Thursday, November 09, 2017

‘Because You Have Courage!’

Judge Freier at her swearing in ceremony. Her husband, David, is on the right
Courage. That is the one thing lacking among all too many rabbinic leaders. Not that this is news to anyone. How many times have I said that I have a lot of support for what I do here from prominent people in the Yeshiva world - and even among some in the Chasidic world. But in just about every case, they refuse to be identified.

That I have been asked by these individuals not to reveal their identities is of little consequence to the greater Jewish community. But there are more than a few examples where - had their identities been made known it would have made a difference.

Just a few days ago, I was apprised of one very prominent Rosh Yeshiva that supported a religious woman running for public office in Monsey. But he refused to be identified publicly.  I recall a similar circumstance a few years ago where Jonathan Rosenblum reported the same thing. A member of the Agudah Moetzes refused to be identified as supporting a view that was counter to the conventional wisdom of his peers and his public. Why? He feared being called a ‘ Fake Gadol’! (His actual words according to Jonathan.)

And now Ruchie Freier has made the same observation during a presentation at The Orthodox Union’s Women’s Affinity group . Judge Freier is a remarkable woman. There are few women like her. 

Rachel (Ruchie) Freier is the wife of - a Shtreimel wearing Chasid in Boro park. She is raising her children in that tradition. And yet she has bucked the system and has done some amazing things. She is the founding directer of Ezras Nashim: An EMT group of religious women - for religious women. I recall vehement opposition to women becoming EMTs for claimed reasons of modesty. But Ruchie saw the need and had the desire to change things. She studied to become an EMT and then a paramedic and founded Ezras Nashim. All while being a practicing attorney.

Which was another achievement in a community that looked down at women going to college or law school.  And when the opportunity arose she succeeded in being elected a Judge. The first Chasidic woman to accomplish that. All without any public support from rabbinic leadership.

What a role model she is! Not only for women. But for all of us.

In discussing her trek toward becoming a Judge she said that she had a lot of rabbinic opposition from her Chasidic community. Women in that world just don’t do things like that. But she also said that privately she had such support. When she asked one of them why they don’t go public, his response was, ‘Because you have courage!’

Judge Freier said that her role model for what she does is Sarah Schenirer, the pioneering founder of the Beis Yaakov School system. Which for the first time educated girls formally on a mass scale. 

Sarah Schenirer is Judge Freier’s role model in part because she finally found out the truth of what Sarah Schenirer was up against. The typical right wing narrative about Sarah Schenirer was that she had a lot of rabbinic support for what she did. But the fact is that she did not have a lot of support. She had a lot of opposition. And because of that, lots of religious parents refused to send their daughters to this new controversial school system. But Sarah Schenirer forged ahead. And like her role model, so too did Judge Freier. Like Sarah Schenirer, Ruchie Freier knew that what she was doing was right. 

Unfortunately that is not what too many of our rabbinic leaders are like today. The net result of this reticence is that it hurts the Jewish community. It perpetuates a culture of communal animosity to things that are not only permissible, but could be beneficial to us all.

This is what’s lacking in among too many of the rabbinic leaders of our time. It is one thing to be legitimately opposed to something that others may see as permitted. That’s just being honest. And courageous. But when one is in favor of something privately - and says nothing because they fear criticism from their peers and public - that is the opposite of courage.  

I understand that fear. Losing the respect of your peers is not an easy thing to suffer. But I also understand that this is not leadership.

Those rabbinic leaders that lack the courage to express their convictions ought to withdraw from any public leadership position they may have. And leave it to those that can state their views fearlessly. There is no reason that Ruchie Freier should not have been able to count on public support from rabbinic personalities because they feared the repercussions for themselves.

If there are members of the rabbinic leadership that continue on this course, it will be hard to ever take any of them seriously in the future. Because who knows what they really think?

HT: Joel Hofman