Friday, March 31, 2017
Brooklyn Law School (BLS) has always been a forerunner of diversity, and on Wednesday night it celebrated that when the school honored the country's first-ever Hasidic female elected official — Judge Rachel Freier.
"Our law school has been a gateway to opportunity for generations," said Dean Nicholas Allard. "From our founding more than 116 years ago, our doors have been wide open. We are a law school whose legacy has been shaped by pioneers and trailblazers who have gone on to lead in the profession as well as in government, public service and business."
Judge Freier was introduced not only by Allard, but also by professor Aaron Twerski, state Assemblymember Dov Hikind and Federal Court Judge Claire R. Kelly. After a discussion between Allard and Freier, the dean presented her with a ceremonial gavel.
"I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to thank Brooklyn Law School," Freier said. "I have to thank BLS for giving me my law degree and making this all possible. Yes, my husband and my family were all there to support me, but it was Brooklyn Law School that made this all possible."
Before the discussion began, Allard spoke about some of the other famous "firsts" among the alumni in BLS's history. Among those discussed were Mary Johnson Lowe, the school's first African-American editor in chief of the Brooklyn Law Review in 1952; Dorothy Chin-Brandt, the first Asian-American woman judge in New York; David Dinkins, the first African-American mayor of New York City; Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican-born member of Congress; Jeannette Brill, who founded the Brooklyn Women's Bar Association, and many others.
"A colleague of mine recently said that if we are going to honor all of our firsts, then we're going to have non-stop celebrations," Allard joked.
The conversation between Allard and Freier gave a glimpse into how difficult it was for Freier to adjust to law school and how much she relied on her family for support. When Allard asked if she had an "ah-ha moment" that made her decide to go to law school, she explained how it was a decision 22 years in the making.
"I was very content with my high school diploma," Freier said. "I was a legal secretary and I was very happy. I kept getting better and better jobs and I started making more money than some of the men that I know and that was a great feeling. That was until I started working for lawyers that were younger than me. That's when I wondered, 'Am I going to be a secretary my whole life?'
"I had to try because I didn't want to tell my grandkids that I could have been a lawyer, but I didn't try," she continued.
Freier explained that then-dean Carol Ziegler was extremely helpful in helping her adjust to the school during her first year. She said that Twerski was instrumental in helping her to feel at home.
"Professor Twerski was an inspiration for me," she said. "Here I was in a secular environment when I saw that black felt hat in the law school. I thought, 'OK, it's almost like home here,' and professor Twerski isn't just a professor, he's so popular that I couldn't get into his torts class."
Freier spoke about how hard it was to balance her family life, which she refused to compromise, and her religion with law school and as her role as a judge. She explained that she has had to rely on other people, like her fellow criminal court judges who must cover her night court shifts on Friday nights, or her mother for helping her with her household chores. She explained that it was her husband that made everything possible.
"My husband has been my biggest supporter," she said. "It's not me who is the first Hasidic judge. It's my husband who was the first Hasidic husband to support his wife. He financed my campaign and really made it happen. If not for him we would not be sitting here."
Allard said that he was always confused as to why there were not more Hasidic students at the law school and asked people in the audience to share Freier's story to encourage others from the community to follow her lead.
"Go for it!" Freier said when she was asked what she would say to other Hasidic women considering following her path. "Don't let your religion hold you back. There are great people out there and if you go with faith, it will work out."
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