To many, having to fight for the right to volunteer might seem slightly ridiculous. But that’s exactly what viewers see in documentarian Paula Eiselt’s first feature-length film, “93Queen,” which chronicles the arduous process of turning Ezras Nashim — an all-volunteer ambulance corps comprised solely of Chasidic Jewish women — from idea to reality.
The film begins by introducing viewers to Borough Park, Brooklyn, home to the country’s largest Chasidic Jewish population. The camera cuts quickly and frequently, displaying images of the neighborhood while viewers hear the voice of Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, an attorney and the co-founder of Ezras Nashim. Freier describes the neighborhood with its kosher grocery stores, Yiddish and Hebrew newspaper stands, and an ever-present scent of baked challah, as a “self-contained bubble.”
For almost 50 years, Hatzalah, now the largest volunteer ambulance corps in the world, has provided Jewish communities with rapid emergency response. But because of the prohibition against physical contact between Orthodox men and women, some Chasidic women have been reluctant to call the celebrated all-male community resource.
“No woman should ever be too embarrassed to call for help,” said Hadassah Ellis, one of Ezras Nashim’s recruits, in the film, which looks back at the creation of the group over the course of four years. She adds that for a religious woman who has never even held the hand of a man aside from her husband, being exposed from the waist down in the presence of multiple men during childbirth can be overwhelming. So the need for a female-centered service was there.
But as the film relates, when Freier and Ezras Nashim co-founder, Yocheved Lerner, first propose the idea for an all-women equivalent of Hatzalah, many in the religious community do not respond favorably. Freier, however, is undaunted.
“The worst thing to tell me is that I can’t do something because I’m a woman, and because I’m a religious woman,” she said.
The response from Hatzalah is especially distressing. Freier reads internet message board posts by Hatzalah volunteers that say things like, “Our men would not be happy if their wives run out leaving them with children home alone.”
In one scene, Freier and Yitty Mandel, a coordinator for Ezras Nashim, try to purchase medical supplies from a man who counts Hatzalah as one of his biggest customers. Freier asks him, “What if Hatzalah exerts pressure when they hear we’re getting our supplies from your company?” — not for his own sake, but to determine if he would be able to resist buckling under the tension. The supplier leaves without making the sale.
In addition to complaints from the community, Ezras Nashim experiences its own infighting when Freier, in an attempt to appease the religious community, says that only married women can volunteer. Several key members of Ezras Nashim resign their positions amid the disagreements.
Freir is a complex figure. At one point, Freier and Mandel appear on a Jewish radio show during which Freier said, “If you have a life that’s filled with Torah values, you don’t need feminism … I’m very comfortable with my role as a woman.” But later in the film Freier said, “My connection with secular feminism is very obvious.”
Viewers can surmise as much when, in the middle of Ezras Nashim’s fledgling effort to materialize, Freier begins a campaign for a seat as a civil court judge, which brings out even more skeptics. On the street, one man tells her that a woman as a judge would not be modest. Nonetheless, Freir wins the seat.
As a director, the Orthodox Eiselt does not tiptoe around the complicated subject matter. She has described Ezras Nashim’s act of defiance as “a Chadisic variation of the #MeToo movement,” and has given the film an uplifting conclusion.
Of course, since the cameras stopped rolling, there have surely been obstacles for the fledgling group. But Yocheved Lerner may have put it best when, after the corps is rebuffed by a rabbi, she gives a pep talk to other group members:
“There is absolutely no reason for anyone to be disheartened,” she says. “If you have faith that Hashem came this far with us, he’s with us. We’re going ahead.” JN
‘93Queen’ is currently in theatrical release in select cities and will premiere on PBS' program 'POV' on Sept. 17.