NEW YORK — A new all-female EMT corps is set to launch this month in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Brooklyn, NY. In the neighborhood that boasts New York’s highest birth rate (28.5 per 1000 according to a recent NYC Health Department Community Health Survey) Ezras Nashim will help women in the Hasidic community experiencing birth related emergencies.
The culmination of years of thought and training, the volunteers met recently to pick up their equipment, meet other volunteers and receive last-minute instructions.
“This is a special day,” said Ezras Nashim’s founder, attorney Ruchie Freier. “After years of hard work and planning, we have finally made it.”
Hatzalah, the longstanding Jewish ambulance service, currently services the area but only allows male volunteers in their ranks. In a community where genders are strictly segregated, having to call on men in an emergency, who can often be a relative, neighbor, or community member, can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Ezras Nashim — a Hebrew wordplay which means “help for women” or “the women’s section” — hopes to change that with its corps of over 40 volunteers, including dispatchers, EMTs, and operations personnel. Starting this month, a woman in labor can call Ezras Nashim and have a certified EMT who doubles as a doula, accompany her to the hospital.
Ezras Nashim will work in tandem with a local ambulance service who will meet them on the scene to transport the patient to the hospital.
For the volunteer corps, who juggle large families and work, the training was a big undertaking. Sherri, a volunteer from Manhattan and one of the few that doesn’t belong to the Boro Park community, says she heard about Ezras Nashim through an EMT course she was taking at a local hospital. She says she was immediately taken by the women upon meeting them. “These are the most incredible women. They have small children, they work and they are doing this on top of that,” she said.
Though the initiative is near launch, it has had it’s fair share of challenges since the idea was first born two years ago.
“There have been a lot of obstacles and challenges along the way, but with Hashem’s [God’s] help we’ve made it here today,” Freier said at the event. One of the main obstacles was Hatzalah’s refusal to incorporate the women volunteers into their ranks last year. For a community that holds Hatzalah in high esteem, some saw Ezras Nashim as an unnecessary addition.
Without Hatzalah’s financial backing, fundraising proved to be another major setback. Though a lot of the equipment was covered by donations, the women had to pay for their own training and for some of the equipment.
But despite this Freier says that one of the hardest challenges she initially faced was recruiting volunteers. Many of the women were interested and excited by the prospect but felt daunted by the task of undergoing the lengthy and expensive training.
“It is costly, it’s time consuming, these women have large families, and they’re very busy,” Freier said. “Convincing the women… to successfully become EMTs… that they could do it, and that it was worth it — that was the biggest challenge.” she said.
In a community that reveres their rabbis, a lack of vocal support from leading local Jewish authorities can also be a deterrent. Though some rabbis pledged support, there hasn’t been an overwhelming endorsement. Freier says she received approval and support from rabbis in NY and Israel upon private consultation but was not keen to mention specific names. (Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind publicly endorsed the group but was not available for comment.)
Freier believes the rabbis will eventually come around once the women prove themselves. “The rabbis that didn’t come out publicly, deep down they they know that we are doing what they should have.”
Many of the volunteers said they received unanimous support from their families and friends from the get-go. Others were not as eager and said their friends saw it is an unnecessary addition to a community with existing infrastructure.
One volunteer dispatcher said she got mixed reactions from family and friends with some seeing it as a positive addition and others as redundant. “Some are doubtful and some were okay. [But] nobody is overly enthusiastic,” she said.
Though a female run EMT corps is unprecedented in Brooklyn, Freier is quick to point out that she does not consider herself a feminist. She argues that any gender discrimination in the Hasidic community is a result of extremists and not inherent to a Hasidic way of life, to discredit any notions that Ezras Nashim’s goal is to to make a feminist statement.
“Hasidic women are not subjugated, nor are we submissive or dictated by masculine fiat,” she has published. And one of her goals with Ezras Nashim is to prove just that, to provide a necessary service while at the same time empowering the women of her community.
“I really believe in the potential of our women,” she said. “We have incredible, incredible strength.”
The excitement among the women at the event is palpable, as if they are on the cusp of a historical event, and women in other communities across New York have caught the buzz too. Across the state, women have expressed interest in creating local Ezras Nashim corps in their areas.
Ezras Nashim may even come to Israel. Ultra-Orthodox women in Kiryat Sefer have plans in the works to launch a similar program, also due to their high birth rates and distance from major hospitals.