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
In June 2011, Freier met with the five women from the Mishpacha article. Taken by their story, she began an effort to convince Chevra Hatzalah, the board that oversees local Hatzalah groups, to absorb the women’s corps as a separate branch, but after many months of discussions, CEO Rabbi Dovid Cohen denied them admission, claiming the merger could cause a delay in Hatzalah’s response time. (Multiple representatives of Hatzalah declined to comment for this article, and Cohen has since resigned his position for unrelated reasons.) Though multiple Hatzalah members have voiced support for Ezras Nashim, they say they will not get involved in their operation, and so the women were left with no alternative and decided to mobilize as an independent entity.
By this time, Freier had started to feel the pull of emergency medicine. “I realized I couldn’t advocate for these women properly without becoming an EMT myself,” she told Voz Is Neias, an Orthodox news blog. She enrolled in EMT certification classes, even convincing her mother to join her. She and the other women started talking about formally organizing their own group, an emergency service for women, by women. The media started calling Freier, who began speaking out more often in public about the group’s goal, most often defending herself against the dreaded “F” word: feminist.
“I am not a feminist,” Freier told me. “In our community, being a feminist means you want to do what men do. I don’t think women should sing during prayer services, become rabbis, wear tallis, or have an aliyah. But women are natural nurturers who have been assisting in births since biblical Miriam! There is no halakha against women being midwives.”
Even with the indomitable Freier at the helm, the group has faced endless obstacles. There’s the ongoing issue of money: It costs $1,500 to take a certification course, and after that, each EMT needs to be individually insured. Then there’s the money for medical equipment—Epi-pens, oxygen tanks, automated external defibrillators, and so on. While women with licenses will take their own cars on calls, some volunteers don’t drive for modesty reasons; for them, there will be a “fly-car”—a car Ezras Nashim leases for this purpose—with a driver stationed outside their homes when they are on duty. If called, they will take the fly-car (outfitted with the requisite lights and sirens) to the site of the emergency, where they will be met by a contracted ambulance service for hospital transport, if necessary. Because of the cost and difficulty of securing licenses, they will contract with a local ambulance service as opposed to purchasing their own. (When Freier mentioned during a meeting the possibility of buying an ambulance in the future, a volunteer giddily asked, “Can we get a pink one?”) Aside from costs, there have been endless papers to file, bureaucratic bodies to convince, and certifications to earn. The group also faces internal difficulties, mostly related to organization. Sometimes even arranging a meeting is tough; because some of the women don’t use email, they often have to rely on regular mail and persistent phone calls to inform the members of an upcoming event.
Unlike secular services, though, Ezras Nashim has also had to face a skeptical community. In February 2012, after Freier formally announced plans for Ezras Nashim on Hikind’s radio show, the frum world buzzed with reactions, some supportive, but most skeptical. (“When we first talked about this on [my] show,” Hikind told me, “I thought, ‘Who’s going to be upset with this?’ Boy, was I wrong.”) No dissenters were willing to go on the record, but they were vocal about their disapproval on the Internet. “Women can call Ezras Nashim for the latest kugel recipe,” a commenter scoffed on a neighborhood news blog. In another, someone wrote, “I am sorry, but I see this endeavor as a waste of precious funds that should need to be used differently.” A majority of neighborhood women, however, seem cautiously optimistic. Brocha Dalfin of Crown Heights told me, “I feel the women who are part of this group have the knowledge and the calm that a woman needs when in a vulnerable state,” but then added that perhaps it might be best if they were absorbed into Hatzalah’s already strong infrastructure. Mrs. K of Boro Park, a mother of four grown children who preferred not to give her full name, said she supports the idea only “as long as it would be OK by rabbinical authority.” Ada Moseson, a longtime resident of the community and mother of four, thinks the enterprise is long overdue. “I think that the time for this organization has come quite a while ago and that while I respect Hatzalah for their superb service to the community, I think that there are certain areas that women would feel much more comfortable having Ezras Nashim take care of them under their circumstances, i.e., childbirth.” Others, like Hadassah Strauss, are so gung-ho that they’ve been inspired to sign up for training courses. “Since [labor] is an eis ratzon [favorable time to pray for the baby], it makes sense to me that we should have the highest standards of modesty during that time,” Strauss told me. “The mother should be as comfortable as possible so she can focus on what’s important, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
“I remember a lot of the initial reaction. Certain people were taken aback, but Ruchie Freier never stopped, moved ahead, covered her bases by speaking to the rabbis,” said Hikind, noting that “things have changed since then.”
None of the issues they’ve faced have been enough to deter Freier or her dedicated crew of nearly 50 volunteers. In fact, they went above and beyond, with each EMT attending additional training sessions at two local hospitals, where they shadowed doctors on the emergency and obstetrics wards, and obtaining certification in neo-natal resuscitation, which requires extra hours of instruction. New recruits are signing up every day, with 10 or so currently enrolled in courses. The EMTs will at first be answering calls related to childbirth but plan to expand their focus as they solidify their practice. During the summer, they plan to operate 24 hours a day during the week with a break on weekends—given that many of their clients and volunteers spend weekends outside the city—but in the fall Ezras Nashim will begin operating 24/seven.
Although Ezras Nashim will begin serving Boro Park, spilling over a bit into neighboring Kensington and Bensonhurst, depending on how the launch phase progresses, they hope to expand later into other neighborhoods in Brooklyn (Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Flatbush) and outside New York City (Long Island’s Five Towns, for instance, and Monsey in Orange County, New York). Freier has also started advising groups of women in Israel interested in starting their own ambulance corps. Filmmaker Paula Eiselt is trailing Freier and the crew for a documentary about them.
Despite the dissenters, costs, and headaches, Freier says it’s been worth it, especially to see so many women from varying backgrounds join together for the cause. She’s also been pleasantly surprised by how many people outside the Hasidic world have come out to laud their operation.
“A member of the health department told me recently, ‘I prayed for you women.’ A high-ranking official at the [Fire Department of New York] told me that if his daughter wanted to join, he would encourage her to. The support we have gotten is amazing.”
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