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 Jewish, 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."