NYC Jewish Women Want To Join All-Male EMT Group

NEW YORK (AP) — Most Orthodox Jewish women avoid touching men except direct relatives. They don’t sit next to men on buses or even at weddings. They have separate swimming hours at indoor pools. But for an emergency birth, Orthodox Jewish women will usually turn to the all-male volunteer ambulance corps known as Hatzolah.

Now a group of women in one of the country’s largest Orthodox Jewish communities is proposing to join up with Hatzolah as emergency medical technicians to respond in cases of labor or gynecological emergencies.

The proposal for a women’s division has stirred up criticism within Orthodox Jewish circles, with one well-known blog editorializing that it amounts to a “new radical feminist agenda.” And when a prominent elected local official, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, spoke about it on his weekly radio show, he was criticized for even bringing the subject up.

Rachel Freier, a Hasidic attorney who is representing the women in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, said there is a need for emergency services that adhere to the community’s customs of modesty, calling for the sexes to avoid physical contact unless they are related.

“It has nothing to do with feminism,” Freier said. “It has to do with the dignity of women and their modesty.”

She is careful to avoid framing the proposal as a critique of Hatzolah, whose work she says they respect. Instead, she says it is a matter of reclaiming a “job that has been the role of women for thousands of years” — that of midwife. “We are so proud of Hatzolah,” she said. But, she added, “they can’t understand what a woman feels like when she is in labor.”

The volunteer ambulance corps was founded by Rabbi Herschel Weber in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1960s in response to a perceived delay in responding to emergency calls made by Jewish communities. Today Hatzolah, a Hebrew word that translates as “rescue” or “relief,” has dozens of affiliates around the world, each of them operating independently and often in close coordination with the community they serve. Policies, such as whether women can volunteer, are usually set locally by each affiliate.

It is unclear how many Hatzolah affiliates allow women to volunteer. But in Israel, for instance, United Hatzalah, which responds to more than 112,500 calls per year, has volunteers who are both male and female, as well as secular and religious, according to its website.

And the new division being proposed in Brooklyn by the women Freier represents — it would be known as the Ezras Nashim, Hebrew for “women’s section” — would be modeled after a program created more than a year ago in New Square, N.Y., a small, insular Orthodox Jewish community in New York City’s northern suburbs.

But a program for women, with women volunteers, in Borough Park would be far more ambitious in scope and size. Besides being one of the biggest Orthodox Jewish communities in the country, if not the world, the neighborhood had the city’s highest birth rate in 2009 with 26.7 per 1,000 people, according to the Department of Health. That is a lot of babies that need to be delivered.

Yocheved Lerner, 49, is one of the women who would like to work as a volunteer for a newly formed all-women Hatzolah division in Brooklyn.

A state-certified emergency medical technician and mother herself, she said her group has a list of about 200 trained Orthodox Jewish women who could respond to medical calls in the neighborhood.

“There are strict rules between men and women, except in the case of Hatzolah,” she said. “The problem is that any number of men might respond to a call on Hatzolah.” That has been a source of “tremendous embarrassment” for some women, she said.

“It’s quite unfortunate that it’s been the case when seven or eight men have responded to a woman in labor call,” she said. “If birth is imminent, that’s how many people are watching. And it’s a very, very troubling situation for a woman.”

She said a core group of about five women had spearheaded the proposal and that it is drawing wider support. She emphasized that in no way did they want to or expect to work alongside the men of Hatzolah, suggesting they could have their own ambulances available to them.

“We don’t want to be socializing with the men of Hatzolah,” she said.

Chevra Hatzalah, a registered nonprofit, serves much of metropolitan New York City, including Borough Park. They dispatch about 50,000 calls a year and have 1,200 volunteers, said its CEO, Rabbi David Cohen.

Interviewed recently about the women’s proposal, Cohen said he had not heard from the group of women directly but had read about their proposal.

Nevertheless, he declined to answer specific questions about it.

“I really haven’t talked to the people. I don’t know what they want exactly,” he said, adding that Hatzolah’s four-member rabbinical board released an internal memo saying that they should not engage in discussions on the matter.

He said a similar proposal had been rejected about 25 years ago — and that nothing had changed since then. “We have an internal statement basically saying we are continuing our policy,” he said.

Heshy Jacobs, a member of Chevra Hatzalah’s executive board, told the popular Orthodox Jewish blog Vos Iz Neias that adding women could affect response time.

