New York – On Feminism and Fanaticism: A Female Charedi Attorney’s Perspective


    IllustrationNew York – The time has come for genuine Chasidim/Charedim to shatter our insularity and show our true colors. I take umbrage at zealots, who brazenly desecrate our heritage and culture in the name of G-D. The zealotry displayed against young Na’ama Margolese is antithetical to our beliefs and Torah values. As a Chasidic attorney, practicing law among my fellow Chasidim, representing men and women, I can attest to the fact that the vast majority of Chasidim respect women; and that our practice of division among the genders is harmonious and congruent with our strong family values. The actions of the Sikarikim, depicted in recent news reports, spitting on girls and parading children in Nazi prison uniforms must be strongly condemned and the lifestyle of true Chasidim, must be revealed.

    Chasidic women are not subjugated nor are we submissive or dictated by masculine fiat. While we respect our tradition and primary role as wives, mothers and caretakers, we are also educated, balanced, content and often professional. We are not degraded, yet we prefer to sit among women on public transportation. But, in no way, does that give zealots the right to force others to conform to our standards.

    Fanaticism is a distorted belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal, particularly for an extreme religious cause with obsessive enthusiasm.

    Charedi fanatics twist Halacha, are prejudiced and demonize anyone they oppose. As an example, when Rav Shteinman, the illustrious Torah sage from Israel, visited New York a few years ago, he was heckled by zealots, to protest a Halachic ruling he made. I wrote an article explaining the danger of those zealot extremists, who others considered an insignificant group to be ignored – current events prove them wrong .

    Extreme zealousness is a manifestation of religious fanaticism, has eroded Jewish unity and has become a cultural infectious ideological malady infecting the Charedi world and publicly mischaracterizing us.

    Since founding B’Derech in 2008, the organization dedicated to advocating for Chasidic youth, I have counseled countless adolescents and adults concerning the growing phenomenon of youth leaving the fold, frequently as a result of acts of zealotry. Contemporary zealousness in the name of holiness has caused the banning of respected, widely read Jewish magazines, concerts by religious Jewish singers, technology, and shops, instigated sibling rivalry among leaders, restrictive admissions policies of our schools, rigorous yeshiva curriculum and the harboring of abusers and molesters. They coerce the innocent by intimidation and manipulation, such as threats of expelling or rejecting families from shuls, children from yeshivas, or interference with shidduchim.

    Secularists, argue that Judaism must rely on feminist doctrine to guarantee fair treatment of its women – I disagree. Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal, political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. However, for centuries preceding feminist movements, the Torah has held women in high regard.

    The Torah relates that the greatness and intuitiveness of our matriarchs surpassed the patriarchs. For example, G-D told Avraham “Everything Sarah says, you should listen to her voice…” (Bereishis 21:9-13). The boys grew up and Eisav became one who knows hunting, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a man abiding in tents. Yitzchak loved Eisav, for venison was in his mouth; but Rivkah loved Yaakov (Bereishis 25:27-28). When the Jews were taken into exile by the Babylonians, the patriarchs begged G-D to have mercy on His children. It was only to the matriarch Rachel that G-D made his everlasting promise that her children will be returned to their borders and to their status of the beloved of G-D and that the enemies of Israel will never triumph (Yirmiyahu 31:14-16).

    As a volunteer court attorney in the New York City Family Court, I counsel litigants on a host of issues dealing with custody, visitation and child support. The numerous women litigants who seek my counsel, are not from the Charedi world nor do they share our family values. They come for help to fight for child support from multiple men who broke promises of marriage and left them bereft to raise their children alone – they are discriminated and victims, not Charedi wives and mothers raising beautiful, Torah observant families.

    While, I am proud to be the wife of a devout Chasidic Talmudic scholar, mother and grandmother of a Chassidic family, I have experienced encounters with zealous ideologists which highlight the need for the silent majority to speak.

    On a recent trip to Israel working with American kids at risk, rejected from American yeshivas, I was talking to one of the boys in the streets of Jerusalem. Suddenly, a frightening figure appeared from a dark alley and began following us. The figure resembled an executioner of the Dark Ages, dressed in a long black robe, long beard protruding from his masked face, chain around his neck and swinging what appeared to be a club in his hand. I subsequently learned this was a member of the self-appointed, zealous guardians known as the Vaad Hatznius that patrol the streets, frequently using terror tactics.

    A couple of years ago, a yeshiva opened up in Williamsburg for Chasidic boys who need more recreation and less stringency. When zealots became aware that the Rosh Yeshiva played a musical instrument and allowed the boys physical activity, they wanted the yeshiva shut down. They harassed the students, maligned the Rosh Yeshiva as a cult leader, and campaigned to numerous rabbis, law enforcement authorities and the courts, to order the closing of the yeshiva. When it became public that I was defending the yeshiva, I received threats. One of my married sons was engaged at that time and a woman called me threatening to call the mechutan and break the shidduch by sharing some “secret” she claimed she knew. I promptly told her to go right ahead and offered my assistance if she needed his phone number.

