Generous Orthodoxy and Helping Our Communities from Within

By Ailin Elyasi

This past summer, I worked as the legal intern of Judge Ruchie Freier of Brooklyn Criminal Court. This woman is famous for many accomplishments, but perhaps her most revolutionary one was founding Ezras Nashim, a by women, for women emergency response service that provides top-rate emergency medical care for women who would prefer to be treated by other women. I loved Ezras Nashim so much that I could not bear leaving it behind come summer’s end. If anything, I wanted Ezras Nashim to spread so others could appreciate the organization like I appreciated it. So, when Judge Freier suggested opening an Ezras Nashim at Stern College for Women, the first outgrowth of the organization, I fell in love with the idea.

Recently, I was thinking about my involvement with this initiative and began wondering why I had been so attracted to Ezras Nashim and its mission in the first place. And then, I heard a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell about a concept called “generous orthodoxy” (part of his Revisionist History series), which seemed to articulate what I had myself experienced.

“Generous Orthodoxy comes from a theologian named Hans Frei,” Gladwell explains in his podcast. “It’s an oxymoron, of course. To be orthodox is to be committed to tradition. To be generous, as Frei defines it, is to be open to change. But Frei thought the best way to live our lives was to find the middle ground because orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty. One of the hardest things in the world is to find that balance. Not just for those pursuing a life of faith but for anyone interested in making their world better.”

How does one create change? Not the way that Princeton University students handled Woodrow Wilson controversy.

The Wilson controversy began when a group of African American students at Princeton discovered a morally questionable fact about the venerated Princeton President, and later the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The man had been a racist, and not a mild one. For instance, one of his first acts as President of the United States was to reverse the integration between African Americans and Whites in the Federal Civil Service, the result of which made it significantly more difficult for African Americans to be hired for jobs in Washington. As a response to protesters, Wilson simply replied, “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

An African American Princeton student by the name of Wilglory Tanjong led the 2015 protest with the following strong words: “This university owes us everything. I walk around this campus understanding that this was built on the backs of my people and I owe none of you guys anything. We owe White people nothing. If not for the evilness and White hatred in this country, we would not have to be fighting for our rights. All of this is mine. My people built this place.”

She is angry and passionate, and she certainly began a discussion. But if you were the President of Princeton, would her arguments convince you to change anything? Tanjong consciously applied to Princeton, aware that its founders were white men, many of whom probably harbored racist and archaic views. To say that Princeton University should remove one of its most venerated alumni from its walls and its buildings because one student believes that “all of [Princeton University] is hers, is ridiculous. In fact, nothing changed after the protest; Woodrow Wilson’s image still graces most the walls of the University, and his legacy is still directly linked to the University.

Instead of coming at the issue head-on, maybe Tanjong should have tried the subtler method Judge Ruchie Freier has used. Judge Freier is someone who succeeds in revolutionizing the Hasidic community with small steps, initiating changes that Hasidic leaders would otherwise be hesitant to adopt precisely because she initiates them subtly and gracefully. There was a sore need for female EMTs for the purposes of modesty, privacy, and comfort; Ezras Nashim filled that need. If female EMTs are empowered in the process, all the better.

To foster change, one must come not from a place of anger but from a place of love; one has to have respect the community one is trying to heal — that is the meaning of generous orthodoxy. Judge Freier does this, she loves her community so much that she started Ezras Nashim to improve it. It came from wholeheartedly from love and nothing else.

Ezras Nashim helps me improve a community I love from the inside and with respect to the laws and traditions that have made this community great, and I could not be more proud.

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