For most people, the Hasidic community is closed off from the rest of the country, insular with their own public services … including ambulances. The Hatzalah, a volunteer ambulance service has been active for more than 50 years, but in all their time serving their community, they’ve never had female members to serve and assist women in medical need. In a community which restricts touching between members of the opposite sex to marriage and medical necessity, the inability to choose female medical service would be understandably stressful.
Rachel Freier, now an elected judge, felt that if Hatzalah wouldn’t open their doors to include female volunteers, a separate ambulance service needed to be started under her watch. Director of 93Queen, Paula Eiselt managed to capture the beginning of this new organization (Ezras Nashim) and they emerged from the ground up.
Lesley Coffin: I hadn’t heard of this story of this organization at all, and you seemed to have been filming when they were still conceiving and planning. How did you learn this was happening?
Paula Eiselt: Six years ag,o I was reading a Jewish orthodox online news site for fun, and there was a little blurb with a small picture of women in lab coats. And the story stated that these women, led by this woman Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, were starting an all-female ambulance core because the existing organization excludes women. So two things immediately struck me. I grew up in a neighborhood that had Hatzalah, and it never even occurred to me that they excluded women. I was so disappointed that I’d been so oblivious. And I was so impressed that these Hasidic women weren’t taking no for an answer. I knew this would be something really special and a great opportunity to capture this moment on film and tell their story.
Lesley Coffin: You mentioned coming from a neighborhood that had Hatzalah. Were you in the Hasidic neighborhoods or Orthodox, or their surrounding areas?
Paula Eiselt: I grew up modern Orthodox, not Hasidic, so my upbringing was very different. For example, making movies wasn’t the norm, but it also isn’t considered taboo.
Lesley Coffin: When you were first considering making this, how did you reach out to members of Ezras Nashim and pitch the idea of making a film about them?
Paula Eiselt: In that article, they had Ruchie’s name and phone number. So I literally just called her and asked to come meet her. The two things that I think really sold her and the other women was the fact that I straddle both worlds. I’m a filmmaker from the Orthodox community. Having that background I’m able to relate with a lot of things they do and have a background if the things they were discussing. They knew that they could trust me with their story because I would know that if someone’s knee were showing to reframe the shot or not use it. I knew what would be acceptable things to show and would have that sensitivity that came from a non-judgmental place. It can be a very closed off community, and they aren’t represented in the media. And they shouldn’t just be invisible. But if you want the public to see your community in a different light, you have to be the ones to tell your story. And Ruchie wanted to show the secular world that this is a community that isn’t monolithic. But I don’t think this is a movie that could have been made by someone without the knowledge I came in with.
Lesley Coffin: Was it a struggle to find women willing to speak on camera who were planning to participate?
Paula Eiselt: Definitely, there was a lot of back and forth. These are observant, Hasidic women. They aren’t formally Hasidic. They embrace this lifestyle and their community, so there’s a lot more at stake for them. So there was a lot of sensitivity around that, and that’s the reason we don’t have interviews with every member and a couple of times you’ll see some with a blurred face. And yet, there were so many women who were so proud and are happy to let the world see what they’re doing.
Lesley Coffin: There is a point in the film where there is a major split in the organization, when Ruchie kind of decides that single women shouldn’t be going on calls. And that clearly caused a huge debate and a number of women left the organization. Being there to see that happen, what were your first reactions to that decision? Did she discuss that decision with you before it was announced?
Paula Eiselt: That became a crucial moment in the film, because the film’s at the heart is about women coming up against sexism. And then they were separated by this internal struggle within their own organization. And when that was all happening, it was the hardest footage to get because women felt this was a very personal decision that they wanted to discuss privately. Hasidic or not, having those interactions captured on camera wouldn’t be easy for anyone. But it was so important because it so represented the reality of the struggles they faced, but also the reality a lot of people face when forming an organization. It won’t always be easy or pretty, and it’s not always a straight path forward. And it was important to show the audience that while they’re doing something very progressive, they are still an organization within a very conservative community. And Ruchie had to walk a very fine line. She’s really learned to pace her progress in order to make change from within. I will say though, since the film’s been made, that policy has shifted and single women are allowed to be EMTs who go on runs and see patients. So that’s a great update and shows the growth of that organization internally.
Lesley Coffin: At the core this is a story of female empowerment and women fixing problems they face themselves. But at the same time Ruchie, and other women in the film, are clearly uncomfortable referring to themselves as “feminists.” And that can be very off-putting to some viewers, especially those who disagree that change should be made gradually. Why do you feel that gap still exists and is something getting lost in translation?
Paula Eiselt: Feminism is a loaded word in the Hasidic community. Ruchie is the biggest feminist ever. She says what she wants and her actions speak louder than her words. At the end she even says you can’t put her in a box. But I think to her, the label of feminism means something different. It doesn’t mean fighting for women’s rights or equal pay, it means women hate being women and wanting to be men. So to a lot of women, being called a feminist feels almost like a slur. But Ruchie’s definitely a feminist in the way you or I probably use the word. And the major theme of the film is to change from within, which is something playing out across this country. We want people who live in communities to see what needs to change and make it happen for themselves. It’s less about protest or making big announcements, but I think these can lead to effective and stable changes from within, which Ruchie has certainly done.
(C) Lesley Coffin (7/27/18) FF2 Media