When Shavy Landau fainted in the shower after her third round of chemo in 2015, the last thing she wanted was a man from her ultra-Orthodox Borough Park community to see her bald and naked.
Instead of calling Chevra Hatzalah, the all-male volunteer emergency medical service in New York’s Orthodox Jewish community, she waited alone for a few minutes until her then 10-year-old son helped her crawl out.
The now 37-year-old single mother of three had never hesitated to call Hatzalah before. She knew the number by heart — just one digit off from her own home phone.
When one of her sons choked on a grape, Hatzalah was there. When another son needed stitches, Hatzalah was there.
But when she imagined an ultra-Orthodox neighbor entering the bathroom and seeing her in a non-tzniut (immodest) condition, she panicked.
“It was totally unnerving,” said Landau, who has since left the Orthodox community because she felt as if she “had no identity” within the faith. “I was thinking ‘Who’s gonna help me here?’ Hatzalah was not even on my mind. I really was uncomfortable with the fact that someone from the community might show up.”
Instead, she called Ezras Nashim, an all-female Orthodox volunteer emergency medical service. Within minutes, the ladies of Ezras Nashim piled out of a dark blue Chrysler Pacifica minivan in front of Landau’s home.
Ezras Nashim has been responding to emergencies like Landau’s fainting episode — including COVID-related cases — using their own vehicles after being denied an ambulance license last summer by Regional Emergency Medical Services Council of NYC (REMSCO), a nonprofit that coordinates medical services in all five boroughs.
Ezras Nashim appealed the decision to the New York State Emergency Medical Services Council (SEMSCO) in Albany, where an administrative law judge recommended the approval of the group’s request over Hatzalah’s objections.
A vote is due to take place at the next SEMSCO meeting, but that session has been postponed several times due to the pandemic. In the interim, Hatzalah requested a July 8th public hearing, which got heated.
Now, both Jewish emergency service organizations await SEMSCO’s final decision to determine whether Ezras Nashim will get the right to provide ambulatory care in the community.
A Hebrew double entendre that means “assisting women” and is also the name for the women’s section of Orthodox synagogues, Ezras Nashim was created by now-Brooklyn Civil Court Judge Ruchie Freier in 2013 after she noticed a need among Orthodox women for whom modesty is both a religious and cultural requirement.
Women are not allowed to join Borough Park’s chapter of Hatzalah.
As coronavirus spread through Borough Park’s Hasidic community, infecting more than 6,000 people by its peak in April, calls to Ezras Nashim flooded in, according to Leah Levine, outreach director for the group and a daughter of Freier.
“I remember how scary it was,” Levine recalled of this past April spent next to her mother and the dispatch radio. “The phone was just ringing and ringing and ringing like, ‘Is this ever gonna stop?’”
Ezras Nashim has a mutual aid agreement with the FDNY. When Ezras Nashim responds to calls that require an ambulance, the group contacts 911, which brings FDNY EMTs to the scene. But relying on another agency for emergency transport means inconsistent wait times.
During the COVID crisis, transport was often not an option with jammed hospitals.
“Every patient that wanted to be transported, we couldn’t help them,” Levine said. “It was very hard for us, like we never had to turn away people.”
Still, many individuals in the Hasidic community decided against hospital treatment due to overcrowding and neglect, said Levine. Ezras Nashim tended to those who chose to stay home. Even men called Ezras Nashim for help, Levine said.
‘We’re Fighting a Pandemic’
Levine and the other women of Ezras Nashim can’t help but wonder how many more people they would have been able to help with an ambulance.
“We’re fighting a pandemic,” said Paula Eiselt, director of “93 Queen,” a documentary that chronicles the formation of Ezras Nashim. “In a time of COVID, why on earth would Hatzalah or anyone be trying to prevent more access to healthcare?”
Eiselt, who followed the ladies of Ezras Nashim for five years for the film, believes Hatzalah’s opposition stems from a traditionally deep-rooted power imbalance between men and women within the ultra-Orthodox community. Throughout filming, Eiselt said she encountered medical suppliers and hospitals that refused to assist Ezras Nashim out of fear of retaliation from Hatzalah.
“[Hatzalah] has ambulances, so what is so threatening about a group of women wanting to fulfill a communal need and get one ambulance — why is that threatening?” Eiselt asked, before answering her own question: “They don’t want to see women doing this type of work.”
Two independent hearing officers — with both REMSCO and SEMSCO — wrote recommendations in support of Ezras Nashim’s application for a single ambulance.
‘No Need’ for New Ambulance
However, critics of Ezras Nashim point to Hatzalah’s two-minute response time and decades-long legacy. More options could confuse elderly patients, others argue.
Hatzalah’s attorney, Jeff Resiner, testified there was “no need for Ezras Nashim’s application,” citing Hatzalah’s quicker response times and established presence in the community.
Ezras Nashim’s average response time for emergency calls is 8 minutes and 2 seconds. But group leaders anticipate a faster response time if they become authorized to operate an ambulance service.
Some Ezras Nashim opponents note time is crucial in emergency situations.
“This is not like choosing to open another grocery store on 13th Avenue. This is not a choice between buying milk here or buying milk there — this is people’s lives and most of the time, seconds count,” said one Hasidic woman during the July 8 public hearing.
‘We Have to be There’
Hatzalah backers also note that medical emergencies serve as exceptions to traditional rules of modesty.
But modesty is a very real issue for women in the community, said Sarah Weisshaus, 28, an EMT with Ezras Nashim for six years.
“Modesty is instilled in the community at a young age, so a woman that’s used to being covered all at all times, it’s a little traumatic for her,” Weisshaus said. “All of a sudden, she’s in a state of panic and exposed to a man that she’s not really familiar with or could be her next door neighbor. It could be really uncomfortable for her just to see him afterwards.”
According to several people who testified at the July 8 hearing, many Hasidic women would rather suffer than call Hatzalah in an immodest condition.
Weisshaus said her cousin died shortly after falling in the shower, thinking she had enough time to get out and get dressed before dialing Hatzalah.
“She died because she didn’t feel comfortable having someone come,” Weishauss said. “Then I realized the significance of what I was doing, and I was like ‘I like this. I want to do more of this.’”
The fate of a possible Ezras Nashim ambulance now sits in the hands of SEMSCO. A final decision on the application will be made at a meeting that has yet to be scheduled.
“It’s not up to us to decide if it’s a stupid thing that a lady feels uncomfortable having a man. It’s not up to us,” Levine said. “But if a lady is telling us that she’s traumatized, and she can’t get over this, so she’s not going to call for help, this is a fact that this is going on, and we have to be there.”