A few years ago I read about a group of women who were petitioning the Jewish volunteer emergency medical service, Hatzalah, to accept females into their organization. The Forward had an interview with the woman lawyer and EMT spearheading this effort, Rachel Freier. Freier and others created Ezras Nashim, hoping to create a women’s EMT division in the Brooklyn branch of Hatzalah, primarily to assist with emergency home child labor.
In the late 1960’s when Hatzalah was first founded, there was a short-lived women’s division called, Hatzilu. Within three months of operation, local rabbis, fearful of inappropriate relationships happening between mixed gender emergency volunteers, ordered the female division to be disbanded. Ever since that time, the rabbis and lay leadership of Hatzalah have excluded women from participating in the service, even though half of their patients are women.
The Forward article included this interview from a woman named Miriam :
“Miriam was home alone in Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhood of Boro Park when she birthed her second child, her water breaking unexpectedly and the baby slipping out along with it. Moments later, seven men barreled through the door. One of them took the baby, and another asked Miriam to lie down so that he could check between her legs for the placenta. Then, the technicians — members of the volunteer ambulance corps Hatzalah — whisked her away to the hospital. Even though her male neighbor had called the men in an effort to help, Miriam said the experience was “traumatizing.”
In the ultra-Orthodox world in which Miriam lives, unmarried men and women are barred from touching, let alone exposing their bodies to one another. Though the incident occurred 15 years ago, Miriam (who asked that her name be changed to protect her privacy) remembers every detail of that uncomfortable visit. In particular, she remembers wishing that women had attended to her, instead of men.
“I think that a woman who has to give birth at home should at least have the comfort of another woman at her side,” she said.”
Rachel Freier added in a Voz Iz Neias interview:
“Women who have had a baby delivered by Hatzalah are grateful to them, but they are also embarrassed and humiliated by the experience,” said Mrs. Freier. “If they meet that EMT or Hatzala member, they will likely cross the street to avoid him. We are all so proud of Hatzalah. We can’t live without them. But the voice of the women now has to be heard.”
Hatzalah refused to change its position not to accept female volunteers, and so Ezras Nashim has been established as its own organization. They will first begin serving Boro Park and hope to expand into other areas of New York and even Israel. According to Tablet magazine:
“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.”
What’s interesting to me is that, aside from the usual critics who don’t feel that women are capable of responding to medical emergencies and that Ezras Nashim is taking precious financial donations and resources from the already established Hatzalah, there are those who feel that Ezras Nashim is anything but a female empowering endeavor. People have critiqued the service for promoting a hyper-tznius agenda which further separates the sexes, and could be creating a new chumra that will stop women from accepting medical treatment from men or stop men from offering medical treatment to women.
My opinion on the matter is that I think that frum female EMTs are long overdue in our communities. I think that the Hatzalah organization should be ashamed of itself for refusing to let women into their corps. Having a separate Ezras Nashim should never have had to happen – it should have been a division of the already established Hatzalah all along from the beginning. Since Hatzalah has stubbornly refused to let women into its volunteer EMT organization, forming Ezras Nashim is a necessity.
Ezras Nashim will give women more control over their care in vulnerable situations. I think it’s a terrible breach of tznius to have familiar men caring for a woman in labor who they know – especially when there have been women asking to take over this role and were told no. There is such a big difference between having a male doctor and male volunteer EMT from your neighborhood treating you. Most people I know don’t have a relationship with their OB/GYN outside of professional visits. Plus, a male OB/GYN has seen hundreds/thousands of deliveries and done hundreds/thousands of intimate exams. After awhile they become desensitized and it’s strictly professional. Doctors undergo sensitivity training in medical school on treating the opposite sex. They are graded by volunteer patients to see how they perform in this area.
Being treated and seen for an intimate exam by someone with a BLS or ALS license who you see at shul, the grocery store, parent/teacher conferences, simchas – someone who you only know socially – is quite different than being seen by a physician with whom you only have a professional relationship.
I think the critique about Ezras Nashim being a feminist step backward has to do with the emphasis on only providing labor and delivery services. In reality, these women are getting the same certification that Hatzalah members have and can treat emergencies of any nature. My opinion is that I think they are kowtowing to rabbis and those accusing them of being feminist upstarts by stressing the childbirth/doula angle. Eventually, they will incorporate all emergency services into their repertoire. I agree that it’s a waste that the women of Ezras Nashim had to recreate the wheel, but that wasn’t their choice.
I think it’s hypocritical for people to argue that the men of Hatzalah are professional and unfazed when seeing an unclothed woman they know, but women would not show the same level of professionalism when treating a man they know. How is it pikuach nefesh when a man touches and treats an unrelated woman, but a woman touching and treating a male patient would not get the same dispensation? I thought women were supposed to be on a “higher level” regarding sexual temptation? Men and women work side by side for many hours in stressful jobs every day. I don’t see how volunteer EMTs would be any more likely to develop inappropriate relationships than in most other professional work settings.
Women have a lot to offer to community emergency health services, not just as dispatchers or secretaries, but also as active EMTs and paramedics. To that end, I am very proud of these women and their determination and dedication.