GUY RAZ, HOST:
In New York's ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, an ambulance service known as Hatzolah has long served as a lifeline for the community. The 1,200 volunteers, all Hasidic Jews, are men. Well now, a group of religious women EMTs is trying to create a women's division to help deliver babies in emergencies.
But as NPR's Margot Adler reports, that's not so easy in a community where co-mingling of men and women is strictly regulated.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Deeply religious Hasidic men and women do not touch each other, unless they are immediate family. They don't shake hands. They don't sit next to each other on buses or at weddings. But when it comes to emergency births, the babies are often delivered by men volunteers with Hatzolah. In Burrow Park, Brooklyn, I meet Rachel Freier, a Hasidic woman and mother of six. She is also a lawyer.
When she was first asked to come to a meeting of women who wanted to be EMTs with Hatzolah...
RACHEL FREIER: My first thoughts were, who are these women? Are they these, like, women liberalists, because if they are, I'm out of here. This is not for me. But I was curious. I was intrigued.
ADLER: But one of the women she met at this meeting had been trained during a brief period when Hatzolah was a young organization some 40 years ago. The women's division was disbanded in less than a year. She also learned that there were some places, including the tiny Hasidic community of New Square, north of New York City, where women EMTs are part of the core. The women at the meeting told her they wanted to help women in labor.
FREIER: I said, does that really happen? I mean, do Hatzolah men actually deliver babies? And they say, yeah. In Brooklyn, about 100 babies a year are delivered through Hatzolah members.
ADLER: For Freier, the issue isn't feminism; it's modesty. And she says women have been midwives and labor coaches for thousands of years. It's in the bible. Now, Freier goes to a male OB/GYN. So what's the difference, I ask? She says she sees her doctor in his office or in the hospital. But if Hatzolah is called for an emergency delivery, the men who come might be neighbors, someone you see in the grocery store.
In the ambulance, you could be in the presence of four or five men. For a woman who is modest, says Freier...
FREIER: Where her body is always covered or she grew up not having any physical contact with men other than her immediate family, this can be traumatizing.
ADLER: Members of Hatzolah have been told not to comment on this issue and my call to the head of the organization was not returned. Binyamin Jolkovsky is a deeply religious Jew who is the editor in chief of Jewish World Review, which takes a very traditional perspective on contemporary events. He says Hatzolah has some financial concerns given the recession.
BINYAMIN JOLKOVSKY: Like every other nonprofit across America, now is not the time to experiment.
ADLER: And he says this is a job where there's lots of stress and emotion which inevitably could cause bonding between men and women. So the belief in the Hasidic community is...
JOLKOVSKY: That we rather not create a scenario which could lead people astray.
ADLER: But the women say they want a separate unit, where men and women will not mix. Yocheved Lerner has worked as an EMT for 14 years. She grew up in the secular world and became Hasidic later. She says there are more than 100 Hasidic women in Brooklyn who have some EMT or medical training. But change is always difficult.
YOCHEVED LERNER: And when the status quo is working, then why change? And there are always those who will say, you know, men do this kind of work, women don't.
ADLER: But from a modesty standpoint, says Lerner, a women's division makes sense. Marc Shapiro is a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Scranton. He says most women in labor make it to the hospital and not that many religious women have complained. So Hatzolah is not taking the issue seriously.
MARC SHAPIRO: Had this come from the rabbis, then it would be a completely different situation. But the fact that this came from women...
ADLER: Makes people think it's a ploy of some kind. But Rachel Freier is clear: The idea is a good one.
FREIER: The question is how can it be implemented in an organization which is running so well under a particular system for so many years?
ADLER: As I was finishing this piece, I spoke to Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn, who runs the blog Daas Torah. Modesty is a good thing, he said, but saving a life is more important. The logistics would be complex. What might work in a small town won't work in a huge borough like Brooklyn, which, by the way, has the highest birth rate in New York City.
Freier says she doesn't have a magic answer, but if people want solutions, they will find a way. So the women and the rabbis will keep talking. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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