September 21, 2019

Female Chasidic Judge Breaks the Mold

Photographs by Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Hours before the last days of Passover began, it was very busy at Judge Rachel Freier’s house in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Bustling in the Pesach kitchen built into a walk-in closet off her main kitchen, Freier prepared for the holiday with her youngest married daughter, stirring pots on the stove, readying salads and putting spongecake in the oven, while a son-in-law and a friend peeled apples and schmoozed at the kitchen table.

The streets outside were empty of women, who, like Freier, likely were at home preparing for the holiday. Men in the long black coats of Chasidim strolled about the avenue, while young men with payot (sidelocks) as long as their fur hats were high dashed by. A pair of little girls — sisters, to judge by the matching pink dresses, white tights and sweaters — rushed down the sidewalk on scooters.

Inside the Freier house, though, the mother of six and grandmother several times over paused from her pre-yom tov tasks to speak with a visiting reporter in her living room, where a sideboard was covered with awards she received from Israeli emergency medical service United Hatzalah of Israel, the Satmar rebbetzin of Kiryas Joel and many others.

“Leah, is the gefilte fish burning?” she called to her youngest married daughter, who is 20 and has a twin sister. Freier has three sons, the oldest in his 30s, and three daughters.

Freier is 54, trim and just 5 feet tall. Demurely attired in clothing appropriately modest for a Chasidic woman, she wore a two-way radio on a belt around her waist. Freier is director of Ezras Nashim, the women’s Chasidic volunteer ambulance corps approved by the state in 2014, and is on call whenever she is home. 

Ezras Nashim means both “women’s help” and refers to the Hebrew words for the women’s balcony in an Orthodox synagogue, a space that in theory is intended to be separate but equal.

“I’m not afraid. It’s God’s endorsement that is most important, and I believe we have God’s endorsement, so we move on.” — Judge Rachel Freier

As she bustles about her house, it’s hard to picture Freier ruling over a Kings County Civil Court in downtown Brooklyn as the first Chasidic woman in the world to be elected judge. Last year, a second Chasidic woman joined her ranks in Israel, when London-born Chava Tucker was appointed to the Jerusalem Magistrate Court. 

After Freier’s 2016 election, in which she beat two candidates vying for the judge’s seat from her district, she was dubbed “American Trailblazer” by the Forward and “the Hasidic Superwoman of Night Court” by The New York Times.

But not everyone views her in such glowing terms. Critics say few women actually call Ezras Nashim in medical emergencies, and that most continue to call Hatzalah, the longtime, all-male Orthodox volunteer ambulance corps. To be sure, Ezras Nashim currently is limited in what it can offer women needing assistance. It is in the process of applying to be licensed by the state as an ambulance company and recently raised enough money to purchase two ambulances, with one funded through an allocation of public funds by Dov Hikind, who was a member of the New York State Assembly until losing his last race in December 2018. At the moment, if a woman needs to be transported to the hospital, Ezras Nashim emergency medical technicians (EMTs) must call 911 like anyone else.

Yocheved Lerner-Miller originally had the idea for an all-female Orthodox volunteer emergency medical services corps when she worked as an EMT in the Catskills in the 1990s, before she became religious. In the summertime, when thousands of Chasidim go upstate to vacation in bungalow colonies, Hatzalah also was there. Lerner-Miller said she asked Hatzalah members why they didn’t have female volunteers. “Their answers were not satisfying,” she recalled.

After moving to Brooklyn in 2007, Lerner-Miller and a few other women started trying to organize an all-female Orthodox emergency medical technician corps. When Freier heard about it, she offered to help. Freier ended up taking over and made it a highly publicized, controversial — and ultimately successful — effort.

But Lerner-Miller told the Jewish Journal, “I don’t believe this organization is a success. It doesn’t get the calls. I ask people all over the place, ‘Would you call?’ and they say, ‘No.’ ”

A male leader in Borough Park agreed. Ezras Nashim “is not a household name in any form,” he said. “No woman I know would call Ezras Nashim. They call Hatzalah. To many here, she is no longer with us. That car is no longer connected to the long train of the Chasidic community.”

