I always knew I wanted, but I never experienced it.”

She’s been living a life different from the average Hasidic woman for years now.

Women from Freier’s community in Borough Park often don’t have careers; they’re mothers and homemakers. They may work as teachers or entrepreneurs, but a role like Freier's is unheard of. Her position as a judge may play a role in changing that, according to Allison Josephs, founder of Jew in the City, a website that teaches people about the Orthodox Jewish world.

"I think you're going to see more doors open in terms of other women - maybe not being Rachel Freiers because she is pretty much a super woman - but you know, woman sort of dreaming bigger and being able to achieve impressive things like that," Josephs said.

The advancement took years of effort on Freier's part. She didn’t go to college after graduating from high school. A senior year class in legal stenography landed her secretarial positions in law firms throughout the city.

She supported her husband, a Talmudic scholar, while raising three boys. Financial concerns prompted Freier’s husband David to turn to the classified section of the newspaper for job opportunities, but the only job he was qualified for was summer camp counselor.

So back to school he went.

Freier watched as he walked across the stage at his graduation and knew she wanted that for herself.

“I still wanted to cook. I still wanted to bake. I wanted to bake challah for Shabbos. I wanted to be a mother for my children. I still wanted to have more children,” Freier said. “I wanted everything. I wanted everything that a Jewish mother has, but I also wanted to advance in law.”

Freier started college as a 30-year-old mother. She went to class one day a week at Touro College and continued her work as a legal secretary. There were no female role models for her in the Hasidic community.

“I said, I’m just going to find my way how I’m going to do it,” Freier said. “I found that doing things slowly and persevering and praying a lot really pays off.”

Rachel Freier with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2001. (Courtesy Freier family)

She studied for six years, had three more children — all girls this time — and eventually graduated with a degree in political science. From there Freier went to Brooklyn Law School. She interned for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the New York State Assembly.

Her resume was chock-full of experience, but she was unsure she’d ever find clients when she graduated at age 40. Still, a career in law wasn’t as important to her as just earning the degree.

“I didn’t care if I didn’t even have one client,” Freier said. “I wanted to know that I tried and I did it.”

Her continued success and acceptance in a Hasidic community has been a total surprise to her. But it hasn't been without challenges.

Jewish singer Lipa Schmeltzer, a friend of Freier's, said she had a hard time winning over some of the more conservative members of the area,

"I feel that sometimes it's like climbing on a building and people [are] stepping on your hands," he said. "[They] want to make you fall down."

Freier herself said the only major resistance she faced from the community came when she helped launch Ezras Nashim, an all-women medical services group.

"There was very mixed reactions. Some people felt they weren’t capable. Some people felt it wouldn’t be appropriate,” Freier said. “It was such a variety of mixed feelings, but deep down I knew it was the right thing to do​."

She got the EMS group off the ground and became a paramedic in the process, but her experience didn’t bode well for her campaign. The Democratic party — convinced a Hasidic woman couldn’t win in a largely Hasidic section of Brooklyn — refused to back Freier.

They backed an Orthodox man, Morton Avigdor, instead. His religion and gender made him seem like the ideal candidate for the neighborhood, but the community backed Freier, much to her surprise.

“These people who I never knew existed all were coming forward to help me,” Freier said.

It helped that her Brooklyn community is more integrated than some other Hasidic communities, Josephs said based on her time teaching others about Jewish communities. The Hasidic world is not monolithic and ultra-orthodox women have been accepted and lauded for other forms of success.

"While she maybe doesn't have the support of every last person in her community, she has, to her credit, been able to do this an insider," Josephs said. "Sometimes people can push so far that they break off and they're no longer considered on the inside. She has managed through being strategic and really being a very committed Hasidic woman to do this with the support of so much of her community."

Religious men from the district looked at Freier and thought of their hopes for their daughters, Freier said. The men, concerned that their daughters couldn’t balance religion and academic success outside of Judaism, saw Freier as an example.

She covers her hair. She dresses modestly. She keeps all the laws and customs of Judaism. She managed to do all that while also earning her degrees, working as a lawyer and, for the last year, working as a judge.

“I could never have won if my community didn't vote for me,” she said. "They were open to having one of their own women elected to public office.”

Freier took home just under 41 percent of the vote in the Brooklyn’s 5th District. Avigdor won 24.5 percent of the vote and Jill Epstein, a Jewish, but not religious, woman won 34.5 percent of the vote.

“If God gave me this challenge, then I can take it,” Freir said. “If I was put here, that means I was meant to be here for a purpose and I just pray that I'm fulfilling that purpose.”

Part of that purpose, as Freir sees it, is spreading the message of holding onto values as she had.

“Whatever your values are, hold onto them,” she said. “Retaining them will not hurt your career, it will only help it. It will show you are as a committed honest person.”

PIX11's Jay Dow contributed to this report.