    During the formative years of the venerable Hatzolah organization, its original founders facilitated training women to serve women, primarily in cases of emergency childbirth. By 1981 approximately 300 women were trained EMTs (75 were from Kiryas Joel and more than 200 from Brooklyn). Shortly after the women began serving, zealous cries came from Williamsburg, accusing the women volunteers of violating tznius standards. The women EMTs were humiliated and expelled from the organization; subsequently the original founders resigned.

    The Mishpacha Family First 2/23/2011 edition featured a heartwarming story describing the saga of these modest women. The article contained a side column featuring the Women’s Division of New Square Hatzolah, established by the Rebbe four years ago, highlighting their success, professionalism and modesty. The rejected EMTs, and their supporters who tried to defend them over the past thirty years, were disparaged and silenced. They have recently asked me to advocate on their behalf, to be permitted to serve for emergency childbirth, pursuant to Halachic authority. If New Square Hatzolah and United Hatzalah of Israel both allow women to serve, there must be a way to do so in other religious communities.

    Zealous extremists, who distort Torah values, comprise the minority of religious Charedi Jews. In my practice as a real estate attorney, I have the privilege of representing both men and women in Brooklyn and in the upstate villages of New Square and Kiryas Joel. I have developed business relationships based on mutual respect and have the privilege of working with Dayanim when dispute resolution is necessary; and have personally met the rebbetzins and rebbes of these communities. Nevertheless, the majority residents and rabbis of these communities are plagued, and frequently held hostage, by self-appointed guardians, who habitually engage in terror tactics.

    We are all hurting – the silent majority has been coerced into believing that these self appointed guardians are the keepers of some sacred covenant with G-D; that they are above the law, can subjectively interpret Halacha, and are permitted to spit, stone, harass and discriminate – all in the name of modesty – tznius. They arrogantly and blasphemously proclaim to be following the righteous Biblical zealot Pinchas the son of Elazar. Zealous fanatics need to be aware that their practices violate Halacha, secular law and the Constitution. At some point the chaos they have created will cease, law and order will prevail, with peace and serenity restored

    The Talmud relates that the merits of the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov have ended (Shabbos 55a). There is a discussion when the merits of our fathers ended – during the time of the prophet Hoshea, the time of King Chazael of Aram, the time of the prophet Eliyahu, or the time of King Chizkiyahu. Tosafos comments that the patriarchs’ merits do continue, but only for the benefit of the righteous. However, the merits of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, remain. These merits will never be depleted and stand at the center of our salvation. Every time the Jewish people needed salvation, it was brought about by Jewish women.

    It is well known that the Israelites were redeemed from the Egyptian exile in the merit of the righteous women. In the two other holidays that commemorate redemption from exile, Purim and Chanukah, women also served as G-D’s messengers in the redemptive process: Queen Esther who risked her life to save the Jewish people in Shushan, heralded the Purim salvation; and Yehudis, who acted courageously and killed the enemy general Helifornos, played a leading role in the Chanukah miracle (Sefer HaMakkabim).

    Because of the participation of righteous women in these three miraculous redemptions, women observe all the mitzvos of the holidays of Pesach, Purim, and Chanukah (although they are time-bound positive mitzvos from which women are generally exempt), “since they were involved in that miracle” (Pesachim 108a, Megillah 4a, Shabbos 23a). Just as all past redemptions came through women, so too, all future redemptions from exile will be brought about by women. The essence of the Charedi woman is not based on ideologies of feminism nor religious fanaticism; it is spiritual, cherished, and accorded divine respect and value.

    Historically, the Jewish people were not saved in battle by generals or soldiers, but by maternal strength. Another mother of Israel, Devorah the prophetess, who also judged the Jewish people modestly, counseled the general Barak to wage war, however, he worried that without her merit the Israelites would lose. So, Devorah joined him into the battlefield, and together they defeated the enemy. Devorah then sang a song of victory. “The inhabitants of the village ceased, they ceased in Israel. Until I, Devorah, arose, I arose, a mother in Israel.” (Shoftim 5:7)

    We, the silent majority, must find the strength to restore G-D’s Honor – to be Mekadesh Shem Shomayim – and correct the travesty of justice. We must battle the Sikarikim and religious fanatics who mislead prominent rabbinical leaders and intimidate the innocent to impose their subjective standards, assert power, and withhold the truth from the masses – we can win this battle. B’Derech HaTorah Neylech.

    Ruchie (Rachel) Freier, Esq. is a practicing Charedi attorney, admitted in New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, with offices in Brooklyn and Monroe. In 2008 she founded B’Derech, the organization advocating for Chassidic youth. She is a member of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Children & the Law and New York City Family Court Attorney Volunteer Program. She can be reached at [email protected] or 718-259-4525.

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