Initially, the women appealed to Haztalah to let them start a female division. Hatzalah — which has 13 independent chapters in New York state alone, as well as many more across North America and around the world — is built on a neighborhood network of volunteers. The idea is that if someone is having chest pains, his or her neighbor — an accountant and a trained EMT — lives close by and can get there quickly. The problem is that when it comes to women in unexpected labor or having chest pains or anything else that requires them to bare parts of their body that are usually covered, they don’t want their neighbor or their friend’s husband to see them exposed.

“I had a friend screaming to her husband, ‘Make them go away! Make them go away! What is this, a minyan?’ ” Lerner-Miller said. “There were 10 men gawking at her while she was miscarrying, and it was mortifying.” The husband of another woman she knows of called Hatzalah when she went into unexpected labor. A neighbor, an EMT who is her friend’s husband, answered the call. The baby was born in the house and the new mother “couldn’t look her friend in the face because it was too embarrassing,” knowing the woman’s husband had seen her most intimate body parts. “She wanted to move” out of the neighborhood, Lerner-Miller said. This is why Lerner-Miller had the idea of female EMTs and paramedics being available to treat other women: for modesty’s sake.

“ ‘Feminism’ is a bad word with a negative connotation in the Chasidic community.” — Judge Rachel Freier

The group’s attempts to join Hatzalah initially garnered them little more than anger and resentment in Borough Park and other area Chasidic communities. A documentary film by Paula Eiselt about Ezras Nashim and Freier, titled “93Queen” for the fire department radio handle they were assigned, shows men telling Freier’s husband, David, in Yiddish, how much hatred she has aroused as a woman stirring the pot in a community in which showing deference to men, particularly rabbis, is paramount. The movie shows Freier trying to find a rabbi who will publicly endorse them, setting out with a group of women to meet with a rabbi in the far suburbs she was told would do so. But in the end, he does not, and neither does anyone else.

“I spoke to a rabbi and asked, ‘Why is everyone so afraid?’ He said, ‘Why rock the boat? We don’t know if you women will be good,’ ” Freier told the Journal.

“When I first got involved, I had no intention of becoming an EMT,” Freier said. “I just wanted to be their advocate. I put my whole self into it, took the EMT course with my mother. Then I became a paramedic and slowly I realized, ‘This is what HaShem wants me to do,’ ” she said, referring to God.

The film shows that while Freier campaigned for the court seat she now holds, someone anonymously booted her car, and Hatzalah sent a message to every WhatsApp group used by Borough Park Chasidim. It was a recording of a man saying, “You have reached Ezras Nashim. Our primary vehicle has been booted. Please call this number” — which went to Hatzalah.

Judge Ruchie Freier at her home.

All the calls Ezras Nashim fielded on its first day in 2014 were pranks. Hatzalah members also sent around WhatsApp memes mocking Ezras Nashim. “93Queen” shows Freier saying the Borough Park Hatzalah threatened to boycott North Shore Hospital, which ran EMT training sessions for the women. “They’re saying that women aren’t capable enough, strong enough, fast enough, smart enough,” Freier says in the movie. “They are painting a picture in the Chasidic community that we are defying the rabbis. … I went to the CEO of Hatzalah, who had us sign papers that we were not taping the meeting, and then he yelled and insulted us. It was an attempt to tell me I was going against daas Torah,” the Torah’s wisdom. “I was warned. He said, ‘Or else.’ Or else what? I’ll find out.”

But Freier doesn’t focus her energy on the haters. “We just kept going and going,” she said in her judge’s chambers during an interview. “I’m not afraid. It’s God’s endorsement that is most important, and I believe we have God’s endorsement, so we move on.”

“We have a lot of endorsements from rabbonim,” she told the Journal in her chambers. “A lot of them were verbal, some of them were written.” Asked who some of the rabbis were, she replied, “I’m not going to name names. At this point, it was just done for our women. We won the war without fighting a single battle.”

The documentary shows that while the women worked to obtain rabbinic approval and generate community support, a conflict emerged over whether they should allow unmarried females to volunteer. Freier — who has been married since she was 19 — opposed the idea, while Lerner-Miller and other women backed it. Lerner-Miller was in her 40s and single as well a longtime EMT in the Catskills. 

