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Orthodox Jewish women seek EMT roles

Most Orthodox Jewish women avoid touching men, except direct relatives. They don't sit next to men on buses or even at weddings. They have separate swimming hours at indoor pools.

But for an emergency birth, Orthodox Jewish women will usually turn to the all-male volunteer ambulance corps known as Hatzolah.

Now a group of women in one of the country's largest Orthodox Jewish communities is proposing to join up with Hatzolah as emergency medical technicians to respond in cases of gynecological or labor emergencies.

The proposal for a women's division has stirred up criticism within Orthodox Jewish circles, with one well-known blog editorializing that it amounts to a "new radical feminist agenda." And when a prominent elected local official, Assemb. Dov Hikind, spoke about it on his weekly radio show, he was criticized for even bringing the subject up.

Rachel Freier, a Hasidic attorney representing the women in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, said there is a need for emergency services that adhere to the community's customs of modesty, calling for the sexes to avoid physical contact unless they are related.

"It has nothing to do with feminism," Freier said. "It has to do with the dignity of women and their modesty."

She is careful to avoid framing the proposal as a critique of Hatzolah, whose work she says they respect. Instead, she says, it is a matter of reclaiming a "job that has been the role of women for thousands of years" -- that of midwife. "We are so proud of Hatzolah," she said. But, she added, "they can't understand what a woman feels like when she is in labor."

The volunteer ambulance corps was founded by Rabbi Herschel Weber in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1960s in response to a perceived delay in responding to emergency calls made by Jewish communities. Today Hatzolah, a Hebrew word that translates as "rescue" or "relief," has dozens of affiliates around the world, each operating independently and often in close coordination with the community it serves. Policies, such as whether women can volunteer, are usually set locally by each affiliate.

It is unclear how many Hatzolah affiliates allow women to volunteer.

But in Israel, for instance, United Hatzalah, which responds to more than 112,500 calls per year, has volunteers who are both male and female, as well as secular and religious, according to its website.

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