"93Queen," the directorial debut of filmmaker Paula Eiselt, who grew up in Merrick and Woodmere, will air Monday on PBS' "P.O.V." (10 p.m., WNET/13). The documentary (which had a brief theatrical run earlier this year) focuses on the first all-female volunteer EMT corps — Ezras Nashim — in the largely Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. This 90-minute fly-on-the-wall account follows one of its founders, Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, as she gradually overcomes resistance, more specifically the fierce blowback from the powerful all-male volunteer corps, Hatzolah. The title, "93Queen"? The FDNY assigned Ezras Nashim ("Women Who Help") the call sign 93Q, which is read aloud as “93-Queen."
It's a fascinating, intimate look at a world largely shrouded from outsiders but especially it's about a remarkable woman — Freier, 53, a mother of six, who would become the first Hasidic woman to hold public office in the United States. She was elected Civil Court judge of the Kings County 5th Judicial District in 2016.
I spoke recently with Eiselt. Here is an edited version of our chat:
How did you come upon this story?
About six years ago I was perusing this online Orthodox publication for fun, to see what's going on out there, and came upon this blurb about a group of women starting this all-female ambulance corps and what struck me was, one, they didn't allow women to do that — I grew up in Woodmere, and it never occurred to me that women were actively excluded from this space and that was shocking to me; and two, that this was a group of Hasidic women who were not taking no for an answer. I thought that was extraordinary.
For a filmmaker, Ruchie is a dream come true — a telegenic dynamo. You must have felt the same way.
Well, she just shattered every one of my stereotypes. She is someone special and is doing something that was never done before — and this was six years ago when we didn't know she was going to run for office.
It must have been difficult to get access to this story because the community is so insular. How did you make your pitch?
It was not easy [but] I happen to be an Orthodox woman and at the same time a filmmaker, and there aren't many of us around, so I was able to understand the Hasidic modesty laws and tenets and followed those modesty standards during my filming . . . I'm also observant and a mother and able to relate to these women to put them at ease. But regardless of my background, film in general is so taboo in the Hasidic community and I had to overcome that . . . I said if you're not happy with the way you're portrayed [in the media], then here's a chance . . . to show the world you're not oppressed and subjugated, a chance to tell this amazing story.
The chauvinism — certainly as far as outsiders might perceive it — appears rather extreme in the film, notably the contention by Hatzolah that women can't be volunteers because they're not strong or capable enough. How did you personally deal with that?
Chauvinism does exist in the Hasidic community but I don't think it's unique to that community. In the secular world it's just more masked, more subversive. Nevertheless I do find it very upsetting and that's why Ruchie is so important because it's about change from within. She's someone who lives in the community and understands it and was able to communicate [the idea of Ezras Nashim] so that it would be received. She walked a fine line and if she was perceived as too radical, then no one would have listened to her.
Also to an outsider, it seems like the idea of an all-female ambulance corps like Ezras Nashim would be a perfect solution to some of those nonsecular tenets, such as the fact that a woman can't be touched by a man other than her husband. Why hasn't it been embraced?
It should be a no-brainer, but according to Jewish law, when someone has a medical emergency, everything goes out the window so they're [men] allowed to do that. But still, these are women who don't talk to men outside of their family and then suddenly [in a medical emergency] there are 10 men who might be coming in her door. They might be neighbors or friends or the guy who works at the grocery store. That's very traumatic. [But] what it really comes down to is good old misogyny — that a woman can't handle it or lift heavy things. It's about power and competition, and [Ezras Nashim] is very threatening to them
How's Ezras Nashim doing now?
There are 50 members, and all women are now allowed to join and it now accepts single [unmarried] women, too. They are applying to get their own ambulance [but] Hatzolah is still trying to block them.