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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Orthodox Women Demand To Join Hatzalah Ambulances

Concerned about the modesty of women in labor, a group of Orthodox Jewish women is pushing to join Hatzalah, a citywide volunteer ambulance service.

The women, who live in the heavily Orthodox Jewish community in the Borough Park and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn, have hired a lawyer to represent them and make their case to local religious leaders.

Their plan is to have female emergency medical technicians, and possibly paramedics as well, available to assist in cases where residents who call Hatzalah request a woman for an obstetric or gynecological emergency.

They would not routinely respond to any other medical calls, and would not be dispatched by 911 operators—except possibly in major disasters. Hatzalah, established in the 1970s, is a volunteer ambulance service. Orthodox Jews often use the service instead of calling 911.

“The women think it's a great idea; the men are shocked,” said their lawyer, Rachel Freier, a community resident and Orthodox Jewish mother of six who said she is sensitive to the group's concerns. About 20 women have already signed up for an EMT training class in the community, anticipating they will soon be invited to join the ambulance service.

“This is a woman's job. Historically, women have always delivered babies. In our community, women also have a very strong motivation to seek female doctors," Ms. Freier said.

The women would be a division within Hatzalah and modeled after a similar organization already in place in New Square, N.Y., an upstate New York community with a large Orthodox Jewish population.

The Brooklyn group would be called Ezras Nashim, Yiddish for “women's sanctuary,” Ms. Freier said.

No legal action is planned so far, but Ms. Freier is energetically making the group's case, one she recently presented on a popular radio show broadcast hosted by Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

That radio show, and coverage of the issue in, an Orthodox Jewish news website, triggered a heated online debate.

Mr. Hikind, quoted in Vas Iz Neias, expressed support for the idea, calling it “almost a no brainer.” But Heshy Jacobs, a member of Hatzalah's executive board, was also quoted as being concerned that introducing women to the service could be “life-threatening.”

“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,” Mr. Jacobs told the news site.

That was all some of the site's readers needed to hear.

One Web poster called the claim that men are superior Neanderthal.

“Oy. Most of you folks out there seem to have caveman ideas of men and women. Like the Flintstones. Women can't drive fast? Women can't get out of the house fast? Really? . . . Maybe your wife who can't move without her hair and outfit just so isn't a candidate for being a Hatzalah EMT,” but there are plenty of women who are up to the job, the writer said.

The other view was that inviting women to join Hatzalah would be a major headache.

“If medical assistance is needed on a rush, I bet you by the time the Ezras Nashim arrive, their assistance would no longer be needed,” another anonymous writer said, adding that the women crew members would need extra time to attend to their grooming before they left the house.

Ms. Freier called that attitude “silly,” and said the idea of protecting women's modesty has deep roots in the Orthodox faith.

It is one thing to go to male obstetrician, who has had extensive training and sees women in labor daily. But volunteer EMTs pose a different problem, she said.

“Women who have had a baby delivered by Hatzalah are grateful to them, but they are also embarrassed and humiliated by the experience,” she said, adding that “If they [later] meet that EMT or Hatzalah member, they will likely cross the street to avoid him.”

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