Judge Rachel Freier came to speak to Penn students at the Chabad House on Wednesday through a coordinated effort between The Jewish Women’s Resource Center and the Perelman Center for Jewish Life.
Freier, the first Hasidic female judge in the country, discussed the obstacles she's faced and the ways she's persevered in balancing her religious life with her professional life, never compromising either.
Growing up in Borough Park, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, Freier said that as a young girl she never felt hindered by her religion, but it was also very clear to her that “nothing comes easy.” Freier attended full-time female Orthodox Jewish elementary and secondary schools, called Bais Yaakov, throughout her childhood.
She became one of the first Hasidic woman lawyers in Brooklyn 11 years ago and became "almost certainly" the first woman Hasidic elected official in the country in November 2017, the New York Times reported.
"She has done so not by breaking the strict religious rules that govern ultra-Orthodox women’s lives, but by obeying them so scrupulously that there are limited grounds for objection," the Times wrote in a profile of Freier in November.
Event organizers felt that Freier connected well with the attendees.
“We felt like she would really be accessible to the students even though that’s kind of paradoxical because you would think she’s really different from them,” chief coordinator of the event from the Chabad House Chava Hinsey said.
“But I think another part of why we wanted her to come is because it shows that we can transcend a lot of our religious and cultural differences, especially when we’re talking about women’s advancements and women’s rights and what’s possible.”
The event was co-sponsored by SPEC-Connaissanse and JLSA, Penn Women's Center, and Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity.
Freier said she never imagined growing up she would continue on to post-secondary education let alone campaign for and be elected to be the first Hasidic woman Civil Court Judge in New York State and the first Hasidic woman to hold public office in the United States History.
In her Hasidic community, Freier described that her religion did not accept a woman holding such a position, a “man’s job.”
Still, Freier said her six children and her husband were her biggest supporters when she decided to run for Judge. They helped create and pass out her campaign flyers, which did not have her face on them due to religious provisions. Her family even came up with the idea of translating the flyers into Yiddish to gain support in the Borough Park community.
Freier also gave advice on how to stay true to one's own values even amidst times of self-doubt and external pressure.
“There will be times when you’re going to think maybe I should take this off, maybe I should put this on, maybe I should do this - don’t twist yourself into pretzels," Freier said. "Be who you are."
"It's my religion that gives me the backbone," Freier added. “This is what keeps me going. It keeps me straight. It keeps me focused. And I can tell you now, looking back 30 years later, it didn’t stop me once from succeeding.”
After the talk concluded, students in the audience asked questions and reflected on the experience.
“I think all Jews in general sort of go through the conflict of ‘what do you do when your religious beliefs don’t necessarily line up with or come in conflict with your role and your position and managing that tension between your religious life and your other life,’” College and Engineering junior Jesse Berliner-Sachs said.
“I think it’s inspiring to see someone who had so many opportunities to compromise her religious beliefs but never did.”