Meet Brooklyn's All-Female Orthodox EMT Team

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff
Rachel Freier, right, practicing infant CPR with her mother. Photo: Courtesy Rachel Freier
Rachel Freier, right, practicing infant CPR with her mother. Photo: Courtesy Rachel Freier

In Orthodox Judaism, there is a far-reaching set of rules relating to modesty and separation of the sexes that can make many aspects of life uncomfortable — particularly those relating to childbirth emergencies. Those laws, called “tznius,” are why the new all-female EMT group, Ezras Nashim, is set to soon roll out in a Hasidic Jewish enclave in Brooklyn.

“It’s not revolutionary — it’s something that’s needed,” Rachel Freier, founder and director of Ezras Nashim (which means “women’s help”) tells Yahoo Shine. Freier, 49, is a lawyer and mother of six children ranging in age from 15 to 26, as well as the director of an organization that counsels religious youth. She explains that while Ezras Nashim’s mission is to assist women in obstetrical and gynecological emergencies, the 50-plus trained women in the corps are also certified to handle every type of emergency situation.

“I’m doing this because I have a tremendous confidence and belief in the power of the Jewish woman,” Freier says. “And this proves we can do what is necessary.”

Freier has spent three years trying to bring the organization to fruition after a journalist connected her with a group of Hasidic women trained as EMTs who could not find employment. Much of that time was spent wrangling with the male-run Hatzalah, a well-established Orthodox EMT service, in an attempt to join forces. But Hatzalah ultimately rejected the idea of a women’s branch, Freier says, due to a mix of politics and a “complete inability for the men to understand how women feel.” Though some around her encouraged her to sue for discrimination, Freier decided “take the high road” and go the independent route, which she now feels has been a blessing in disguise. “It really had to be an all-women’s corps,” she says.

In the tight-knit, largely insular Hasidic community, Freier explains, Hatzalah is comprised of other community members — sometimes neighbors — which can make for some highly awkward situations for women in need of emergency assistance. “A group of five-plus men assisting in labor would just exacerbate the emergency,” she explains, because modesty, so integral to the culture of Orthodox Judaism, winds up being compromised.

Freier, left, training with other members of the team and a local doctor. Photo courtesy of Rachel Freier
Freier, left, training with other members of the team and a local doctor. Photo courtesy of Rachel Freier

Still, explains Freier’s sister, Eva Friedman — who is involved with the corps, along with their mother — the all-women’s corps has encountered much skepticism from within the community. “People were like, ‘Come on, that’s a man’s job,’” Friedman tells Yahoo Shine. “And, because Hatzalah is so big, they were like, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But the people who say that are the people who have never had a traumatic, humiliating experience [with a male EMT].”

Freier estimates that the first-year startup cost for Ezras Nashim is around $25,000, most of it garnered through fundraisers and grants. That total, which has taken care of costs like medical insurance, cell phones for the EMTs, medical equipment, leasing a car, and a dispatch system, does not include the $1,500 each woman had to pay for her own EMT training. The corps received its New York State approval to operate in 2013, and is finally just about ready to launch (though Freier is hesitant to name a date).

When it’s up and running, and a call comes in requesting help for a woman in the community, Ezras Nashim will dispatch a female EMT, who will meet up with an ambulance to transport the patient to a hospital. The EMT will remain with the patient for as long as she wants, to oversee medical care and religious considerations during treatment.

Freier, who is atypically open when it comes to speaking with people outside of her Hasidic community, says she has made that a personal mission. “I find there are so many people out there who are so clueless about my religion, and they love the opportunity to speak with someone who will share,” she says. “I see it as positive. There are a lot of misconceptions about the Orthodox world, especially regarding women,” the biggest being that “women are second-class citizens.”

“It’s very much the opposite,” Friedman, a mother of seven, explains. “[Women and men] have different roles, and both are very important and valid.”

The importance of Ezras Nashim is huge, according to New York filmmaker Paula Eiselt, who has been trailing the group for more than a year in order to make a documentary about its efforts.  

“I couldn’t believe there were such courageous women willing to band together and go against the opposition, and that they were working within the framework of the community,” Eiselt tells Yahoo Shine. “As an Orthodox person, I understood how rare it was. It’s a big deal.” She adds, “I realized this is not just a Jewish story. This is about women’s empowerment, and reclaiming healthcare for women. I’m astounded by them, by their perseverance.”