Lerner-Miller and three other founding members quit Ezras Nashim just after it opened in 2014. Asked why they could not work with Freier, Lerner-Miller said in an interview, “Ruchie wasn’t able to work with us,” using Freier’s nickname. Lerner-Miller has since gotten married and is a successful matchmaker in Crown Heights.

An Ezras Nashim board meeting in the documentary shows Freier saying, “No one else comes into this organization if they don’t follow my rules. No one gets away with it.” It was that kind of autocratic attitude that led Lerner-Miller and a few others to decide they had to resign, Lerner-Miller told the Journal. “We realized [that being at loggerheads with Freier], it’s going to be a continuous thing, that our power was usurped,” she said. “We left because we realized there was nothing more we could do.”

Asked how many emergency calls Ezras Nashim members go on, Freier demurs, saying, “We’re not supposed to share those numbers because of HIPAA requirements.” (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is a federal law designed to provide privacy of patients’ medical records.) When pressed, she offers that the women’s volunteer group “definitely gets hundreds of calls” a year.

“I love being able to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a very important day for anyone who is in court. For me, it was always so important to be able to accomplish this without compromising my beliefs.”
— Judge Rachel Freier

The idea of an all-female Orthodox volunteer EMT service didn’t start with Lerner-Miller, Freier said. “There were 300 trained women from Borough Park, Williamsburg and Monroe (in New York’s Rockland County) in the late 1970s and early ’80s. A handful of those 300 are still around and part of Ezras Nashim,” she said.

While Freier said she is not a feminist, because “ ‘feminism’ is a bad word with a negative connotation in the Chasidic community,” she also makes no apologies for her forthrightness or for what she has accomplished. The women who wanted to start something like Ezras Nashim 35 years ago “are so camera shy and modest and quiet, they weren’t able to get the support they needed,” she said.

While widely hailed as revolutionary, Ezras Nashim is also not the first place in which Chasidic women have served as members of a volunteer ambulance corps. In the upstate Skver Chasidic village of New Square, some women are part of the local Hatzalah. New Square village and Hatzalah officials did not respond to inquiries for this story.

Photos of Judge Freier’s great-grandparents.

Speaking in her judicial chambers a few days after Passover ended, Freier plucked a note from a folder from a woman who, with Freier’s help, unexpectedly gave birth at home. In her note, the new mother is full of appreciation. “I truly felt HaShem’s presence and you were His shaliach (messenger),” wrote the new mother. “May HaShem give you all the strength you need to fulfill your avodas hakodesh (holy work),” she wrote.

Also on Freier’s desk in her chambers were case files and a small, worn purple siddur (prayer book), from which she prays each day.

After moving to her chambers from the courtroom, where the judge sits high up behind a massive desk and Freier appears to be nearly swallowed up by the large black chair, I asked about the sparkly rick-rack on her robe’s sleeves.

“Did you add that?” I asked.

“Of course I did,” she said, laughing. “I went to a trimmings store and picked it out. I had to add some of Borough Park to my judicial robe.” Later asked if she added it to distinguish it from a male judge’s robe in order not to violate the prohibition against women wearing men’s clothes (and vice versa), she said no. She just wanted to make it pretty.

Covering every wall of her chambers are framed articles about her in English, Hebrew and Spanish. On a side bookcase are photos of her great-grandparents, gold-framed family photos of her husband and children from several years ago, and her law school graduation photo.

Although she was elected in 2016 as a civil court judge, Freier at first was assigned to cover criminal court. She took a particular interest in young male defendants. They reminded her of the Chasidic boys she took under her wing through an organization she started in 2008 called B’Derech, meaning “On the Path,” as opposed to “Off the Derech.”

The staff at B’Derech worked with teenagers to help them get counseling and see their potential within the community. In 2011, Freier set up a program with the New York branch of Bramson ORT College that enabled students without high school diplomas to enroll and earn their GEDs. Freier also worked with rabbis, educators and parents to try to shift Chasidic culture from rejecting those who didn’t fit into communal expectations toward acceptance and inclusion. B’Derech took “a backburner position when the work at Ezras Nashim became so overwhelming,” Freier said. The only remaining remnant is some one-on-one tutoring Freier provides to young men at risk, she said.

