Oct. 28, 2022
Ezras Nashim, an Orthodox Jewish, all-female EMT corps based in Borough Park, succeeded in their quest to operate a private ambulance in October 2020. Two years later, the ambulance has helped the organization amplify its call volume and presence within the community.
“Our whole level of treatment has changed so much, and that’s why our call volume doubled last year and doubled again this year,” said Leah Levine, Ezras Nashim’s chief operating officer and daughter of founder Judge Rachel Freier. “It only really started to grow so much once we got the ambulance.”
Shannon Nizard, Ezras Nashim’s field operations manager, also credits the ambulance with a rise in calls, describing how it has increased name recognition while driving around the approximately 2-mile-wide community.
“A lot of people were just not aware of the services that we offer [before the ambulance],” she said.
The addition of a personalized ambulance has allowed the organization, based in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, to reach more women in medical distress, streamline its processes, and develop standards and practices around helping women in the area preserve their comfort and modesty, a central pillar of Orthodox Judaism. But not everyone in the neighborhood supports their endeavor. Even so, the organization is determined to expand its reach.
Prior to gaining an ambulance, the organization’s process for responding to medical calls was complex. After receiving a call to their emergency line, volunteers were dispatched to the scene in their personal vehicles. If medical transport was necessary, they would then coordinate with FDNY.
Having an ambulance has allowed Ezras Nashim to develop procedures around patient comfort, such as refraining from the use of lights and sirens at a patient’s request (when possible) or including the patient’s regular doctor in care decisions.
Nizard explained that while there are higher and lower volume seasons—summer is generally quiet, while the high holidays are busier—the rate of calls varies, and calls can range from psychiatric situations to cardiac events. While training volunteers, she warns that shifts can be unpredictable.
“Sometimes you’re going to take a 12-hour shift and it’s going to be quiet, and then sometimes you’re going to be here for five hours and it’s going to be back-to-back calls,” she said.
In addition to responding to medical calls, those services include local initiatives, such as an all-female EMT course taught by a certified female instructor. Ezras Nashim also offers home visits to monitor elderly women in the neighborhood.
At the heart of Ezras Nashim’s mission is a desire to preserve modesty.
“Basically, the way things have evolved, tzniut, modesty, has become central, especially to Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s lives,” said Dr. Schneur Zalman-Newfield, author of “Degrees of Separation, Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism” (Temple University Press, 2020).
Before Ezras Nashim, women experiencing medical distress in Borough Park were left with a difficult choice: Preserve tzniut and delay medical care or call Hatzallah, the all-male ambulance service in Borough Park and other Orthodox Jewish areas, which came with its own risks.
“Almost always, you’ll know who the person is and it’s very, very, embarrassing, especially when we’re so modest, and we’re always so, you know, covered,” Levine said. “So, to be uncovered in front of a male, who’s someone that you know, is a woman’s greatest trauma.”
According to Dr. Zalman-Newfield, modesty for Orthodox Jewish women is deeply ingrained from a young age, and “there’s a process of learning that the children go through, especially girls go through at a very young age, where they’re taught what is appropriate and what’s inappropriate for their particular community.”
The roots of the organization stretch back to the early 2010s. Judge Freier, then an attorney, was approached by women in the community for help: For years, they’d been trying to join Hatzallah as EMTs, but were continually rejected due to gender.
“[The women] thought a lawyer would be able to get the job done,” Levine said.
Despite Judge Freier’s intervention, Hatzallah was successful in barring women from joining its ranks. Not to be deterred, she set out to form an EMT corps exclusively for women. Ezras Nashim was officially established a few years later, in 2014.
Much like it’s initial inception, the organization’s mission to own and operate an ambulance was not met with unanimous acceptance. At a November 2019 hearing of the Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City, a Hatzallah volunteer and council member spoke out against it, arguing that Ezras Nashim had failed to provide the necessary evidence that their ambulance would address a public need that Hatzallah couldn’t meet.
The council initially denied Ezras Nashim’s request. The organization appealed to the New York State Emergency Medical Services Council, and was finally approved to operate an ambulance in August 2020.
Representatives for Hatzallah did not return a request for comment.
According to Nizard, Ezras Nashim’s next step in development is an application for Advanced Life Support certification, which would allow them to perform more complicated care, such as administering continuous IV medication. They’re also hoping to expand beyond Borough Park.
While increased call volume and local initiatives are beneficial, to Nizard, the ambulance serves another important role: Inspiring women in the community.
“I think that also seeing women in positions of becoming EMTs, of becoming paramedics, taking those kinds of leadership roles in the community, I think it’s inspiring for women to see, and I think it’s important for women to see,” she said. “…your gender does not define your ability to do anything.”
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