“There are many things at which women are superior, but when it comes to speed and physical strength, which are both of the essence in a medical emergency, it is a proven fact that men have an advantage,” Jacobs told VIN News in September. “Additionally we already have systems in place to get our responders in place as quickly as possible. …By introducing women into the scenario, you are adding another layer to the process and you are talking about a situation where a delay of seconds can literally cost lives.”

Renee Ghert-Zand, a contributor to a blog on women’s issues, Sisterhood, published by the Jewish publication the Forward, said the refusal to allow women to volunteer for Hatzolah was an example of discrimination against women.

“Women have been increasingly marginalized from public life and from public view under the pretext of modesty,” she said. “They’re saying it’s not modest for women to give emergency care. I see absolutely no reason why that should not happen. There are women who are trained in the medical profession.”

Freier said in an email that she had attempted to reach Hatzolah’s CEO and set up a meeting for July or August. “The initial plan was for me to meet with Hatzolah and explain the need for women to join,” she said. However, I was told that the policy of women not joining Hatzolah was set years ago.”

Undeterred, she said she is discussing the matter with rabbinical leaders in the community.

“We’re just trying to make a great organization even better,” she said. “We’re not filing a complaint. We’re coming with a suggestion.”

What do you think about their desire to work as emergency medical technicians? Tell us your thoughts in our comments section below.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

  • Meme Meyagi

    what is done about 7 million mooslime terrorists living in usa?

  • David Goldstein

    This is ridicules…what will they want next?

  • DanTe

    What does Chuck Schumer have to say about this?

    • DanTe

      Ah, the sad little twit that has to impersonate someone else in order to be heard. Have you tried suicide? I hear that it helps with things like you.

  • Mayor Koch's Tomb Inc.

    “Tradition ,Tradition” and yes women are second class citizens in
    Orthodox Jewry.made subservient to men .sure they get “respect”
    as long as they stay in line as regards male dominated law.

    • rachel

      how sadly uneducated you are

  • Mr Putnam

    As a member of an emergency services organization in the northern suburbs of New York City I realize when the pager sounds many times life is of the essence. As long as an emergency crew arrives on the scene in a rapid fashion to assist the patient–male or female–the bottom line is achieved. I don’t care what type of religion one believes in–if a certified EMT or paramedic comes to my door, HE or SHE will treat a loved one in a rapid fashion. If the patient is uncomfortable…CLOSE YOUR EYES–but be thankful your life is being saved!
    Religion has no place in the EMS field.

  • its good to know

    Why do these EMT’S want to hook up with Hatzolah if the organization does not want them. Let them start their own organization.
    Hatzolah is following the guidance of their rabbis. This has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination. Nobody treats their women as respectfully and with as much dignity as the men in the observant Jewish community.
    This is required of them by the Torah. Renee Gert Zhand seems pretty ignorant about what goes on in our community. She should feel free to educate herself properly before passing judgement on us.

    • Let her in!

      She should grow a Mustache, shave her head and wear a ridiculously bad wig. Wait, she already did that. Let her Volunteer her time and help the community.

    • KPMc

      “Nobody treats their women as respectfully and with as much dignity as the men in the observant Jewish community.”

      That is friggin’ hilarious. What about when they are not YOUR women? How do you treat the gentiles you encounter besides propositioning them?

  • protest

    I agree with just. And its much more than that!

  • just

    All is good and well, but a repsonse by a woman… First, they hear it’s a womanly call and respond. Are they going to go themselves to a dark apartment building that who knows who made the call to get them there. If people hear that woman respond, who knows what type of calls will come to get them in situations. In addition, can a woman leave her children at 3 am to rush for a call? Can they just jump out of bed throw something on and run to a call? Will it be tznius for her to go that way when the husband of the call is there? Give me a break, this is ridiculous. Woman rights. Ha ha. Made me laugh!!! It’s nothing personal against woman. It’s a reality!!!

    • druid

      You are a putz! Women have been doing that for years all across this country. For you, it is “personal against woman.” Get out of your own philosophical dark ages before you get a plague and have to have a woman treat you.

  • bg2

    It’s long overdue.

  • Linda

    This is America, not some third country, women have rights here, go for it ladies. Until lately I never realized the Jewish people were so suppressed. Years ago I went to Brooklyn every other week and never heard about this then, have they become more narrow-minded in recent years ?

  • Larry Schwarz

    It’s about equal rights.I say to these women GO FOR IT.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Giving Tuesday
Charles Osgood Event

Listen Live