93Queen is the story of women’s empowerment in a place you’d least expect it.
That’s how first-time director Paula Eiselt introduced the documentary at a screening at the University of Pennsylvania’s Jon M. Huntsman Hall on Nov. 28. A discussion with the modern Orthodox woman followed.
The film follows a group of women, led by Rachel “Ruchie” Freier — now a civil court judge and the first Chasidic woman to hold public office in the United States — over a five-year span as they attempt to form Ezras Nashim, an all-women volunteer emergency medical service in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
“This was a story that would give Hasidic women a voice, a platform to tell their own stories and not have their stories being told for them,” Eiselt said.
Hatzolah, the volunteer EMS that services the area, bars women from joining its ranks. But the women in the community, many of whom have never shaken hands with a man other than their husband, often feel uncomfortable relying on them, especially in cases of emergency labor.
Ezras Nashim wants to provide another option.
“To me, this is really a women’s rights issue because women are being excluded from serving as EMTs, and they’re also not being allowed to choose female health care providers,” Eiselt said. “I felt really strongly that there was a need for this service.”
To some, these women might seem like feminist trailblazers, but they don’t see it that way. Instead, they are upholders of their community’s modesty standards, or perhaps reclaimers of a woman’s place in childbirth that stretches back to biblical midwives.
Six years ago, Eiselt found a blurb online saying that Hatzolah didn’t allow women and that women were going to start their own volunteer EMS group. The blurb included Freier’s contact information.
“Two things immediately struck me when I read that,” Eiselt said. “The first was that Hatzolah did not allow women. I grew up in a neighborhood that had our version of Hatzolah, and it just never occurred to me that women were excluded, so I was kind of shocked and really disappointed with myself that I had never noticed that women were banned from Hatzolah. The second was, here were a group of women, Chasidic women no less, who were not taking ‘no’ for an answer. They were being defiant in some way, and I had never seen that coming from the Chasidic community, so I felt there was something really special here.”
It wasn’t easy to gain access to the women and to film in the Chasidic community. She agreed to film the women with dignity. Being modern Orthodox helped with access.
“With the Chasidic community — with, really, many communities right now — progress has to come from the people inside, who see the void and can speak the language of their fellow community members to actually make … change,” Eiselt said.
In 93Queen, the women face both external and internal challenges.
Others in their community, especially Hatzolah, put pressure on the women. They receive prank calls to their emergency number. Online comments deride the women for leaving their children at home and for rocking the boat. Their critics say women are not strong or fast enough.
Freier eventually makes a decision to compromise with these pressures by banning unmarried women from joining, which leads to internal rifts.
One woman who disagrees with the decision is Yocheved Lerner, a baalat teshuvah — a woman who lived a secular life and chose to become religious — and former EMT. She is also the originator of the idea to create Ezras Nashim and brought Freier on as the organization’s director. Lerner leaves the group over the unmarried women policy.
Eiselt intentionally shows the diversity of the women. She goes inside their homes to highlight class differences. Freier has a big kitchen and help in the home, while Lerner shares a one-bedroom apartment with her husband and daughter.
“There’s tremendous diversity within the community,” Eiselt said. “It’s not monolithic, just like anywhere else.”
Toward the end, the documentary begins to follow a second narrative when Freier campaigns for judge — something that was actually less controversial than her creating Ezras Nashim, Eiselt said.
Freier is the heart of the film. She’s a lawyer, mother of six and a community activist, on top of being the director of Ezras Nashim. The film shows the demands of her busy life; she wakes up early to prepare dinner before heading to work.
Freier comes across as combative and uncompromising at times.
Her husband David Freier says “the problem is she doesn’t know when to stop.” When one of the women in Ezras Nashim tells Freier that she needs to make the women feel like they’re included, Freier tells her that she’s not running a preschool, and that she has the most at stake so she’ll continue making the decisions.
But it seems that same confidence is what has allowed her to achieve her professional ambitions while still living a Chasidic life.
Freier faces criticism, often in the form of online comments, which accuse her of being a radical feminist and of creating Ezras Nashim for celebrity.
Freier tells a radio interviewer that Torah values make feminism unnecessary.
Later in the film, she clarifies and says that in the Chasidic community, feminism is seen as an attempt to overstep boundaries between men and women, boundaries she follows. But she also values the work of feminists and understands she wouldn’t have been able to become a judge without the work of feminists before her.
Ezras Nashim no longer bars unmarried women from joining, Eiselt said. The organization is also expanding.
“Change is slow, and it evolves,” she said. “They had to start somewhere, but they’re continuing to make progress.”
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