Ultra-Orthodox Women Fight for Right to Join Hatzalah

Movement to join Jewish ambulance service being led by attorney Rachel Freier, who claims female medics are better able to provide urgent medical assistance to religious women.

Shlomo Shamir
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Shlomo Shamir

Only weeks after the city of New York forced a bus line operating between ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods to end its separation of men and women, the borough has been thrown into another debate involving contentious gender policies.

Only this time, its a struggle for equality taking place where life-and-death decisions have often taken place: Hatzalah, a veteran emergency medical service that employs only young Haredi men, was asked to add ultra-Orthodox women to its staff.

Yochevev Lerner, right, demonstrates cardiopulmonary resuscitation technique to Hasidic attorney Rachel Freier during a women's-only CPR training session in Borough Park, New York, Nov. 9, 2011.Credit: AP

The fight against the exclusively male character of Hatzalah is led by Rachel Freier, known as "Rochi" among her friends, a Haredi attorney and resident of the predominately ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood.

But the heads of Hatzalah, the headquarters of which is located at the heart of Borough Park, are outright determined to reject the very idea of allowing women to join an organization that has accepted only men since its establishment 40 years ago.

"Our rabbis determined long ago that Hatzalah volunteers can be only men," said Rabbi David Cohen, the organization's director, adding that this has been the organizations policy for the last 40 years.

Rabbi Cohen refused to further address the demand to include women in Hatzalah ranks, saying that Freier never directly appealed the organization on the subject.

Hatzalah, a registered nonprofit, serves much of metropolitan New York City, including Borough Park.

The emergency services group has become an inseparable part of Brooklyn's Haredi community life. It also operates outside Brooklyn, with volunteers reaching other N.Y. boroughs, garnering much respect from the local ultra-Orthodox.

Working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including high holidays and Yom Kippur, Haredi male volunteers stand at the ready, awaiting emergency calls, leaping into ambulances, and arriving at those in need of emergency care within minutes.

Every synagogue and place of worship knows to keep Hatzalah's phone number in a prominent place, a tribute to the organization's reputation of speedily sending ambulances to treat ailing worshipers.

Cohen says Hatzalah dispatches about 50,000 calls a year, with 70 ambulances fitted with basic medical equipment, and 1200 volunteers who undergo basic medical training every six months.

Freier's demand to enlist women to Hatzalah first arose in Dov Hikind's radio show. Hikind is a known and admired radio presenter from Brooklyn, who represents Borough Park neighborhood in the New York State Assembly. Hikind complimented Freier and praised her efforts, saying she is playing an active part in community life.

Frier, who failed to respond to Haaretz's calls, established and manages an organization that assists children from ultra-Orthodox families with learning difficulties.

According to Hikind, Freier claims that women volunteers will be better able to treat religious women in need of urgent medical assistance, a claim that the radio presenter supports. However, Hikind says only rabbis are able to determine whether such a claim is founded.

Freier's supporters have noted that in New Square, a Hasidic village in northern New York, women already serve in ambulance services. David Cohen responded to the fact by calling New Square is a small town.