This mother of six is a judge and like no other woman in her Brooklyn Hasidic community

“You can maintain all your traditions, all your customs, be faithful to your religion and still be successful.” Nina Dragicevic

Whatever you do, don’t call her a rebel. 

In fact, even a mention of “challenging norms” makes Judge Rachel Freier — the first Hasidic Jewish woman to hold public office in United States history — issue a quick correction.

“I didn’t do it to challenge norms,” she says. “When I decided to go on to college and get a [law] degree, I was just doing something that I wanted to do. It was a personal dream of mine. I never wanted to challenge norms — and I never did. I follow all the rules and customs and traditions of the Hasidic community.”

In other words, Freier refused to reject any aspect of her faith to chart her own course. She wanted to prove that you didn’t have to choose — you could have both.

“I wanted to do it my way, without being a rebel.”

Law school in her 30s — with six children

The documentary 93Queen follows Freier and a group of women as they establish another historic first: an all-female EMS team that provides health services to residents in southwest Brooklyn, New York.

The female EMS team faces mocking comments online, prank calls to their emergency number, accusations they are “playing with fire” — even when they seek a rabbi to publicly endorse their group, they are turned down. Freier’s response? “I believe we have God’s endorsement.” And she keeps going. In fact, she doesn't know where to stop, chides her husband.

Freier grew up in Borough Park, a tight-knit, ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. As she says in the documentary, the neighbourhood is almost like “a bubble” that preserves the culture and traditions of the faith.

The average woman here, she points out, likely has four or five children — or more. Freier herself has six.

“The focus of a woman [in this community] is being a mother,” she says in the doc. “Any profession, or extra schooling, is discouraged.”

At 30, Freier was raising her children while working as a legal secretary — but she was restless. She wanted more from her career, including law school and a future as a judge.

“It was a very big struggle for me because I have six kids and I grew up hearing the message that you weren’t going to be able to raise a family and be the mother — a true mother — if you were going to have a career,” she says in the documentary.

“College took me six years. So by the time I got my law degree I was already 40.”

‘God doesn’t make mistakes’

Freier’s journey — and the tenacity and perseverance it required — has led her to history-making accomplishments and countless awards. She drew from her faith and family for strength and points to her own mother as a source of inspiration.

“My mother was very passionate,” Freier says. “She doesn’t sit back and take ‘no’ for an answer. I think my mother — combined with my faith and belief in God — [taught me] that if something is right, you have to stand up for it. And hopefully, God will help.”

Even though she faced challenges, Freier never questioned her path. In one moment in the film, she muses about her gender and some of the expectations around it: “So much of the things that I want to do is that much harder because I’m a woman. If I had been a Hasidic man, I don’t think I would have half the problems that I have.”

It might sound as if she is criticizing some of the cultural traditions that, at other times, she stresses are very important to her.

Freier wants to clarify this quote — after the documentary’s release, she says people have asked her about it.

“What I meant was: God doesn’t make mistakes,” she says. “And he could’ve created someone like me in a male version, but he created me as a woman. God made me who I am and he put these dreams inside of me. It wasn’t by mistake.”

And these dreams — to serve as a community-builder, lawyer and judge — were non-negotiable.

“This desire wasn’t going to be quiet, it wasn’t going to be dormant,” Freier says. “It would just keep on ringing inside of me, louder and louder.”

Success without compromise

Freier has landed on many “most influential” lists and the New York Times has called her “the Hasidic Superwoman of Night Court.” In the documentary, her husband quips that she receives so much mail, she could be the president of the United States.

But if she rejects the word “rebel,” there is another title she’s comfortable with.

“I do accept that people call me a trailblazer because I do want other women like myself — women of faith and tradition — to know that you don’t have to compromise your values to be successful,” Freier says, adding that this message can apply to men of faith as well.

“You can maintain all your traditions, all your customs, be faithful to your religion and still be successful. You can work hard and be patient and find your way.”

Watch 93Queen.

Available on CBC Gem


The Passionate Eye