Judge Ruchie, the Hasidic Superwoman of Night Court – The …

Posted By on November 22, 2017

Most Hasidic women do not pursue high-profile success in the outside world. They are taught their most sacred role is to maintain the religious sanctity of their home and raise their children. What a woman does in order to enhance her glory is not put herself out as an example to other people in the public domain, but rather in private, in the home, said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at City University of New York and an expert on the Orthodox and Hasidic communities.

The men are in the forefront, they run the world, and we are the power behind the throne, said Pearl Engelman, 70, a great-grandmother in the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, who broke that paradigm several years ago by speaking publicly about a cover-up of child sex-abuse cases in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Women are generally permitted to work outside the home to support their families, so long as they comport with religious rules. And Judge Freier felt she could do all that was expected of her as a Hasidic woman and be a judge, a paramedic and a voice for change, too.

Everyone was waiting to see, What is she going to do? Judge Freier said of the wary attitude toward her after she became a judge. And Im the same. I dress the same, I still cook and I still bake and I do whatever I always did. Whatever we consider important traditional Hasidic values, I didnt let go. So I guess it was an eye-opener for everyone.

She is a good barometer of how this community is going through a transition, Mr. Heilman, the sociologist, said. It might seem glacially slow from the perspective of the outside world, but clearly she is a sign of the growing power of women, of the impact of democracy and an open society.

A few minutes before her 5 p.m. shift on a recent evening, Justice Freier arrived at Brooklyn Criminal Court on Schermerhorn Street. She is only 5 feet tall, and slender. She was dressed formally, with a dark wig covering her hair to meet the modesty requirements of her sect, and a tailored business suit, its skirt reaching below her knees.

It was a half-hour drive from her home but a universe away from Borough Park, where men with side curls and women pushing strollers speak Yiddish on the streets. Here there were police officers and court officers in bulletproof vests. In a narrow hallway, Judge Freier conferred briefly with another female judge about a case. She was ushered into an elevator used to transport prisoners, and strode to her chambers through a warren of hallways divided by metal fences.

She will pray, as she does three times a day, before she takes the bench. Her rebbetzin, a female religious mentor such as the wife of a rabbi, had given her a special prayer. That people shouldnt malign me or put me in positions, or ask for things I shouldnt do, she said. That I should make the right decisions, because we are all human beings, and dont have any ability to see the future.

There are precedents for what Judge Freier has accomplished, but not many. In Israel, a small group of ultra-Orthodox women have formed a political party to run for office, despite opposition from rabbis who still disapprove of women entering public life. In 2013, a Hasidic woman in Montreal ran for a local City Council seat and won. And in the Bible, there is a female judge in the Book of Judges: Devora, or Deborah, a prophetess who calls the Israelites to battle. But there has not been a female ultra-Orthodox judge for centuries, certainly not within the Hasidic movement, which was founded in 18th-century Eastern Europe.

Judge Freier recalled that her rebbetzin told her, If God gave us Devora, the judge, if we have that in our history, that means that Ruchie Freier should be a judge. Thats it!

Yet Justice Freier is careful not to call herself a feminist. For her, it is a radical charge that would imply she wants to overstep and reject traditional gender boundaries. That could lead to community members ostracizing her and her family, which could limit her ability, for example, to arrange marriages for her two unmarried daughters.

So she stays away from controversial gender issues. She does not want to be a judge in a religious rabbinical court, a strictly male domain that rules over many civil matters for ultra-Orthodox Jews. She does not pray in the mens section of the gender-segregated synagogues. She does not want to wear a Tallis, a traditional male prayer shawl, as some Reform Jewish women now do.

I wanted to succeed, but I wanted to do it from within my community, she said. I love Borough Park, I love the people here. I didnt want to break away.

Just after 5 p.m., Judge Freier took the bench. She would see a steady stream of turnstile jumpers, low level assault cases, drug users and order-of-protection violators until 1 a.m. A swirl of public defenders, prosecutors and police officers surrounded her.

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Judge Ruchie, the Hasidic Superwoman of Night Court - The ...

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