Rachel Freier (left) and Nechama Spiegel.
(photo credit: JORDAN RATHKOPF & COURTESY)
In recent decades the haredi community in Israel has been experiencing radical changes, as modernity has been thrust in its face through ever more pervasive Internet access and wives who have become the primary breadwinners in their families to support their husband’s religious studies.
As these changes continue to take root, a new generation of haredi youth is growing up with broader horizons and aspirations, which affect women no less than it does men.
Nechama Spiegel Novak is one such woman, having become the first haredi woman to graduate from El Al’s pilots school after being accepted in 2015. She came to prominence earlier this year when she flew Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a trilateral summit in Greece.
Spiegel Novak was educated in the haredi Beit Yaakov school system in Jerusalem, but always dreamed of being a pilot. At the age of 20 she started taking flying lessons in the US, eventually meeting El Al’s requirements to begin its training course.
Such a job is highly unusual for a haredi woman, even with their growing number in employment today, and her importance cannot be understated. It is precisely role-models such as Spiegel Novak who can inspire other women from her community to aspire beyond what have traditionally been the confines of the haredi world and its limits on female accomplishment, given their heavy responsibilities not just to provide an income but also to raise a family, and frequently a large one.
Another female role model, albeit further along in her career and on a different continent, is Ruchie Freier, the first hassidic woman to be elected a judge in the US.
The haredi community in the US has historically been much more open and at ease with modernity, while preserving its commitment to the strictures of haredi ideology and stringencies of Jewish law. Still, enrolling in Touro College in the 1980s at the age of 30 with three children was not exactly the standard path for a hassidic mother in New York.
Nevertheless, Freier has spoken of her determination both to accomplish her dream of entering the legal profession and to remain committed and devoted to her family and her duties as a wife and mother.
She therefore took 10 years to complete her bachelors and law degrees while raising her family, becoming a commercial and residential real estate lawyer, founding the Ezras Nashim volunteer ambulance corps serving women in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and the B’Derech educational services organization for haredi young adults along the way.
Now 51 and the mother of six, Freier believes she has proved that women can combine professional accomplishment while at the same time remaining dedicated to the domestic roles of mother and wife.
“When my husband graduated, I thought to myself, ‘Now it’s my turn’,” she told the Gothamist website in an interview earlier this year. “College took me six years, because I wasn’t going to compromise on any of my roles, my duties as a mother and a wife… And again, all along on my journey, I was always wondering, “Will I make it? Will I pull through? Will it happen?” And I’m very grateful that I was able to do it my way. And my way was the slow, hard way. But it also meant that I was able to be there for my family.”