These Orthodox Jewish Women in New York Are Fighting to Get Their Own Ambulance

Religious women aren't keen on being treated by men en route to the hospital. But male paramedics argue that Judaism lets men and women touch during medical emergency

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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A Hasidic woman walks through a Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn on April 24, 2017 in New York City.
A Hasidic woman walks through a Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn on April 24, 2017 in New York City.Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK — A women-only volunteer emergency medical team serving the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn is battling to get its own ambulance despite significant opposition from male counterparts.

Ezras Nashim, a growing group of some 30 Orthodox Jewish women, was founded in 2014 to provide a more comfortable environment for women needing emergency medical care.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Credit: Haaretz

The goal is to “assist women who experience embarrassment and lingering trauma when they are treated by the well-intentioned only-male EMS service in vulnerable times,” said the group’s outreach and development director, Leah Levine.

She was referring to Hatzolah, an Orthodox emergency medical service, which did not immediately comment for this article.

As Levine put it, “Although the men are doing an amazing job and everyone loves them, when it comes to women’s emergencies, when a lady is in emergency labor or she falls in the shower, she doesn’t need her next-door neighbor or the person in her grocery store or anybody to see her like that. It adds too much stress to the stress she’s already in.”

The volunteer emergency medical technicians at Ezras Nashim have been responding to calls ranging from gynecological emergencies to body burns, and perform check-up visits for elderly women. When a call comes in, the women use their own cars, always loaded with medical equipment, to drive to the scene. If a patient needs hospital care, the group must call city emergency responders.

“At this point, the ambulance is not our own, which some women feel uncomfortable with,” Levine said. “It also takes longer because it’s an extra step to call the ambulance.”

Faster on the roads

In recent months, Ezras Nashim has been raising funds to buy its own ambulance and has reached the $125,000 needed. But some in the community, namely the all-male Hatzolah, the main organization providing emergency services in Orthodox Jewish communities, have been blocking the group from receiving a license to operate the vehicle.

At a recent hearing on the issue, the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City, largely composed of Hatzolah members, voted the permit down, arguing that there is no real need for Ezras Nashim because Judaism allows men and women to touch during a medical emergency.

A hearing on the issue, New York, on November 19, 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Ezras Nashim

Some in the council said that granting the group an ambulance license would “cause confusion” about whom community members should call in times of need. Some also cited Ezras Nashim’s response time, which is usually slower than Hatzolah’s.

“Once we get our license, we will be able to [legally] have flashing lights and sirens,” Levine said; then “the response time is half the time, at least.”

Beyond the technical improvements that an ambulance license would provide, the move would boost Ezras Nashim’s legitimacy, said one of the volunteers, Charna Goldsmith.

“It’s going to really solidify us as a standing organization in the community, to really show people we fought for this, we’re able to provide another level of care that we weren’t able to before,” she told Haaretz. “It solidifies who we are and what we’re trying to do for the community.

If Orthodox Jewish women “have no choice, yes, you’re going to go see a male physician, you’re going to go to the emergency room and maybe you’re going to have a male doctor, but the fact that they have that alternative [is important]. It’s a level of understanding that you don’t really receive elsewhere.”

Goldsmith runs a business making wigs for chemotherapy and spot-baldness patients, and is a mother of four expecting her fifth child. She calls her work at Ezras Nashim “extremely rewarding” – she joined about a year ago in an administrative role and will finish her training to become an emergency medical technician next month.

“I’m going to start actually working as an EMT and probably go on to become a paramedic or go to nursing school,” she said. “A lot of women do that in our organization believe it or not; it opens up doors for them .... and they go on to pursue careers in it.” Some of the women in the group have 10 children, she said, and giving back to the community “while balancing the work of the holidays and Shabbat and the kids ... is really a boost of confidence.”

From Rockland to Flatbush

The women of Ezras Nashim originally requested to join Hatzolah and work with the male group, but were denied, which led to the group’s founding. So far, the organization has two branches: one in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and one at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. Another three teams in Rockland County, on Long Island and in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood are progressing.

The organization has been growing very rapidly, Levine said: “We’ve helped hundreds of women over the years; the fact that the calls kept coming in is proof to us of how much we’re needed and wanted. There were a lot of women who didn’t call for help because they were so nervous, and we have women who did call for help but they were so traumatized after that.”

She also believes that Hatzolah’s opposition to the female group’s ambulance has much to do with funding. “Once you have two organizations in the same community, that means the funding, donations, everything will be split if you think about it,” she said. “So some men that are in control don’t want Ezras Nashim to exist.”

In the battle for their ambulance, the women had to hire a lawyer and started fundraising via an online Chesed fund to cover legal expenses. “People are rooting for us, people are pleading with us not to give up,” Levine said. “We need this, we can’t give up.”

Since the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City voted down the group’s application for an ambulance permit, the decision is now with the state’s emergency medical services council. A hearing date has not yet been set.

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