Freier said she loves how her life experiences all come into play when she is judging a case.

“When I first did arraignments [in criminal court] and saw how many young kids were getting arrested … these kids were no different than the kids I met through B’Derech,” she told the Journal. “You have no idea how many men would cry in my courtroom. I felt like I was relating to them. A prosecutor would say, ‘Your honor, I want to show you the injuries to the victim,’ and I’d say, ‘Show me the pictures.’ As an EMT, I could understand the injuries.”

“I looked at them in the eye and said, ‘Never give up hope. You can change your life’ — all the concepts we grew up with but they didn’t,” she said. “My own unique personal experience in my Chasidic community ends up helping because people are people. There is so much more we have in common than we ever know. I tell [defendants] my mother always told me, ‘Don’t be right. Be smart.’ ”

Raised in “a heimishe Hasidishe family” in Borough Park, Freier attended Bais Yaacov girls’ schools. After marrying a Bobover Chasid at age 19, she began working as his secretary. She started college at age 30, already the mother of three young sons, and gave birth to her oldest daughter in her first semester at Touro, a private college open to everyone but geared toward Orthodox students. It took Freier six years to finish her bachelor’s degree, then she enrolled in Brooklyn Law School, graduating with her J.D. at age 40. She began working as a real estate lawyer, with offices in Borough Park and upstate Monroe, near several large Chasidic communities.

“I love that I can use my background, my life experience and legal experience in a very meaningful way,” Freier said. “I love being able to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a very important day for anyone who is in court. For me, it was always so important to be able to accomplish this without compromising my beliefs.”

Ezras Nashim now permits unmarried women to join and just opened its first branch, at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in Manhattan. 

Ailin Elyasi organized the program at Stern. Slated to intern last summer with Freier, when the judge looked over her resume, Freier saw under “hobbies” that Elyasi listed “EMT.” “That should be the first line of your resume,” Freier recalled joking. Rather than work for the judge in her chambers, Elyasi spent most of her time in Borough Park interning with Ezras Nashim. 

In an interview, Elyasi told the Journal, “We started two days ago and had a call, our first call — a girl who was having a panic attack for two hours straight. She refused to call anyone, wouldn’t accept oxygen or having her blood pressure taken, but because we’re just Stern students, her friends, her roommates felt she would accept help from us.”

“Having a culturally sensitive responder can make all the difference during a medical emergency.”
— Ailin Elyasi, Ezras Nashim EMT and Stern student

Stern’s Ezras Nashim branch currently has 13 EMT-certified members and another dozen or so training for the role. “We were able to practice breathing with her and calm her down,” said Elyasi, who is majoring in biology and political science. “Having a culturally sensitive responder can make all the difference during a medical emergency.”

Now a group of women from the heavily Orthodox Five Towns section of Long Island is working toward getting its own branch off the ground, Freier said.

Meanwhile, Freier also serves as a role model to even younger Orthodox girls. She constantly is invited to speak at modern Orthodox synagogues, at the schools she attended and other Orthodox organizations. She also recently spoke at Harvard Law School’s Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law.

A girl in eighth grade at nearby Modern Orthodox Maimonides School left class early just to go hear Freier speak at Harvard. The young girl “took meticulous notes, and was beaming with excitement throughout the lecture,” said one of the event organizers, who asked not to be named. “She had an opportunity to speak with Judge Freier at the end of the event” and still is too overwhelmed to speak about it, he said.

The Borough Park community leader who spoke with the Journal, although critical of Freier and Ezras Nashim, compared the judge to the early 20th-century Polish Chasidic woman who revolutionized religious girls’ education by opening schools, convinced that if girls were Jewishly educated, they would better appreciate their Judaism.

“When Sarah Schenirer went around opening Bais Yaacovs, probably not everyone was in favor,” he said. Of Freier and her groundbreaking efforts, he said, “History will judge.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist in New York City.