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.
Now, if a group of women in Brooklyn has its way, Miriam’s wish will come true. Calling themselves Ezras Nashim — an informal term for the women’s section of a synagogue — the group of 60 has been agitating since last year to join the ranks of the Brooklyn branch of the Hatzalah, one of the most venerated Orthodox institutions in America. Though the women are engaged in a seemingly feminist act by clamoring to join a boy’s club, they don’t see it that way. Instead, they say, they are modesty crusaders, speaking out for the cause of decency.
“It’s not about Susan B. Anthony and standing up and getting out there,” Ezras Nashim spokeswoman Rachel Freier said. “Feminism is a secular concept.”
So far, the Hatzalah leadership is unconvinced. “There are many things at which women are superior,” Heshy Jacobs, a member of Hatzalah’s executive board, reportedly noted on the Vos Iz Neias? website. “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.”
Not so long ago, women were welcomed into the ambulance corps. Hatzalah was founded in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg in the late 1960s to aid Brooklyn’s Yiddish neighborhoods that were underserved by the city’s English-speaking emergency technicians. At the time, several dozen women created an all-female division of Hatzalah called “Hatzilu,” to serve women of the community. But the effort was short-lived. Fearful of mixing genders among the technicians, a group of local rabbis ordered Hatzalah to disband its female wing after just three months of operation.
“We weren’t happy,” an original member of Hatzilu told the Forward. “We wanted to help the women. We had to accept it as is.”