Borough Park, Brooklyn, is home to the largest ultraorthodox Jewish community in the United States. Brooklyn is also where the now-global volunteer ambulance service Hatzolah, which primarily serves Jewish communities, was founded back in the 1960s. Hatzolah is highly respected in the emergency field: it’s the largest such organization on the planet, and responds to calls with incredible speed and efficiency.
And because it adheres to the strict separation of the genders as required by Hasidic tradition, Hatzolah does not accept any female paramedics. Women are not supposed to have any physical contact with men other than their husbands, so how can they provide emergency medical assistance? Male EMTs get special exemption from this rule, in order to treat women. Because that’s just fine; the world is always fine with men breaking their own rules for their own benefit. Women should be home having babies and raising their kids anyway.
Rachel “Ruchie” Freier didn’t think that was just fine, so she headed up a campaign to start an all-female EMS team in Borough Park, to give Hasidic women the option of being treated by women. “No woman should ever be too embarrassed to call for help,” explains one Ezras Nashim (Hebrew for “helping women”) recruit. This was a thing that happened: women were dying because they hesitated to call Hatzolah in emergencies. 93Queen is the remarkable story of how the remarkable Freier made 93Queen — Ezras Nashim’s radio call sign with the FDNY — a reality.
Documentarian Paula Eiselt has found a terrific story for this, her debut feature. As an orthodox Jew herself, Eiselt was granted extraordinary access to her subject, and to the other Hasidic women behind Ezras Nashim: the result is a stunning exercise in shattering stereotypes about the women of this small subculture, whose lives are almost hidden and whose voices are all but stifled, certainly in their own circles but in the larger culture as well. Freier was already a trailblazer, a frum, or devout, Jewish woman working as a lawyer; her Ezras Nashim friends and colleagues are similarly anything but the timid, sheltered naifs some might expect. They’re awesome role models for women everywhere, particularly in how they manage the roadblocks they face. Not from the secular authorities — neither the FDNY nor New York’s medical or civil agencies have any problem with Ezras Nashim — but from their own community. The frustrating pushback Freier and her team come under is not unlike the almost impossible barriers that so many women in so many communities face as we try to live our best lives, barriers that are often put up by those closest to us, who insist that we cannot or should not take on whatever challenges call us.
“Sometimes I wonder, why did God create me a woman?” Freier laments onscreen. “If he’d made me a man, it’d be so much easier.” She’s speaking from her kitchen, where she’s preparing family meals in advance deep into the wee hours; her husband may be unusually supportive of all her endeavors, but that doesn’t mean she’s off the hook for all the typical “woman’s work” that is expected of her. It’s an unguarded moment that Eiselt has captured here, and one that belies Freier’s active dismissal of the notion that she is in any way a feminist. Whatever she calls herself, her work and her ambitions — to be taken seriously for her mind, to help other women whose needs aren’t given due consideration in her ultraconservative culture — are the epitome of feminism. She’s a true heroine. And 93Queen is an eye-opening and enormously entertaining tribute to fed-up women taking matters into their own hands and getting shit done.
93Queen was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for July 20th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.