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After Years of Delays, Orthodox Women’s EMT Corps Due To Launch in Brooklyn

Ezras Nashim will provide emergency medical care for female patients in Boro Park while maintaining standards of modesty

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From left: Ezras Nashim Director Rachel Freier, Ezras Nashim Director of Operations (and labor coach) Yitty Mandel, and Bramson ORT student Kristina Dubinskaya. (Photos courtesy of Rachel Freier)
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A medical emergency can be frightening no matter what the circumstances, but female members of the Hasidic community have extra concerns when they’re in need of immediate assistance. Though the Jewish law of pikuach nefesh deems it religiously acceptable for a man to tend to a woman in an emergency since saving a life takes precedence over anything else, the patient still might be concerned about the rules of tznius, which refers to a wide swath of Jewish customs related to modesty and separation of the genders. Aside from the issue of religious observance, it can be personally embarrassing for an observant woman, who has been separated from men most of her life, to find her room filled with male EMTs–many of whom might be her neighbors and members of her community–when she’s in a physically and emotionally vulnerable position, such as going into labor.

Starting next month, after more than two years of planning, training, and fundraising, those concerns will be alleviated in the Orthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn. Now when those women call for medical assistance, they’ll be treated by Ezras Nashim, a corps of more than 20 EMT-certified Orthodox women on call to respond to their emergencies.

When a call comes in, Ezras Nashim will dispatch a female EMT, who will meet up with an ambulance to transport the patient to the nearest hospital. The EMT will remain with the patient as long as she desires, to ensure that she receives the medical care and religious consideration she needs, maintaining a level of tznius the women consider paramount to their community’s spiritual health.

“Tznius is as integral to the woman as Torah and Talmud study is to the man,” said Rachel Freier, the director of Ezras Nashim—which in Hebrew refers to the women’s section of a synagogue. “It is very important to our way of life, and it is not about women being second-class citizens or subjugated. When it comes to assisting in births, we are simply reclaiming our roles.”

***

The origins of the idea behind Ezras Nashim stretch back decades. In the late 1960s, frustrated by long response times and what they saw as a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of secular EMTs, Orthodox Jewish leaders in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, created their own volunteer-staffed emergency medical unit, which they called Hatzalah, Hebrew for “relief.” The goal of Hatzalah was to serve the medical-emergency needs of the burgeoning religious population in Brooklyn; EMTs spoke Yiddish and were halakhically knowledgeable. They knew when an injury was serious enough to warrant violating Shabbos, and they knew to take patients to hospitals that would be similarly sympathetic to their religious needs. Oftentimes, they remained at the hospital with patients to make sure their needs were being met and also that their religious values weren’t unwittingly compromised. Hatzalah in Williamsburg was so successful that branches began forming across the tri-state area, and eventually the world: Today, there are Hatzalah units not only in Israel and the United States, but in countries including Mexico, Australia, Switzerland, and England.

Yitzhok Shlomo Hoffman, a Ukrainian immigrant, was one of the nascent organization’s most enthusiastic champions and organizers. He believed a female branch of Hatzalah ought to be formed so that women could call on other women for help in an emergency. “It was about what is most comfortable for the patient,” a now wizened, white-bearded Hoffman told me recently. In the mid-1970s, he set up an EMT course in Williamsburg for women interested in learning emergency medicine. About 40 students paid $63 each to attend—including Hoffman’s daughter. She and her best friend, who wanted to be a nurse but felt that college wasn’t acceptable for a frum woman, enjoyed their course so much that they began to help train others, eventually moving up to Orange County, New York, to supervise the certification of around 70 women from the Hasidic community there. By 1981, some 300 women had been trained as EMTs or first responders, 225 of them in Williamsburg and Boro Park and 75 in Orange County. Plans for a women’s division of Hatzalah seemed to be coming to fruition.

But then a cadre of rabbis based in Williamsburg abruptly nixed the idea. Hoffman’s daughter and her friend believe that Hatzalah members expressed concerns to the rabbis that women serving alongside them as EMTs could initiate inappropriate gender interaction. Before the women knew it, their dreams of being active EMTs were squashed. Years passed, and though they and others like them used their medical training in other roles as camp or school nurses, they never fully abandoned their dreams of becoming active EMTs. One woman organized EMT classes at the religious girls’ school where she served as head nurse and principal, assuming the students would use their skills at camps or maybe when they had children of their own. Hoffman’s daughter kept all her meticulous grading notes on the students she taught in Orange County and Brooklyn and renewed her EMT license every 37 months as required for the next 30 years.

In January 2011, Barbara Bensoussan, a writer for the Orthodox magazine Mishpacha, interviewed five Orthodox women who were certified as EMTs at a home in Kensington, Brooklyn, for an article about female EMTs in the frum world. Because Mispacha is a Haredi publication, and thus editorially very careful not to criticize other Orthodox institutions, Bensoussan deftly avoided questioning the all-male policy that Hatzalah maintains or how it made the women present at the meeting feel. But even though the overarching tone of the article is a bit opaque, what comes through is that beneath their inoffensive, pious surfaces, these women were brewing with excitement and ideas, particularly regarding the concept of tznius; they also inadvertently revealed that they had bigger ambitions for themselves than posts as camp nurses. The conversation heated up when one interviewee mentioned an all-women’s corps in New Square, a tiny Rockland County town that is home to the Skver Hasidic sect. That group, then 12 women strong (it has around 24 members now), was organized as part of New Square Hatzalah by the rebbe there in 2009 to ensure that his female followers weren’t put into potentially uncomfortable situations with male first responders or EMTs. New Square is the only Jewish town to have a separate, all-female unit of Hatzalah.

“Maybe more communities should adopt this sort of approach,” a younger interviewee named Aliza is quoted as saying.

After the interview, Bensoussan remembered interviewing Freier for an article years earlier and gave one of the women Freier’s phone number, thinking she could help the Brooklyn group mobilize.

***

Freier, a lawyer and Boro Park native, describes herself as a born advocate. When she was a child, her sisters would always run to her if something unjust happened. It’s not surprising, then, that she would gravitate toward the law, taking a job as a legal secretary after she graduated from high school. But much as being a camp nurse wasn’t enough for the women profiled in Mishpacha, being a paralegal wasn’t going to cut it for Freier. When her husband graduated from Touro College with a degree in accounting, she sat in the audience and applauded him, all the while thinking, “Now it’s my turn.” Soon after, she enrolled at Touro and went from there to Brooklyn Law School, during which time she gave birth to three of her six kids. She now practices real-estate law in Brooklyn and Monroe, New York, and also runs an organization called B’Derech, which counsels religious youth and often helps them pursue higher education.

“After I got involved in B’Derech,” she told State Assemblyman Dov Hikind while being interviewed on his radio show, “I kind of got this reputation of being a community activist.”

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After Years of Delays, Orthodox Women’s EMT Corps Due To Launch in Brooklyn

Ezras Nashim will provide emergency medical care for female patients in Boro Park while maintaining standards of modesty