NEW YORK — In a world plagued by polarization and xenophobia, this Brooklyn judge and his law clerk rule in favor of peaceful coexistence.
Judge Noach Dear, an Orthodox Jew, and his court attorney Deema Azizi, a Syrian Muslim refugee, have been turning heads at the New York Supreme Court since they began working together two years ago.
“When people see Deema for the first time, they always do a double take,” he said. “With the response, ‘What a combination, an Orthodox Jew with a Syrian Muslim woman — it’s unbelievable.’”
Dear, who wears a yarmulke (skullcap) daily, said that he and Azizi, who dons a hijab every day, talk openly about their stereotypically contrasting religions, and how interestingly enough they have more similarities than differences — including their shared commitments to wearing religious garb, keeping religious-based diets, and daily prayer.
“I could identify with her and her appearance because I wear a yarmulke,” the judge said. “People are so eager to characterize and generalize individuals on religious expression and dress. I think this is where Deema and I first related to one another.”
Azizi, whose family fled Syria when she was a child, said her early years spent living under a dictator inspired her to pursue a legal career, so she could learn how to advocate for herself and others like her.
The Supreme Court of New York in Brooklyn near Borough Hall. Photo by Vincent Desjardins.
“My family escaped when I was six years old,” said Azizi, who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “We came here for freedom. I am grateful for Judge Dear because he gave me the opportunity to be here. He boosted my confidence in my capabilities and my career by accepting me for who I am.”
Dear pushed all preconceived notions and biases aside throughout the hiring process of Azizi, seeing her potential in her resume and character before anything else, he said.
“Religious women who cover their hair are often not afforded the same opportunities by the way that they dress, and because of their backgrounds,” Dear said. “I wanted to accept Deema for her capabilities because I knew she was more than qualified.”
Azizi has an impressive track record. She previously served two judicial internships with magistrate judges in Brooklyn and Manhattan and worked with clients locked up in the country’s notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba as a student at the City of New York School of Law.
Her family’s escape from their native Syria to the U.S. and the resilience she learned from that journey played an equally important role as her legal experience did in landing Azizi her current clerkship, Dear said.
The key to Dear and Azizi’s success as a team is their ability to present themselves in “an approachable, kind, professional way,” according to the judge’s Senior Court Clerk Suzanne Marsh, who said she has worked with him for three years. Azizi and Marsh have also become friends through their work.
“They came in as working people without any [judgment], and that’s a big part of going forward as a team,” Marsh said. “That’s the way a courtroom runs — no pre-judgment.”
Dear and Azizi hope that their message of respect and acceptance sets an example outside the office. Their relationship of mutual admiration, recognition, and no preconceived judgments should be the judiciary’s foundation. They hope to inspire even more diversity within the legal community, Azizi said.
“I think we need more diversity in the court system because we need to recognize that everyone who walks into the courtroom deserves to be recognized and heard despite race, religion, or gender,” Azizi said.
Their partnership sends a compelling message that two people from entirely different backgrounds can work together successfully and contribute to the common good, the judge said.
“God was good to me when I took the chance of hiring Deema,” Dear said. “I continually learn more about God’s grace and acceptance. She is our superstar.”
This story was published in The Brooklyn Paper.