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September 22, 2014 / 27 Elul, 5774
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A Hasidic Role Model

I would love to see Mrs. Freier become the role model for all Hasidic women – and not just for those like the ones she attended school with.

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First let me congratulate Mrs. Rachel (Ruchie) Freier for her many great personal achievements and contributions to both Judaism and the world at large. I honor and respect both her life choices and her values, many of which I am sure we share – including the primacy in her life of motherhood. But I have to say that I think her article in the Forward is a bit misleading.

Here’s the beginning of the article:

On Monday on the Forward, Judy Brown shared her perspective on motherhood, based on her experience in the Hasidic community that she left. Now, I’d like to share my perspective on motherhood from within the Hasidic community of Boro Park. Having children was always important to me and I chose to remain steadfast to Haredi ideology while pursuing a law degree and then maintaining a law practice without compromising my role as a yidishe momme to my children.

Would that her lifestyle was that of the typical Hasidic woman in enclaves such as Williamsburg. My guess is that this is far from the case.

I am not God forbid saying that the lives of these Hasidic women have no value. Quite the contrary. I believe they have great value in being mothers to their children and wives to their husbands. And I am equally sure that many of them have jobs. Some may even be professionals – like Mrs. Freier – but that would by far be the exception.

College is in most cases forbidden to Satmar and like minded Hasidim. I don’t know what kind of Hasidus Mrs. Freier belongs to, but I am all but certain it is not hard-core Satmar or similar – which I believe comprise the vast majority of Hasidim in the world.

Mrs. Freier’s article was written in response to Judy Brown’s article expressing a different view of motherhood than that which is typical of the Hasidic world. As most people know, Mrs. Brown is the author of Hush – a devastating indictment of Hasidic community in which she was raised with respect to the way they treat sex in general, sex abuse, and its victims. Although she is still observant – she has long since left that community to find herself. And she has written a series of critical articles about the world of her upbringing. That was the case with her latest article in the Forward.

Mrs. Brown wrote about the pain and anguish of having an unwanted pregnancy in a world where such thoughts are verboten! Mrs. Brown actually had such an experience. As did a friend of hers that had some devastating results. But she also shares the regret she felt at the relief of that burden when she miscarried late into her own pregnancy. A regret she had after being shown a picture of the dead fetus she gave birth to.

She now says she now lives with that pain. The point made in that article is that her former community does not understand the damage they do with such extreme attitudes about pregnancies and birth control. At the same time she expressed her own maternal instincts as over-riding any such pain in her own life.

Mrs. Freir does not actually contradict what Mrs. Brown said. She just wanted to emphasize that the Hasidic upbringing she experienced and the values it taught her are the values she lives with and honors – even while being a professional. Despite her success, her profession does not define her. Motherhood does. That is the value she learned from her parents, grandparents, and teachers. It is her children that makes her life complete, not her profession.

I have absolutely no problem with that. In fact I agree that the institution of motherhood that Judaism places primary focus upon for a woman is the most important thing a woman can do. But as is obvious from Mrs. Freier herself, it is not the only thing a woman can do. Just like men, they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Having a career and being a full time mother is not a contradiction in terms. One can do both quite successfully.

My problem with this article is that it presents a false image of the majority of Hasidic women. One might conclude from this article that many woman in Williamsburg have professional degrees… or at least have attended college. And that Mrs. Freier is but one example of that.

But I would ask her in all truthfulness, if she really thought that was the case. My guess is that she would answer in the negative. This does not mean that Hasidic women don’t work and help to support their families. Many – perhaps most of them do. It takes a huge income to feed a family of 10 or more children. But her experiences in the professional world are not shared by the vast majority of Hasidic women in communities like Williamsburg.

Which is too bad. There is no reason that the women of Williamsburg shouldn’t go to college and get better jobs. In fact there is no reason that men shouldn’t do that. But the culture of communities like these is to suppress and counter any desire to do so by both men and women. That’s because they fear outside influences. Their leadership is so opposed to secular culture that they frown upon anyone who speaks English well. That’s why they teach it as a second language – Yiddish being the first.

While many (but certainly not all) women raised in communities like Williamsburg do end up speaking English fluently – most men do not. Although there are exceptions – the simple fact is that most of Williamsburg’s male Hasidim would probably not succeed in college under those conditions. Their communication skills in English are tremendously limited and not conducive to college level instruction. While the situation is much better for women, it is probably still more difficult for them than it is for those with a better secular education.

It is obvious from Mrs. Freier’s writing that she does not come from such a background. I would be willing to bet that she had a pretty decent secular education in high school and has been able to communicate with skill long before she ever entered college. My guess is that her Hasidic upbringing was basically in the home and that she probably attended one of the many fine Bais Yaakov school’s in Boro Park where she lived – that offered fairly decent secular departments – at least decent enough to take her into the college and professional schools that enabled her to have the wonderful career she has now.

I have absolutely no problem with this kind of Hasidic upbringing. Unfortunately looking at communities like Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel, and Square Town, I would have to guess that Mrs. Freier’s educational experiences are rare for thoseHasidic women. Although I’m sure that there are a lot more like her in Boro Park. Just as I am sure that some Hasidim in Boro Park are more in line with the Hasidim of Williamsburg

I would love to see Mrs. Freier become the role model for all Hasidic women – and not just for those like the ones she attended school with. If only the Hasidic leaders of the aforementioned enclaves would step back and take a good look at her… applying the lessons learned might lead to a better material life for the Hasidic world without sacrificing any of their spirituality. What a wonderful change in direction that would be.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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