Ultra-Orthodox Female EMT Group Approved in New York State

Ezras Nashim, an all-female volunteer ambulance service for New York's Orthodox community, seeks to safeguard the modesty of women in labor from what was formerly a field dominated by men.

NEW YORK – Ezras Nashim, a women-only crew of Orthodox emergency medical technicians, has received New York State approval to begin work as an emergency medical service. They will be going head-to-head against Hatzalah, a long-established and highly regarded volunteer ambulance company working primarily in communities with large Orthodox populations. Hatzalah has only male volunteers and refused a request by Ezras Nashim’s founders to start a division of female volunteers able to respond to calls when a woman is in labor.

The state health department licensed Ezras Nashim, whose name means "Women’s Help," on February 15.

When they were rejected by Hatzalah in 2011, “I said we weren’t going to litigate, weren’t going to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That was never an option. I said we would have to find a way to make it happen and at the same time give women a voice, give women an option,” said Rachel Freier, an attorney and Ezras Nashim’s founder.

“The state approval is big. We had to prove to the state that we’re capable of doing this and that there’s a need for it. Now we have to step up our training and fundraise to buy medical equipment,” said Freier. Two hospitals have agreed to provide advanced training in neo-natal and general emergency care to Ezras Nashim EMTs, she said.

Forty women signed up to volunteer have already trained as EMTs, another dozen currently are taking the EMT course and a few other women will serve as dispatchers, said Freier, who has six children and lives in Borough Park. She took the EMT course with her mother, and qualified last June. She says that modesty, not a feminist desire for equality, motivated her to start Ezras Nashim.

“I want people to understand that this idea was really modesty driven, and people to understand who our women are. With religious-Hasidish women, sometimes people have the impression that we’re not educated and we’re oppressed and only stay home. That’s so not who we are. Many of us have gone on for higher education. And we don’t look at our modesty as a burden. We want to raise the level of modesty. We’re proud of it. At the same time, we’re not oppressed,” Freier said. It’s just that women prefer to be taken care of by other women rather than male neighbors who also happen to be Hatzalah volunteers, she explained.

When a woman is in labor and calls Hatzalah, “Her modesty is totally trampled,” Freier said. “Hatzalah protocol, and rightfully so, has several men present to take care of the baby and the mother, so you had a group of men from the community at your bedside.

“We’re not opposed to male doctors. The difference is they’re doctors with almost 20 years of training whereas an EMT can be a plumber, a butcher, a school teacher who lives next door or has the grocery across the street. Next thing you know at the bakery the guy delivering your order is the guy who delivered your baby. It could be your child’s rebbe at school. It’s not the most comfortable of situations.”

Chevra Hatzalah, as the organization is formally known, has 13 chapters in New York City and the Catskill mountains, a popular summer vacation destination for the frum community, said Susan Lasher, the organization’s manager.

Rabbi David Cohen, Hatzalah’s CEO, said that the organization gets about 54,000 calls each year from people needing emergency attention. He declined to specify how many are from women in labor beyond saying that while more than half of their overall calls come from women, “most people don’t call us for labor.”

Hatzalah decided not to allow women to volunteer because “the rabbonim feel it would be inappropriate. We go in the middle of the night, we felt it wouldn’t be right. We thought it could create problems we didn’t want to have to deal with, and we follow the rabbonim,” Cohen said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“Hatzalah said it would be immodest for religious men to work alongside religious women. If you can’t work alongside a woman with her clothes on, how can you deliver a baby? For pikuach nefesh [saving a life] you can. We wanted to create the choice,” said Freier.

Freier declined to say exactly when Ezras Nashim expects to start its work, saying only, “It is a huge undertaking.” The group will begin by serving the Borough Park-Kensington area, home to a growing Orthodox community.

It will operate just as Hatzalah does, she said, with a hotline telephone number, computerized dispatch system and rotating shifts of EMTs available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She has received calls from women in other Orthodox communities, including one in Israel, interested in starting their own Ezras Nashim-like groups, she said. A women-only volunteer emergency medical group currently operates in the small upstate New York town of New Square, which is home to about 7,000 members of the Skverer Hasidim sect.

“With God’s help my goal is to be able to help every Jewish community that wants one establish one. It’s a movement, not just opening up a company,” said Freier.

Hatzalah CEO Cohen didn’t want to comment specifically on Ezras Nashim, saying, “Hatzalah is not Ezras Nashim and Ezras Nashim is not Hatzalah. They have their mission and they should have God’s blessing.”

“I always thought that Hatzalah was great and still do, and never thought there was any room for improvement,” Freier said. “But as the community grows, so do we. It’s just time for a change.”

Courtesy Rachel Freier