Giving birth in Borough Park is about to get easier.
Starting this fall, pregnant women will have the option of calling a women’s volunteer medical service to rush them to the hospital and, when time doesn’t permit, to help with deliveries, 24/7. Ezras Nashim is a new organization now training women in emergency care, to deal exclusively with childbirth, respecting women’s values of modesty. In a community where it’s not appropriate for women to shake a man’s hand, most would prefer not to have male neighbors, who are Hatzolah volunteers, showing up to deliver their babies.
Lawyer Rachel Freier, a chasidic woman from Borough Park, heads Ezras Nashim, whose name refers to the women’s section of the synagogue. Freier, known for her advocacy work, is quick to give credit to others. She was approached about a year ago by a group of women who wanted to join the all-male Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps.
As Freier explains in an interview in her Borough Park office, she immediately began calling on politicians, rabbis and other communal leaders, and got some important endorsements.
“This isn’t a feminist issue,” she says. “This is about helping women deliver babies in a more modest fashion.”
But Hatzolah’s leaders weren’t interested in opening their ranks to women. And while she might have considered litigation, she chose not to.
“The Hatzolah volunteers are our heroes. They’re doing a fantastic job. Just because they say no doesn’t mean we don’t have another option. We worked and, with God’s help, found an alternative,” she explains.
They decided to provide training for their group, enlisting EMT technicians as well as midwives and doulas, and contracted with a private ambulance service to dispatch the transports.
Freier and her colleagues will undoubtedly be very busy, given the recent findings of the newest population survey of the New York Jewish community showing significant growth in the birthrate in the haredi community.
For Ezras Nashim, men will drive the ambulances, and women will have direct contact with those in need. Organizers realized that they didn’t need the infrastructure of Hatzolah. And Freier realized that she wanted to do more than advocating and decided to train to become an EMT. She enlisted her mother, too, along with about 50 other volunteers.
“Joining an EMT unit was not something I ever considered,” Freier laughs. After hosting open houses to recruit other women, the mother and daughter began training after Purim, passed their practical exams, and were taking their state exams as this story was going to press.
But unlike Hatzolah, which gets some state funding, Ezras Nashim has to raise its own funds, although Freier hopes that might change. For now, every woman who wants to join pays for her own EMT training liability insurance and medical kit, which comes to about $1,500. The group hopes to subsidize those who can’t afford to pay.
Hadassah Strauss, who worked as a first responder when she was living in Westchester and is a member of the group, joins us in Freier’s office. A convert to Judaism who now feels most comfortable in the chasidic community, she plans to go to medical school. In her volunteer ambulance work, she hasn’t yet delivered babies, and will begin the training in the fall.
When Sally Mendelsohn, a midwife who teaches emergency childbirth, heard about Ezras Nashim, she contacted Freier to offer her services. Mendelsohn, who lives in Riverdale and is a member of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, will do some training with the women and is very pleased to be involved.
“This has to do with women’s health and women’s rights in childbirth — and Jewish women who need to be advocated for and supported in their efforts. These are all issues I care deeply about — and it’s not often that these issues overlap in my work.”
“Delivering babies was always was a women’s job,” Freier says. “That role got buried with modern medicine. We have women who want to go back to the way things were before. In Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus), Shifra and Puah were the midwives who delivered the babies. We are reclaiming our job.”
Strauss comments, “Some people thought we were doing this out of some misguided sense of feminism, to challenge the men. But they came to see that what’s important to us is standing up for our modesty and privacy.”
When asked about how they define feminism, a word that comes up often, Freier and Strauss admit it has a lot of different meanings to different people, “The way it’s defined in our community is when a woman wants a man’s job,” Freier says.
“My home is my first place, my primary role. If I want to have a secondary role, I can have that, too,” she adds. She thinks of her work outside of the home as a profession, not a career.
“So often the things I do are out of the box, “she says, “so I appreciate having friends from different circles. I gravitate toward people who are from outside our community, who come in from outside.”
Ezras Nashim is hardly her first out-of-the-box project. In 2008, she started B’derech, an organization to help chasidic youth at risk. She recognizes that if a boy isn’t achieving success at a yeshivah, there has to be another option open for him. Often, young men come directly to her and she becomes their advocate, working with parents and school officials to find alternatives, and to find acceptance for these kids.
“I hear their stories. Someone has to advocate for them — they’re not bad kids. They’re doing bad things,” she says. In partnership with Bramson ORT, she has established a GED program that is attracting not only troubled kids, but also others from the community who want to improve their English and math skills.
Growing up as a Bais Ya’acov student in Borough Park, Freier says that she had the sense that she wanted to accomplish something, but she didn’t know what. She recalls always having a passion for advocacy. In high school, she studied legal stenography and afterwards got a job as a legal secretary, working for several years at a Manhattan firm, Wilkie Farr Gallagher. She continued working after her marriage, while her husband attended a kollel, or seminary.
“When I turned 30, I thought, I can’t be a secretary my whole life,” she says. By then a mother of three, she went to Touro College and finished her undergraduate work in six years, and by then had six children. She completed Brooklyn Law School four years. In law school, she proudly kept up her chasidic standards, praying three times a day — she would say Mincha, the afternoon service, in a corner of the hallway.
Her dream is to become a judge.
Freier has a real estate practice in Borough Park, sharing an office suite in the lower level of a house on a quiet street with her husband, who does commercial financing. The energetic Freier also volunteers in Family Court. On her wall is a photograph with Hillary and Bill Clinton, after she worked as an intern in Hillary Clinton’s Senate office in 2001. Now a 46-year-old grandmother and known as Ruchie, she begins a meeting by showing a pocket album of family photos taken at recent festive occasions. Citing her mother and grandmother, who was born in Hungary and ran the family business there, she says that she comes from a line of determined women
She has no Internet at home, but uses a laptop for work when necessary. Her kids can use it with supervision. Her own website includes articles, other postings and photos, and is an outreach tool for her. “I want people who are searching for answers to be able to find me,” she says. “I want to help as many people as I can.”
Freier is decidedly outspoken, talking to the media when reporters call even as many in the community, including other attorneys, resist speaking to outsiders. Instead, she tries to dispel stereotypes about chasidim.
“We have to be vocal so that people will know who we are; we have to share good news, so that we’re not always on the defensive,” she says. “Being religious and committed to Torah doesn’t in any way contradict being successful in any other way.”