Six years ago, filmmaker Paula Eiselt was perusing an ultra-Orthodox website when she came across a curious item. A group of Hasidic women in Borough Park, Brooklyn, was starting the first all-women’s volunteer ambulance corps in their community. Until that point, the only option for ultra-Orthodox women was the Hatzolah, an ambulance corps comprising only men. Women were banned from joining their company.
This led to a conundrum for Hasidic women. Calling the all-male Hatzolah was not a comfortable option for most of them. These were women who had never touched a man except for their husbands. As one woman frames it in “93Queen,” an intimate, illuminating documentary about starting the groundbreaking ambulance corps, “These women have never held hands with anybody who is not their husband, and suddenly there are 10 men in her room while she’s exposed from the waist down.”
Calling themselves Ezras Nashim, “helping women,” the group is led by a superwoman of sorts named Rachel “Ruchie” Freier. Freier is an anomaly in a community in which extreme gender segregation is the norm and women stay home to raise large families. At the age of 40, Freier earned her law degree as she tended to her six children. Watching her in action, it’s not difficult to understand how she finished law school and created the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps in all of New York City. After a hectic night at Ezras Nashim, Freier bakes challah at 3 in the morning in preparation for Shabbat.
Eiselt recently told JewishBoston that she spent over five years tracking the progress of Ezras Nashim. She said Freier was not initially convinced that a documentary was in the best interest of her project and for the people participating in it. “I called her and said, ‘I’m a filmmaker, and I’m Orthodox. This is something the world needs to see. I can give you a platform in both the Jewish and secular media. This story needs to be told,’” Eiselt said.
Freier eventually agreed and granted Eiselt unprecedented access to a community that is insular and suspicious of the media. “Ruchie knew that I understood the laws of modesty, especially in the Hasidic community,” she said. “I understand the smallest details, and I’d be filming her and her ambulance corps with dignity.” Eiselt was careful to preserve her insider status by filming the bulk of the documentary alone. She noted she was necessarily a one-woman crew in a community where the media and cameras are taboo. “To come in with a whole crew was out of the question,” said Eiselt. “The women got used to me being there with my camera. I got amazing footage because I was alone.”
Eiselt masterfully documents Freier’s persistence in getting Ezras Nashim up and running, as many doors—metaphorical and real—are slammed in her face. Local rabbis refuse to lend their support to her cause. Freier rallies and asserts, “I believe we have God’s endorsement.” Internet trolls accused her of violating the Torah. The irony is that Freier founded Ezras Nashim to preserve women’s modesty and dignity. Nevertheless, Freier and her volunteers carried on despite overt sexism and hate messages. Their tenacity paid off, and they were eventually recognized by the New York fire department, which assigned Ezras Nashim their own radio call sign: 93Queen.
Perhaps the most confusing epithet for Freier is the one that calls her a “radical feminist.” In a community where, as one man says, “the focus of a woman is being a mother,” there can be no greater insult. However, Eiselt is not so sure Freier would be upset by the description. “Ruchie Freier is a feminist,” Eiselt said. “Her actions are those of a feminist. For her, the complication is when it comes to religious feminism. She feels religiously she is not a feminist, but her connection to secular feminism is obvious. It’s a complicated label in her community because of the religious aspects of it.”
Eiselt described Ezras Nashim’s success as “evolutionary.” She said people who lived in the community saw a need and filled it. “Sustainable change won’t happen from the outside trying to break down the system,” she said. “It comes from within. Change is not one-size-fits-all, and it’s the same with feminism. Feminism in Borough Park looks different than it does in San Francisco or Afghanistan. There are different ways of doing feminism.”
Ezras Nashim has grown in the year or so since the documentary finished filming. Previously only open to married women, the corps now accepts single women into their ranks. Eiselt noted that Stern College for Women, part of Yeshiva University, operates a branch of Ezras Nashim. Freier and her group are also looking to expand outside of the Hasidic and Jewish community. Their aim is to serve all women. “On a personal level,” said Eiselt, “I was hoping this growth and embracing would happen. This is what change looks like.”
They're smart, tenacious and smashing the patriarchy in unexpected ways. Meet a group of Hasidic women who are making history in their Brooklyn community. 93Queen now screening in select theaters.
Posted by 93Queen on Monday, 2 July 2018